The British Club history and interesting facts. And then some more.
In the beginning … the British in Bangkok were members of the United Club, a beautiful, palatial mansion which opened out onto the Chao Phraya River, where the modern day ‘River City’ now stands. History does not record what the ‘dispute’ was that lead to a serious falling out amongst its members only that on 24th April 1903 the British members of the United Club, formed the most British of entities … a committee … and voted to establish their own ‘British Club’ in Bangkok.
Siam as was
Siam, as Thailand was then known, was a very different place to now and Bangkok consisted only of the area around the Grand Palace and along the Chao Phraya river – modern places like the Khlong Toey and Don Mueang were just distant rice fields, accessed only by narrow khlongs (canals). Khrung Thep (the Thai name for Bangkok) had no river bridges; two single-track railway lines to the north-east and south-east; two tram lines; very few actual roads; and no local banks. It did, however, boast two English language newspapers, the Bangkok Times and the Bangkok Daily Mail. The Siamese currency of the day was known in English as the ‘Tical’ and exchanged at the rate of 13 to £1 Sterling.
The first committee and clubhouse
The founding fathers, as it was solely a male preserve, were J.W. Edie and W.E. Adam (of the Borneo Company), the Honourable Robert Abercrombie Forbes-Sempill and H.G. Maud (of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation), T. Jones (of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China) and from the British diplomatic service … J.S. Black, R.W. Giblin, W.A. Graham and W.J.F. Williamson. The Club was set up as a debenture entity and was restricted to the directors and British senior company managers and the British Legation, with other minions allowed in as guests.
By July of 1903, sufficient funds had been raised to open a ‘clubhouse’. A small wooden house was chosen on Suriwongse Road in the Bangrak amphoe (district) on the ‘edge’ of the city. This road was connected to New Road (Chareon Krung) being the major thoroughfare from the city down to the old Bangkok Port. A picture of the first Clubhouse can be found in the Alcove private dining room.
The new clubhouse & land
Membership of the Club grew steadily and by 1908 it stood at around 100. Those members felt the existing premises were too small and so it was decided to construct the current clubhouse on what was at the time the front lawn. In 1910 the building was completed, the old house demolished and converted to lawn. In 1914 His Majesty King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) graciously donated the Clubhouse land, first to two diplomatic trustees (William Nunn and Josiah Crosby) and then into the name of the Club in 1915. During this decade, the Club continued to prosper and grow and in January 1919 the land area was doubled by the acquisition of the Danish owned Siam Electricity Company’s Lawn Tennis Club that gave the Club eight tennis courts in front of the clubhouse lawn. This land area (8.75 Rai or 14,000m²) remains roughly the Club’s footprint to this day.
The years of growth
The Club’s growth over the next few decades was mirrored by Bangkok’s own growth as many new roads were built, khlongs were filled and the tramway was extended down the side of Khlong Silom outside the back gate of the club. Khlong Toey was now a busy market area and Don Mueang became an airfield. Our land was also graced by the opening in 1933 of the Neilson Hays Library in Suriwong Road and in 1926 the British Legation moved to Ploenchit Road.
The height of Club life was Saturday lunchtime, it being a half-day, when the members all took up their own seats in ‘The Bar’ and woe betide anyone who sat in their seat!. A monthly Cinema Club was set up, but food was limited to sandwiches and biscuits, as the Club were still without kitchens. The British Club Bangkok was the social hub of British interests in Siam for nearly forty Years.
The End of the Beginning
Early evening 8th December 1941, the now Sir Josiah Crosby, British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Siam, addressed many of the 200+ British living in Bangkok, in the grounds of the Club to announce that the Japanese had invaded Malaya and that Japan had declared war on the British Empire. The next day the British Legation was surrounded and the Club grounds commandeered by the Japanese Army. Most members were interned although it is recorded that 26 British citizens did escape captivity. For the time being the British Club Bangkok was no more.
A New beginning
In 1946, following the defeat of Japan and its army’s departure from South East Asia, Brigadier Victor Henry Jacques CBE, DSO, MC & Bar, a member since 1931, called together as many past Club members as he could and set about re-establishing the Club, despite the significant damage that had been done to the fabric of the property by the departing Japanese Army. At this time he wrote the first post-war Constitution and served as Chairman until 1947. As part of war reparations paid by the Siamese Ministry of the Interior to the Club, the Club imported two billiards tables made by Messrs W. Jelks & Son of Holloway, London for the grand cost of £528 5s 6d, one of which is still in use today.
The records of the Club are preserved after WWII and outline the various aspirations within the Club such as the idea of building a swimming pool, of expanding membership beyond persons of Britain descent, and even the (then outrageous) idea of permitting females to hold membership. It can never be said that the old Committees ever rushed things as these ideas took twenty, thirty and forty years respectively to actually come about, forcibly contested on both sides on all issues.
Part of a community
The Club has always been conscious of its being part of the greater community within Bangkok. Thus in 1948 the Club was the major organiser of a Joint Charity Fair to raise funds for Thai charitable causes; The fair was repeated frequently over the next decade and it became known as the Ploenchit Fair when in 1957 it moved to the British Embassy. The Ploenchit Fair continues to this day but, sadly, no longer in the Embassy Grounds, which have themselves been largely sold off.
In the sixties the Club expanded its offering with four of the Tennis Courts being turned into the present day poolside offering adult and children’s swimming pools, a poolside pavilion and our first squash court. The seventies saw the opening of the dining room, the kitchens and a second squash court. In the eighties, the Silom and Surawong Salas were opened as was a third squash court and the clubhouse internal rooms were redesigned to give birth to the ‘Churchill Bar’ and the ‘Lord’s Dining Room’, with the ‘Wordsworth Lounge’ opening on the first floor offering somewhere quieter than the bar. A Fitness Centre opened in 1990.
A Club for all
The Club membership was also changing: re-founded after the war with only “Gentlemen of British Descent” being allowed membership. In the seventies this was changed to the nationalities of British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian with other nationalities permitted to join as associate members. Then in the eighties saw women being allowed to hold membership in their own right and as a direct consequence of these membership changes, the Club was able to reciprocate with other membership clubs throughout the world and by 2017 the reciprocation network was numbering around 370.
A new century and a century reached
As the Millennium bug failed to bite (or is that byte?), the Club moved into a new century and began preparing for its centenary with a Centenary Book, written by local author and Club member John Hoskins. The book was honoured by congratulatory letters from the late H.M. King Bhumiphol of Thailand and H.M. Queen Elizabeth II of the Commonwealth Realms (including United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand). The book was launched in the summer of 2003 at Gala Party on the Club’s front lawn attended the then British Ambassador Lloyd Barnaby Smith, who presided over ‘Hundred Minutes’ of free drink … a very British way of celebrating!
The Coming of Change
The first Hundred Years saw a slow pace of change for a world which itself moved slowly – the next hundred years would no doubt progress faster and further. In 2005 the Club saw the election of Angela Daniel, as the Club’s first female chairman –– something the founders would never have envisaged in their just post Victorian world, and in 2007 Dr. Stuart Blacksell, an Australian, became the first non-British chairman. The Club had always opened its doors to community groups on an ad hoc basis so in 2005 we established ‘Associated Groups’ allowing these groups to use the Club premises on a regular basis – from BAMBI (Bangkok Mothers and Babies International) and the Bangkok Music Society to the Society of Professional Engineers in Thailand – over thirty groups in all.
A New Position
In 2006 the Club faced stiff increased competition from bars, restaurants and health clubs and repositioned itself as “an International Club for Family and Friends”. As part of this effort, but amidst much controversy, the locations of the Churchill Bar and the restaurant were swapped in 2007 to give children back-lawn access, the latter rebranded as The Verandah. In 2008 an All-Weather Sports Court was added to the back-lawn.
By 2010 expatriates coming to Thailand were now on shorter contracts than in the past … the Club needed to change to stay relevant … thus we launched an Annual Membership scheme enabling those on short term appointments to join the Club. This was an amazing success, bringing new life and energy to the Club and the opportunity to relaunch itself as “the social, sports and cultural centre for the English-speaking community in Bangkok”, emphasising what differentiates us from all the competition with our membership, our range of facilities, our associated and community groups, our traditions and our history.
2012 … a jubilee year
2012 was an eventful year: first to celebrate H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee year the Club organised a Diamond Jubilee Fête, opening its gates and grounds to Commonwealth citizens, community groups, and businesses attracting over 1,000 attendees. Then we opened an upgraded Surawong Sala restaurant & bar, a fully retiled and landscaped swimming pool (designed to celebrate the 2012 Olympics), an upgraded poolside kitchen, an enlarged Fitness Centre and restored the back balcony of the Club to its 1910 splendour. Finally and most significantly, the Club, after decades of expatriate male management took the bold step forward of appointing Mrs Premrudee Tanyaluck as the first female, and also the first Thai, General Manager.
Conservative plans in 2014 to renovate the rest of the poolside began to court controversy within the Club and the next couple of years saw little improvement in facilities. After a dramatic AGM in 2016, new blood brought in different ideas. The Wordsworth Lounge and 1910 Balcony Bar were turned into a ‘Sports Bar’, and plans were set forth to invest in a brand new look for the whole of the Poolside. In January 2017, members approved the first phase … the Silom Wing: plans include two glass-backed squash courts, an air-conditioned family room with crèche, replacing the Silom Sala with modern ‘sail shades’ and a complete renewal of the Children’s swimming pool and play ground. The work is due to complete by summer 2018.