Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Saying goodbye to
old Friends in London
as the Penn Club closes

The Penn Club in Bedford Place, Bloomsbury ... one of my favourite places to stay in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For many years, I stayed in the Penn Club in the heart of Bloomsbury while I was attending meetings of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) or speaking at conferences. For me, it was a tradition or habit that dated back to taking part in CND protests and meetings in the 1970s and 1980s, and other members of the family have stayed there too.

So, it was sadness that I learned last weekend that the Penn Club, which had postponed its plans to celebrate its centenary last year, is now going to close at the end of this month (March 2021).

The Penn Club has been a quiet place to stay in Bedford Place off Russell Square, and, although the accommodation was plain rather than simple, it had been one of my favourite places to stay in London, sometimes finding a room overlooking the gardens that back onto Museum Street at the side the British Museum.

The club was housed in three inter-linking Georgian terrace houses built in the 1800s. Russell Square, a pleasant green space with shady trees, a café and a beautiful fountain in the centre, is just a few steps from the Penn Club, as are Tavistock Square with its Gandhi memorial and peace monuments, and tiny Bloomsbury Square.

The Penn Club is also close to London University, the British Museum, the British Library, and Covent Garden and the West End theatres.

Bedford Place runs between Russell Square and Bloomsbury Square. There are book shops around every corner, the British Museum is close-by in Great Russell Street, and the British Library, Covent Garden and the West End theatres are within walking distance.

Bloomsbury is the area between Euston Road and Holborn, although it is not a borough and has no official boundaries. Southampton Row and Woburn Place, which form Bloomsbury’s main thoroughfare, are lined with several large tourist hotels and it links Tavistock Square and Russell Square – the central points of Bloomsbury.

Bloomsbury is known for its university and academic life, hotels, museums and literary associations. Here are University College London, Birkbeck College and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and here many US universities have their London bases.

Bloomsbury’s parish church, Saint George’s, is a landmark in itself – its spire was inspired by Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the world, and fragments of the mausoleum have are in the British Museum.

The Penn Club was established over 100 years ago by Quakers in 1920 with funds left over from the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was active during World War I. Those Quaker links were retained in the name of the Edward Cadbury Room – Edward Cadbury (1873-1948) of Woodbrooke and Bourneville was instrumental in establishing the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham and the Department of Theology at Birmingham University.

The club continued to have connections with Quakers throughout Britain and world-wide, and maintained traditional Quaker values of integrity, equality, tolerance and simplicity, honesty and fairness in all its dealings. The value Quakers place on silence meant there was no television in the rooms, and all mobile phones were switched off at breakfast in the morning.

John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids (1951), lived at the Penn Club for many years. But Bloomsbury has many better-known literary associations.

Writers, poets and philosophers who lived and worked in these squares and streets include TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, EM Forster, and Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (Anthony Hope).

Russell Square is the largest square in Bloomsbury, although little remains of its original Georgian houses. The east side is lined by the fanciful Russell Hotel. TS Eliot worked as poetry editor for Faber and Faber at No 24, now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

TS Eliot’s former offices with Faber and Faber at 24 Russell Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Sadly, the Penn Club was forced to close during the Covid-19 lockdown. With staff on furlough, the phones went unanswered and it took longer to reply to emails. Now the board has sent out a letter to members and regular guests, saying:

‘It is with profound sorrow and regret that The Penn Club Board has concluded that The Club in its present situation is unsustainable and must cease business from the end of March this year. After deep and careful discernment, the decision to close was made with very heavy hearts. Despite working tirelessly since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to negotiate a sustainable plan, the Board must now conclude that the business is untenable.

‘We would like to thank our members and friends from all over the world for their support over the years. We know that The Penn Club holds a special place in your hearts and this news will be painful.’

The Penn Club’s roots go back to 1919, when members of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) returned to England after World War I. As conscientious objectors, this group of young pacifists refused to fight but wanted to help the war-time suffering of others. Strong friendships and a camaraderie developed among them in France. On their return, they wanted somewhere they could meet and develop these friendships in peacetime.

They asked the Society of Friends to help find premises, the Friends’ War Victims Relief Society and old scholars’ associations joined the FAU in the appeal, and the plans were announced in The Friend on 2 May 1919.

The Penn Club opened at 8-10 Tavistock Square on 14 October 1920, William Penn’s birthday, with Arnold Rowntree chairing the opening ceremony.

The Penn Club became a venue for a variety of events, including lectures on history, politics and society, recitals and concerts, and as a meeting place for larger excursions. But when the landlord planned to redevelop the buildings in Tavistock Square, the Penn Club had to find new premises. The club took a long lease of the former Alexandra Hotel at 21-23 Bedford Place on 17 October 1938.

The Penn Club bought its first television set on 1 May 1953 so residents could watch the coronation of Elizabeth II that summer. The Great Storm of 1987, famously downplayed on the BBC by Michael Fish, brought down a large tree in the gardens behind the Penn Club, damaging the rear of the club.

The Penn Club held its 75th and final annual general meeting as an unincorporated body on 1 June 1995, and this was its first agm as a company limited by guarantee. The Penn Club has been a not-for-profit organisation, and surplus funds were used to maintain and improve the building and to provide better facilities for those who use the club.

Last year (2020) marked the centenary of the Penn Club, and before the impact of the pandemic struck, the club was planning a series of events to celebrate this landmark anniversary.

The planned events included a summer garden party, an ‘Evening with the Artist,’ ‘Open House London,’ a ‘Bloomsbury Festival film screening,’ and a Penn Club Christmas Party.
Because of the pandemic, the events and celebrations were postponed. But the club initially saw ‘these unprecedented times’ as a reminder of ‘how important the community and friendship of our members is to the life of The Penn Club. As such, we are continuing to review the situation, and plan to announce new dates as soon as possible.’

There were hopes the Penn Club would return in September 2021. The decision to close at this month is sad news for many people who found the Penn Club was a welcoming ‘home away from home’ in London.

The board is now ‘trying to figure out if the Club may be able to survive in a virtual form and details of that will be circulated as soon as any decision is made.’

Anthony Hope, the author of the Prisoner of Zenda, lived in Bedford Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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