Our History

Foundation of the No. 1 Club

This feature by the late Ray Wiggins, for many years a member and resident historian of the Rotary Club of London, appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of The London Rotarian.

The man responsible for the formation of the Rotary Club of London was Arthur Bigelow. Arthur was a native of Canada who had lived in the U.S.A. for a number of years and who came to the United Kingdom in 1903. He was associated with Harvey C. Wheeler in the creation of the Initial Towel Supply Company, The Limited Carrier Company and The Initial Tea Company.

Harvey, a member of the Rotary Club of Boston, described Rotary to Arthur who began to get together a group of men as a nucleus of a club for London and, after a number of preliminary meetings, it was decided to hold the inaugural dinner, with seventeen members, to launch the club officially. This took place at Simpson's Restaurant in the Strand on Thursday, 3 August 1911. Harvey Wheeler was elected President, but as he was continually having to leave London, Arthur was elected Acting President. Before the year was out Harvey had returned to America and, on the 1 January 1912, Arthur became the first President for a full year.

The Club's Charter was signed on 1 August 1912, thus becoming the first club to be chartered outside of North America, being club No. 50 in the then International Association of Rotary Clubs although, unbeknown to Chicago, the Dublin Club had first met in February 1911 but its Charter was not signed until 1 May 1913, becoming Club No. 65. Dinners were held once a month and when the membership reached 75, for a short while the Trocadero became the regular venue and later the Waldorf Hotel. In the 1920s dinner jackets were worn at the AGM.

Probably nobody did more for the Club than Stanley Leverton, JP, a member from 1914 to his death in 1964. Stanley was Club President 1925-26, President of RIBI 1952-53, Director of Rotary International 1957-58 and 2nd Vice-President of RI 1959-60. The Club still celebrates Stanley Leverton Day each year. During our golden jubilee in 1961 he recorded the history of its first 50 years.

There was no entrance fee at first and the annual subscription was one guinea. The club also had a paid organiser, whose job was to go out and find new members and for every new member he introduced he received one pound. On the day that Stanley Leverton was inducted the Notes of the Day recorded: during today's meeting the following ten gentlemen will be made members of the Club. Not a bad week's income in 1914!

In 1919 the Club had its highest membership with a record of 306. However, even in the early days there were problems regarding attendance. In the first edition of The London Rotarian which except for a short period in the early 1980s has been published regularly since October 1916 an anonymous letter appeared expressing concern about the smallness of the gatherings. Something must have been done about this, for five years later, in 1921, the Club received a club attendance challenge from New York. Losing by just 2.75%, London sent them a ship's bell for their presidential table. The following year London returned the challenge and having this time won, New York presented London with a magnificent Chippendale chair which today is still at York Gate and is supposed to be used by the President when he or she presides over Council.

That same year King George V gave a reception for forty members at Buckingham Palace. Learning of the Club's single classification he suggested that, as there would be little competition for that of King, he might consider applying for membership himself. When Stanley Leverton joined, the Club Members were presented with a small pocket account book, on the left side of which an entry was made of how much business one had given to other Club Members during each month, and on the right side how much business one had received from other Members. As Stanley was a funeral director, it is suggested he was only able to fill in one side of the book.

Although many clubs were formed by individuals in different parts of the country, London actually sponsored some from as far afield as Margate, Southend, Colchester, Reading, Bedford and other places. Originally London's territory covered the whole of London and Greater London which meant that, constitutionally, this restricted other clubs being formed in the area, so it was agreed that the territory should cover a two miles radius from Temple Bar.

At the RIBI Conference at Scarborough in 1933, Stanley Leverton made a proposal that a new Club should be allowed to be formed within the boundary of an existing Club, allowing that the existing Club should still have membership rights over the whole territory. Having approved this proposal, RIBI sent it to the Board of RI, which in 1938 accepted it. So, in February 1943, the Rotary Club of Finsbury was inaugurated and became the first Club in the world to be formed within the territory of an existing Club. Finsbury closed in June 2000.

As is the position today, some very prominent people have become Members of the Club. Some of the early ones included comedian Sir Harry Lauder, actor Bransbury Williams and Sir John, later Lord Reith. Among others with unusual classifications were the Rev. Canon Arthur Beaulands who was a Disinfecting Expert operating from a wharf in Fulham, C.I. Frail, a Jockey Club Official, and I. Ross who was a Casing Merchant – henmade skins for sausages!

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