The City's Ward Clubs and their place in the 21st Century

The Ward Clubs of the City of London are one of those curious creatures that exist only in the eco-system of the City and find no direct parallel anywhere else in the UK. Part social club, part residents' association, part platform for engagement with voters, and part fabric of the City's cultural heritage the Ward Clubs vary in age, size, vibrancy and engagement with the residents, workers, voters and institutions of their respective ward.

This blog article explores the origins, role and relevance of the Ward Clubs in the 21st century, at a time when many (but not all) of them appear to have retired to comfortable obscurity as quiet social clubs for persons of a certain age, but perhaps they are needed more than ever to engage with the growing and changing City residential and working population.

When did the Ward Clubs begin?

The origins of the several of Ward Clubs may be found in early residents or rate payers associations, initially formed to keep down the rates in their respective ward. Nobody can be absolutely certain of the age of the oldest Ward Club but at least one (Candlewick) lays claim to being formed in the early 18th century. More recently Tower Ward Club was formed in 1971. 

Ward Clubs seem to have proliferated since rail travel made commuting into the City a viable means of getting to work. The Ward Clubs provided a focus for blending civic and social life among workers who were not also resident in the ward. Some Ward Clubs have failed and relaunched, others have merged (see below), but they all remain part of the City fabric.

Whether ancient or modern each club has its own culture and customs, and there is no template model that applies to every club in terms of the membership and activities undertaken by the club.

What's the role of the Ward Clubs?

In the 21st century the Ward Clubs serve a variety of roles, but most important among them is supporting the elected officers of the ward, to wit the Alderman and the Common Councilmen (these terms import both genders). Beyond that they provide a conduit for communication between voters and the elected officers of the Corporation, but their membership has evolved to encompass a wide array of people with varying levels of connection with the ward.

One civic duty the Ward Clubs retain is that of organising the Wardmote at which the candidates standing for election to the offices of Alderman and Common Councilmen are elected. Such Wardmotes will occur whenever there is a vacancy, or every four years for Common Councilmen, or every six years for the Alderman. A Wardmote is also called once a year whether there is an election or not, and the ward's Alderman, Deputy and Common Councilmen use this as an opportunity to update residents on matters pertinent to the ward and wider City.

The Wardmote is opened and closed by the Ward Beadle who in times past would have been responsible for ensuring all Freemen in the Ward were in attendance on penalty of a fine! Most wards have a single Beadle, but some of the larger wards have more than one Beadle.

How many Ward Clubs are there?

There are 25 wards in the City of London, and every ward has two Ward Clubs. Therefore you might reasonably conclude that there are 50 Ward Clubs in the City. Remember though that this is the City of London, a realm beyond the reach of that most stringent of regimes known as logic. There are in fact 23 Ward Clubs of which three combine two wards each, and another spans every ward. As ever nothing is straightforward in the City.

The complete list of Ward Clubs is as follows:

Bread Street*
Broad Street
Castle Baynard
Coleman Street
Farringdon (spanning the wards of Farringdon Within and Without)*
Lime Street & Cornhill*+
Vintry & Dowgate*
United Wards' Club (spanning all the wards)

* These Ward Clubs are not Associates of the United Wards' Club, proving that the rule of exceptions which applies so universally to the Livery Companies also touches the Ward Clubs. Association with the United Wards' Club gives the membership of an individual Ward Club the right to participate in events run by the United Wards' Club.

+ An interesting point to note is that past ward boundaries meant that Lime Street and Cornhill wards were not joined by any boundary as they are today.

Who can join a Ward Club?

Ward Clubs are membership organisations and each has its own fees and admission process, broadly the Ward Clubs will all admit resident voters, business voters, Freemen, Liverymen, elected members of Common Council and others with substantive links to the ward in particular or the City in general. It is certainly not a requirement of membership to live or work in the ward associated with the Ward Club.

Joining fees tend to be a fraction of that for a Livery Company and well within the reach of even those on a very modest wage. Similarly Ward Club events tend to be very reasonably priced and are usually held in a pub or similar venue, although annual luncheons will be held in Guildhall.

What does a Ward Club actually do?

In many respects the Ward Club is the same as any other social grouping, it has an elected committee and a broader membership, there's an Annual General Meeting, there are regular committee meetings and a variety of social events that range from outings, to dinners to talks and presentations. Another feature of Ward Club life is the annual Carol Service which will usually be held in a church in the ward.

A Ward Club civic luncheon is one of the few City events where Morning Dress is the appropriate dress code, albeit a rather more sober interpretation than might be worn for a wedding or for Ascot.

Ward Clubs tend to have their own customs and traditions, and insignia of office. Most also have a regular newsletter which the City of London Corporation kindly provides in digital form on its website. Likewise most Ward Clubs have a website, again details are to be found on the Corporation's website, and a few are even active on Social Media. 

The Benefactors' Bell of the Farringdon Ward Club is rung at the annual Civic Luncheon

There is also a charitable aspect to the life of a Ward Club, and each Club will identify with one or more charitable causes, often in addition to the Lord Mayor's Appeal. Ward Clubs will also turn out in strength and fund a float in the Lord Mayor's Show when the Alderman for their ward becomes Lord Mayor, usually raising funds for the Lord Mayor's Appeal.

For most of the Ward Clubs the aspect of active engagement with and among the residents and worker population is either very limited or non-existent, perhaps existing on paper alone. This is far from where many of them started, indeed the United Wards' Club was very active in local politics when first founded in 1877.

How can the Ward Clubs remain relevant in the 21st century?

The Ward Clubs are, despite their somewhat obscure image, well placed to breath new life into their own affairs and engage with the City's residents, workers and the institutions in the ward such as Livery Companies and Churches.

The City of London used to be a ghost town in the evenings and weekends as recently as fifteen years ago, but it now has a substantial after-work economy with pubs, bars, restaurants and the evolving culture mile. Allied to that the commuter population has increased to beyond 400,000. The City provides a wealth of open spaces, community events such as the regular Farmers' Market or the annual Beerfest that were not part of the fabric of City life until recent years.

The advent of Social Media provides myriad opportunities for Ward Clubs to get their message out, to attract new members, to promote their own events, and collaborate with other groups in their ward such as church groups, Livery Companies, residents associations, businesses, charities, sporting associations, schools and other institutions.

Ward Clubs offer something unique, the can draw directly on the deep well of City customs and heritage while being more accessible than a Livery Company, which are occupationally aligned and admit members only by Patrimony, Servitude or Redemption. Ward Clubs also have direct access to the ward's representatives on Common Council and include among their membership many leaders in other walks of life. Ward Clubs have great untapped convening power to bring together different stakeholder groups in the ward with the elected representatives.

The Ward Clubs can play a vital role in ensuring that Common Councilmen strike the right balance between advancing the City's role and reputation on an international stage, and the parish pump politics of their ward. They can also connect voters with the civic City and encourage wider participation in the democratic processes. Ward Clubs should be a way for current and aspirant elected representatives to meet, listen and respond to the needs of the business and residential voters.

A revitalised role would also help the Ward Clubs with that omnipresent issue faced by most voluntary and social organisations - an ageing membership. While age is neither barrier or guarantor of fitness and competence, every organisation needs new lifeblood, new ideas, an influx of new energy, the Ward Clubs need this as much as any other. Engaging beyond their established audience is the way to address the age demographic challenge.

Aside from the risks associated with an ageing membership, failing to engage with a wider and younger audience also creates an echo chamber within the Ward Club as it focussed on the purely social aspect of its purpose, thereby disconnecting with the elected officers of the Ward.

It is time for Ward Clubs to open up, to renew their original purpose, to engage proactively with resident and business voters, and the other stakeholders in the Ward including the Livery, Guild Churches, and the commuter population at large... and that population in particular has now reached over half a million (and growing). The Ward Clubs have a unique opportunity to foster wider engagement among City workers with the civic aspect of the Square Mile, whether it be through participation in elections, communication with Common Council or participation in philanthropic activities such as City Giving Day.

All this the Ward Clubs can do from an apolitical perspective, raising awareness of the importance of the City, the role of the Lord Mayor, Alderman and Common Council, the continued relevance of the Livery, and highlight access to other charitable and pastoral participants in City life.

There remains a space for the Ward Clubs to continue their social activities, but they must embrace new audiences else they will become little more than a series of quiet Derby and Joan clubs - though some would say that is their origin as Derby was a printer based in Bartholomew Close in the City of London, curiously the home of my own Livery Company and a place I visit very often!

Finally, what's it like being a member of a Ward Club?

I'm a life member of the Farringdon Ward Club, which combines the wards of Farringdon Within (the wall) and Farringdon Without. I have attended several events including guided City walks, gatherings with the Ward Team (the elected officers for the Ward), several evening suppers with interesting speakers, a couple of AGMs and I have even spoken at two events. I've found the membership to be an eclectic bunch drawn from all walks of life, and unlike a Livery Company there's no occupational bias.

Overall the experience has been convivial and enjoyable if a little out of step with the era of digital communications but City institutions tend to be quite conservative (small c) when embracing change and especially where outward communication is concerned.

For anyone who wants to get more involved with the City but doesn't fancy a Livery Company, or one of the various Private Members' Clubs, then a Ward Club is an excellent, inexpensive and simple way to get involved. Joining a Ward Club can also be a step on the road to becoming a Freeman of the City of London, joining the City Livery Club or perhaps a Livery Company.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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