The Ulster Reform Club - Past and Present
On 7th May 1880, at the Lombard Hall, 4 Waring Street, Belfast, a group of Ulster Liberals debated whether the cause of the Liberal Party should be advanced by formation of a Club in Belfast similar to the Reform Club in Manchester. In the course of further meetings a report was obtained from Mr. Green of the Manchester Liberals which suggested that a number of gentlemen should form themselves into a limited liability company to build a club house on a good site and then rent this house to the proposed Club at a modest rent. On 4th July 1880 a formal meeting, chaired by Mr J. S. Brown, resolved that “it is desirable that an Ulster Reform Club should be formed as recommended in the report”. A provisional committee under the aegis of Lord Waveney, President of the Ulster Liberal Society, in due course established a structure for the new Club and arranged for the registration on 19th September 1881 of the Ulster Reform Club Building Company, the latter being assured of substantial subscriptions from a nucleus of the proposed Club’s potential membership.
Running north from Castle Place in Belfast in 1880 was Hercules Place, a decaying part of the city, which was then being demolished to make way for development of the wider and grander Royal Avenue. It was a site at Number 4 Royal Avenue that the Building Company acquired to construct the new club house. Its design was put out to competition and the successful firm was Maxwell & Tuke of Manchester , whose other work famously included Blackpool’s version of the Eiffel Tower. The construction contract went to Mr James Henry of Crumlin Road, Belfast, at an estimated cost of £12,000.
By 1st February 1884 the Provisional Committee was ready to open the roll of membership for applications and, with about 300 members, the Club opened its doors on 1st January 1885.
Just before the Club opened, Mr. Albert Hunt had been appointed as Steward and his wife as housekeeper at a joint salary of £150 a year. It was a tough regime for staff in those days. Mr. Hunt was charged personally with the value of any shortages in the stocks of wine, beer, spirits and cigars. He was also instructed that his dog should be confined to the yard, following complaints made about the dog being in the club house. Having kept the Club open throughout Christmas Day in its first year, however, the Committee showed some sympathy towards the staff when it instructed that the Club be closed on Christmas Day 1886 at 3.00 pm. “in order to give the servants a holiday”. There was less sympathy in 1899 when a Committee meeting was convened to investigate “certain irregularities” between the barmaid and the billiard marker, at which it was resolved that both be discharged.
The structure of the club house has altered little over the years. Perhaps the most significant innovation was the introduction of electric lighting. On 1st February 1895 the electric lighting was switched on and, to alleviate concerns, the Assistant Secretary was requested to find out from the electrical engineer “if any leakage or waste of electricity occurs when the light is not in use, if it would be advisable to switch it off at night, and if there is any danger to the person so doing”. Another significant innovation mooted for many years was investment by the Club in a lift for its four-storey building, but it was not until 1955 that one was installed and inaugurated by the President.
A more ambitious investment pursued by the Club from its early days was the gradual acquisition of the shares that a small number of the original members had subscribed in the Building Company, so that the Club could in due course become its own landlord. From time to time the Club was able to purchase shares, or shares were generously gifted to the Club by members of the Company, but control of the Building Company by the Club was not made fully effective until 1970.
If the structure of the building has altered little over the years, there have been major changes in the ethos of the Club. Although formed as a Liberal Club, within a few years the Club’s political complexion had changed to that of Liberal Unionism in reaction to Gladstone’s espousal of Irish Home Rule. For decades the Club had a political committee strongly influential in the Ulster Unionist Party but it was not until 1964 that remaining references in the Club Rules to Liberal-Unionism were changed to simply Unionism. By that stage in any case politics were playing a much less significant part in the life of the Club which had become primarily a social centre in the city for business and professional people. The Club’s historical association with Unionism would nevertheless become an issue a few years later when the possibility arose of a merger between the Reform Club and the Ulster Club.
In the history of Belfast’s city clubs, the Reform Club was decidedly nouveau. The Union Club had been formed as early as 1837 and at the time the Reform Club opened its doors the Union Club was long established in its less substantial premises above Mullan’s bookshop in Donegall Place. Next the Ulster Club was founded in 1857, by landowning gentry desiring a place to meet, converse and dine when they were in Belfast. Early Ulster Club members included such grandees as the Earl of Antrim, Viscount Bangor, the Marquis of Donegall and the Marquis of Downshire, and something of that aura remained with the Ulster Club over the next hundred years. Significant social changes occurred in the aftermath of World War II, however, and city clubs lost some of their relevance. At that time the Union Club had a small membership, in which the professions were well-represented, and its merger into the Ulster Club was an easy fit. The Ulster Club in 1863 had built a Regency-style club house at Castle Junction, but even with an infusion from the Union Club its finances weakened and in the late 1960s the sad decision was taken to sell its elegant club house for redevelopment and take in lieu the long lease of a floor in River House, an undistinguished new office block in High Street.
Both the Ulster Club and the Reform Club struggled to keep going during the dark days of the 1970s when politically motivated violence consumed the heart of Belfast. A further merger was inevitable. What hindered it was that persons joining the Reform Club were then still required to sign a declaration of support for the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whereas the Ulster Club was absolutely apolitical. After lengthy discussions, the political and other impediments were resolved and the two clubs merged in 1982 to form the Ulster Reform Club as we now know it.
The Club today has no political character and what sealed its evolution as a purely social club was the decision in 1994 to admit ladies to membership on equal terms with gentlemen. That, and the employment of professional management with experience of high-quality catering, have ensured both the Club’s success in attracting new members and its suitability for the 21st Century.