The British ClubBangkok
….. a short history
The British Club Bangkok was founded on 23rd April, being Saint George’s Day, 1903 by a small group of British businessmen and diplomatic civil servants, in order to create a social club in the style enjoyed by their peers in the British Empire throughout Asia.
Siam, as Thailand was then known, was a very different place to now and Bangkok was far, far smaller, consisting only of Rattanakosin Island (where the Grand Palace is located) and a sway of development lining both sides of the Chao Phraya river such that places well known today like the Victory Monument, Khlong Toey and Don Muang were just distant rice fields, accessed only by narrow khlongs (canals). Khrung Thep (the abbreviation of the Thai name for Bangkok) had no bridges over the river; only two railway lines - one to Nakhon Ratchasima, and another to Paknam now called Samut Prakan both single track from a station close to present day Hua Lampong; two tram lines which ran from the Grand Palace to Thanon Tok near Bangkok Port and to Hua Lampong; 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 British Empire consulate was on the Chao Phraya river adjacent to the present Portuguese Embassy, and the Siamese currency of the day was the Tical and exchanged at the rate of 13 to £1 Sterling.
The founding fathers, as it was solely a male preserve, were drawn from the British Diplomatic Mission and various companies like The Borneo Company, Louis T. Leonowens, The Anglo-Thai Company and Tilleke & Gibbins, the last of which would play a significant role in the later years of Club history as well. IThe Club was initially set up as a debenture membership and was restricted only to the directors and senior managers of those companies, with other minions only allowed in as guests.
By July of 1903, sufficient funds had been raised to open a ‘clubhouse’. A small wooden house was chosen which was located 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 at Bangkholaem. The building had the Danish owned Siam Electricity Company’s Bangkok Lawn Tennis Club on its east side and had a small Khlong (canal) running along it’s west side leading down to Khlong Silom, waterways still being the main mode of transportation in those days.
Membership of The British Club Bangkok grew steadily and by 1908 it stood at around 100. Those members felt the existing premises were too small, thus it was decided to construct a purpose-built clubhouse on what was then the front lawn and the new building, our current clubhouse, was opened in 1910. The old house was demolished and created what is our present front lawn. Pictures of both buildings grace our Reception area.
In 1915 His Majesty King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) graciously donated the land on which the present clubhouse stands. During this decade, the Club continued to prosper and grow and in January 1919 the land area was doubled by the acquisition of the Bangkok Lawn Tennis Club that gave the Club seven 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 Club’s growth over the next few decades was mirrored by Bangkok’s own growth as many new roads were built, khlongs were filled in, 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, as was Pratunam. Don Muang became an airfield in 1926 and Bangkok officially became a Changwat (province). Our land was also graced by the opening in 1922 of the Neilson-Hays Library a short distance from us along Suriwongse Road with whom we now share a common back gate. In 1926 the British Empire Embassy also took up new premises along Wireless Road.
The height of Club life was Saturday lunchtime, it being a half-day, when the directors of the various companies all took up their own seats in ‘The Bar’ and woe betide anyone who sat in their seats! A monthly Cinema Club was set up, but food was limited to sandwiches and biscuits as the Club was still without kitchens. The British Club Bangkok was the social hub of British interests in Siam for nearly forty years.
However, British interests in Siam and thus those of the Club were cut short in December 1941 when the Japanese invaded Siam and The British Club Bangkok ceased operation until 1946. The Club was turned into an Officer’s mess and those members who had been unable to escape were interned in one of a number of camps set up in and around Bangkok. Although British and US bombers did bomb Bangkok, there was no report of the Club ever being hit, however the departing Japanese Army in 1945 did excessive damage to the fabric of the property. The Club was lucky in one aspect; its two land deeds (chanotes) were mortgaged to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and thus survived the war, enabling the Club to eventually claim back the property afterwards.
Keep reading! Click here for History 1946 - 2003