“The Hurlingham is a beautiful club with great facilities,” a member told me recently. “The trouble is it’s full of arseholes.”
The beauty’s not hard to see. There are lawns that roll like thick green carpets down toward the River Thames; tennis courts like a Slim Aarons photo with extra duchesses; exquisitely manicured gardens; a private cricket pitch; Monet-grade ponds; and a neoclassical mansion to rival the White House.
It is a verdant idyll from another era, where Kate Middleton practices her backhand and everyone else pretends not to notice; 42 acres of Little England so coveted that the waiting list is not just long, it’s nonexistent: closed until further notice. (Though marrying a member should get you preferential treatment when a vacancy does arise—the West London equivalent of a green-card marriage, and just as advantageous.)
The arseholes, however, are in the eye of the beholder. And depending on whom you happen to overhear in the sauna (a great deal of the chatter here, you soon realize, happens mid-bake), the problem is either the tottering old bores in their mustard cords or the ambitious yummy mummies and their noisy Boden children, or the louche young public-school boys and their endless pints, or the selfie-snapping reality-TV louts in their questionable sunglasses. And now, in a fiery few months, tensions have finally boiled over amid rumors of e-mail hacking, frayed tempers, coronavirus jiggery-pokery, and gross mismanagement.
The trouble began in the west wing. A new development proposed to modernize the sporting and social facilities of the club, the west-wing project—allegedly enthusiastically championed by then chairman Julian Holloway—proved divisive from the get-go. Some objected to it on aesthetic grounds—“It’s like Heathrow Terminal 5 has been plonked in the middle of Parsons Green,” one member told the Daily Mail. Others seemed bemused by the need for it at all. “We have a perfectly good pool already,” a member told me. “And one of the plans I saw had a downstairs TV room in it, of all things. Is that why people come to the club?”
It is a verdant idyll from another era, where Kate Middleton practices her backhand and everyone else pretends not to notice.
But most, it seems, objected to the price tag. The projected costs had spiraled to more than $30 million, according to the Daily Mail. More worryingly, some $3.5 million had been splurged on consultants and architects before a brick had even been laid.
The waste was gobbled up gleefully by the people at Reform at Hurlingham—a dissident-cell-cum-basement-blog that has long vehemently opposed the expansion and acted as an anonymous venting space for disgruntled members. Run pseudonymously by one Bernie Boverill, the blog’s most contentious moments came when it compared Holloway to Kim Jong Un—an “overweight bully” with “Google eyes”—and the wider governing committee to the Stasi. (Holloway did not respond to a request for comment.)
Exasperated, the club leadership soon hired the private-investigation firm K2 Intelligence (typically involved in public-corruption cases or tracking down assets in scandals such as Bernie Madoff’s) to unmask the seditious Boverill. The blog even claimed that e-mail accounts connected to the reform movement had been illegally hacked. (Though, according to The Times of London, “K2 acknowledged that it had undertaken work for the club but said that all of its activity had been legal.”)
Soon Holloway announced his resignation as chairman, citing a “stress-related illness” that had been sharply exacerbated by the vicious bile of the online clique. “Most members are wonderful people,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “Unfortunately, there is a minority who are unacceptably rude, prone to lengthy, detailed and aggressive email correspondence, and willing to engage in personal attacks via social media, often anonymously.” (Holloway had also been recently deflated by a resolution, proposed by two members, to reject the west-wing plans, which was supported by 64 percent of voters.) Boverill appeared to rejoice in the “cleansing tsunami,” and looked forward to retiring “quietly from the public eye.”
Tensions have finally boiled over amid rumors of e-mail hacking, frayed tempers, coronavirus jiggery-pokery, and gross mismanagement.
But there’s no rest for the wicked. And the jowls began to quiver again at the tail end of 2020, under the leadership of the new chairman, Luke Nunneley—a finance bigwig, Old Etonian, and cousin of Lord Snowdon’s. During a Zoom meeting in November, Nunneley introduced the cat to the pigeons by decrying the actions of the committee as “disturbing and concerning … particularly towards executives,” citing “abusive and threatening and insulting” e-mails and behavior, according to The Times. (“How dare he do that?” an anonymous member wrote on the Reform at Hurlingham blog. “Just when things were beginning to heal. How low of him to air his dirty laundry in front of us all.”) (Nunneley did not respond to a request for comment.)
Meanwhile, in an article for Hurlingham magazine, Nunneley claimed that “the people involved in oversight … of the place are so radically unrepresentative of the membership as a whole,” in an apparent jab at the stale, male, and pale faction of the high command. Two club members put forward a new rule that would allow the committee to oust figures deemed to be bad-tempered or abusive from their ranks. It was a modernizing statement of intent to some—but others remained wary. Nunneley had lamented in his article that he had “no facility, no weapons or tools … at my disposal to deal with this behaviour.”
“He needs to resign,” the same anonymous member wrote: “We don’t want a city slicker used to getting what he wants running our club.” Another member told me, “You just can’t run a democracy in that way.”
This stirring of the hornet’s nest capped a tricky autumn for the club, after members were apparently coronavirus-shamed for flouting government rules inside the grounds. “Local residents have been ringing the police about alleged breaches of the rule of six,” one member told the Daily Mail. “They’re literally getting their telescopes out to try to catch us out. Unbelievable! So small-minded.”
What’s more, rumors soon began to swirl of a “white-washed” report that some had hoped would name and shame the committee figures involved in the west-wing omnishambles. “Under threat of being sued, a majority on the Committee flinched and decided to … withdraw the names,” a self-proclaimed “insider” wrote to Boverill.
The rancor was finally laid bare when an internal survey asked members what they liked least about the place. “Food and Beverage” came in first. But the category “Other Members” ran in second. The report cited “some evidence of a generational divide,” with the younger set “feeling uncomfortable with the attitude of older members.” One insider describes a club in the throes of an identity crisis. “The problem is the Hurlingham doesn’t know what it is anymore. It’s a social club, a children’s club, a sports club, and a de facto nursing home all at once,” he said. “And that’s a very tricky act to pull off.”
Earlier this month, however, a rare note of consensus rang out over West London. At the club’s first-ever virtual annual general meeting, the new resolution passed with nearly 90 percent support from voting members—something of a coup for Chairman Nunneley. Cantankerous committee members can now apparently be expelled with little to no warning. If there’s one thing the Hurlingham can agree upon, it’s that no one likes a bore.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL