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Forerunners of Rotary

The idea of forming clubs for men to indulge in fraternity and conviviality goes back at least to Roman times, but it was perhaps from the late 16th and then through the 17th and 18th centuries in London, that clubs as we know them developed. The Bread Street Club founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson’s Apollo Club and later Dryden’s Will’s Club were among those of note from these years. In 1710, Joseph Addison commented on clubs wherein “the chief inhabitants of the street conversed together every night”. Frequently these meetings were held in the coffee houses, or inns where the conviviality could be enhanced by alcohol.

Addison in the ‘Spectator’ also drew attention to one club he visited in which the rules included “None shall be admitted to the club that is of the same trade with any member of it.”
A very similar rule was applied by Benjamin Franklin in the Junta Club of Philadelphia. Another rule of the London club stated “None of the club shall have his clothes or shoes made or mended, but by a brother member.” This latter rule foreshadows the ‘boostering’ of the early Rotary Clubs.

Thus, when the idea of Rotary arrived in Britain in 1911, there was at least some historic appreciation of what was being proposed. Stuart Morrow (see elsewhere) deliberately invited ‘business men’ to participate in the inaugural Dublin Club meeting for their mutual benefit, and the early bulletins of the Manchester Club are full of advertisements for its members trades and businesses. Each member in turn gave, not so much a ‘My Job’ talk but a ‘My business’ talk.

In Britain, at least, it was probably the onset of the First World War in 1914 that gave an impetus for clubs to look beyond their own self interest to the needs of the troops, and also of the Home Front. The Bulletin of the Manchester Club, typically, moved to describing fund raising activities for the war effort. In turning to community or even national service, British Rotary was beginning to turn towards the ideal of ‘Community Service’ which had been one of the main planks of Paul Harris’ inspiration in the creation of Rotary.

Basil Lewis, January 2007

Also see “other organizations” the stories of groups before and after Rotary.