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Today the phrase "gentlemen's club" evokes naked women rather than well-dressed men, but there was a time when exclusive male-only clubs ruled Wellington's social scene. Barely had the city's first settlers stepped off their boats than they had formed clubs to replicate those left behind in London.
The Wellesley and Wellington Clubs, as well as the city's numerous masonic lodges, are bastions of this exclusive tradition. People trying to join The Wellington Club could be "blackballed" by existing members, another English tradition. Members voted on new prospects by placing a ball into a bag, white to approve a member and black to exclude him. If one in six balls was black, the applicant was rejected.
A Post reporter mocked these elite practices in a history article about another early club, the Wakefield. But hush! It is frightfully exclusive, and the stranger enters trembling. When Poneke held people, the membership of the Wakefield Club was but 25; the bluest of the blue. By The Wellington Club was doing so well it bought land on the Terrace known as "Drake's Acre" for a new clubhouse designed by celebrated architect Thomas Turnbull.
Its exclusivity remained intact. In the s the club refused membership to prominent colonist Jacob Joseph, who in revenge built a five-storey building on Lambton Quay, now the site of Lambton Square, blocking the club's harbour view. Ironically, Joseph was blind.
By the s gentlemen's clubs were attracting growing criticism for continuing to exclude women. Traditionally governors-general had been honorary members and patrons of the club, and addressed an annual dinner. When Catherine Tizard was appointed to the role in , she "coolly rejected" the club's invitation. The world didn't end. Today The Wellington Club has members who can access its bars, private dining rooms, a reading room, squash court, and billiard and snooker room. It is one of the world's 50 oldest private members' clubs.