The 39 Club was established on July 10 1956, with a first meeting in a room above the Duke of Albermarle pub on Stafford Street in London’s West End. The founding members, Arthur Balcomy, Jim Emery and Jock Munro, laid the foundations of a post WWII club that united commercial ‘travellers’, as they were known, in the menswear trade – specifically in London’s West End at a time when there was an abundance of menswear independent shops to supply. Chaps who specialised in suits, coats, ties, shirts, hats, shoes – you name it, mingled to share trade information while having a joke and a drink or two at the same time. All proudly wearing their club ties.
These were men who had fought in the 1939-1945 war who were joined by a common thread of business, camaraderie and, in some cases, great courage for their endeavours during the war years. As it was 1939 when the war started, it was decided that The 39 Club would be a fitting name for their new union. For many years thereafter, membership was limited to just 39 members, with anyone new having to be voted in. Selected only if they were deemed to ‘fit in,’ many would have been left disappointed to not fit the criteria. A waiting list was inevitable. It was, after all, an ‘old friends’ network, a social club where meeting up once a month would be an enjoyable experience where you might just learn something new to improve your sales. It existed to help each other and, perhaps quite remarkably given the demise of so many of the shops they had once supplied in London’s West End, it still exists today, albeit in an updated and less restricted format. Swap the Duke of Albermarle, for the Coach and Horses on Bruton Street, W1, and faces that have known each other for 20 years and more mix with potential new members who can give a whole new meaning to The 39 Club’s existence in 2015. The club’s car badge might now be something of a collector’s piece, but nearly 60 years on since its inception, The 39 Club is a slice of British menswear industry history that keeps on motoring.
Anecdotes from members past and present:
Denis Hanks, longest serving member of The 39 Club at 45 years
“When I was first on the road with Peter England shirts, the dress code for menswear sales representatives was of a very high standard. If you did not dress appropriately, you would get corrected by the buyer. One boiling hot summer’s day, I visited a shop called Harry Reed of Pinner and, when I walked in, the proprietor informed me that I was improperly dressed and should take a look in the mirror. I was selling headwear at the time, and he simply said ‘where’s your hat, sir?’
Brian Winterbourne, UK sales agent for Seidensticker, and a member of The 39 Club for 23 years
“Trevor Tompsett, a now retired but much respected 39 Club honorary member, visited Harrods on an appointment several years ago. He was in the store on business so often that they thought he was staff. On one occasion he bought something, and the assistant gave him staff discount. We always wear a 39 Club lapel badge, and the badge looked just like the Harrods staff badge. Needless to say, he didn’t correct her.”
“I was on a call in South London one day when I had to return to my car to collect a few more samples. The nearer I got to the car, the more I realised the two big guys taking stuff out of a car – were taking stuff out of my car! I walked past because they were big and ugly, and there were two of them. I walked around the block and, when I returned, I saw they had smashed a window, broken my car lock, and got all my samples out. They then had picked out all the best Jaeger suits, and put the worst Viyella ones back in the car for me. The range was so bad, they didn’t even want it for nothing! My boss wasn’t happy when I told him down the phone, but the Brixton police thought it was a hoot.”
“In the 1950’s and 60’s there were some 20 independent department stores in London, plus West End buying offices for groups such as John Lewis, Lewis’s, Austin Reed and Marks & Spencer – among many others, as well as a hundred or more independent men’s shops. So there was plenty of business to go around, and most members operated from West End offices and showrooms.”
“In the early 1970’s, when parking meters were first being introduced to London, the chairman of The 39 Club wrote to the Greater London Council’s Controller of Planning and Transportation asking for a special dispensation for travelling sales representatives. Unfortunately he didn’t succeed. That would have been a major coup.”
“When I was chairman back in the early 1980’s, we had our club spring luncheon coming up and I was in the High Court. It was a divorce and child custody case and it was meant to run over the Monday and Tuesday, but ended up going on all week. I had to get special permission from the judge to the leave the court on the Friday to attend the lunch. I had to be there, I was in the chair for heaven’s sake.”