Epitomizing elegance and class, the history of The Bengal Club dates back to 1827, when it was set up by a group of East India Company officials, as the Bengal United Service Club. The first President, as well as the First Patron of the Club was, Lt Col J Finch, the then Military Secretary to Lord Combermere, who was the Commander-in-chief of the East India Company's army. His life-size portrait dating back to 1829, hangs majestically in the Dining Hall of the club. In the first roster of 141members, apart from only six merchants and heads or directors of banks, all others were mostly senior army personnel and top administrators. It was an all-European club, not meant for the Indians.
The list of Presidents of the club for the first 40 years contains some of the important names of British Indian history, like Colville, Grant, Metcalfe, Cotton, and General Sir James Outram. During 1842-1844, Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General of India was in the chair of the President of the club. However, Sir Charles Metcalfe held the chair for long 11 years in succession. Possibly, the system of customary annual rotation has become the practice since the early years of the 20th century.
Though the present address of the Bengal Club is 1/1 Russell Street, it started functioning in a modest rented two-storey building on Chowringhee. However, within a short time it shifted to a building on Esplanade and later to the Tank Square, later renamed BBD Bagh, after the independence of India.
Nevertheless, the management and the members always cherished the idea of moving out from the commercial surroundings of the Tank Square area to a more vibrant and entertaining area of the city and their long contemplated plan was accomplished in 1845, when they shifted to a building in the Chowringhe area. The building, owned by the famous 19th century Bengali writer Kali Prasanna Singha, was once the official residence of Lord Macaulay, while he was in India as the first Law Member of the Supreme Council from 1834 till 1838. Even today, a plaque at the entrance of the building indicates that it was Lord Macaulay's residence during the period mentioned above.
As the Club flourished, it was duly registered as a limited company in 1907 and purchased the adjoining plot on 33 Chowringhee, for the construction of a new building of its own. Gradually, a magnificent building dominating the skyline across the Maidan came up on the site, which was commissioned in 1911. However, as the club was in acute financial crisis and was heavily burdened with debt, due to its restrictive membership policy, it had to leave the front building and consolidate on the adjoined building with its entrance on Russell Street, which was much renovated and refurbished. The space vacated by the Bengal Club, is now occupied by the Chatterjee International Building and the Metro Rail Bhavan.
After independence of India and the consequent partition of Bengal in 1947, a question came up, whether the Club should continue with the same name. However, as Sir C. Rajagopalachari, the then Governor of Bengal, advised the Club officials to retain its heritage name, the name remained unchanged. Nevertheless, the regulations of the club reformed radically during the 1950s and established married quarters in 1954. Subsequently, membership for the Indians was opened in 1959 and the revolutionary decision to accept women as members in their own right was taken in 1990.
The Bengal Club, the oldest surviving club of its kind in India, is considered as one of the oldest clubs in the world. It has outlived its colonial founders, but retained its ancient spirit. Time seems to be standing still in the clubhouse. Regally framed portraits of the British lords keep staring from the walls. A grandfather clock on a wall and a grand piano in a corner are witnesses for nearly two centuries.
From its inception, a cobra is the emblem of the club. Legend says, as a snake crawled out of the pit dug for laying the foundation stone of the club building, the attending priest of the ceremony advised the authority to let it go unharmed and the foundation stone be laid, only if it goes out. The snake obliged the gathering and that is why a bar of the club was named Nagraj. However, there is no documentary evidence to confirm the truth behind the story.
Dress codes of the club are reviewed from time to time and altered, if necessary. The Club’s continental dishes have always been praised. Its bars and residential Chambers are much patronised. For the benefit of the members to host special events and parties, the open air Rooftop, a space of 6000 square feet, was added to its attraction in 2013.The Club can boast of its invaluable Library, which contains a rare collection of old books, selection of new publications, leading periodicals and critically selected classic and contemporary feature films.
The Reading Room is equipped with internet browsing facility. The foundation day of the Bengal Club is enthusiastically celebrated and enjoyed by the male and female, young and the senior members, every year on the 1st day of February.