Sylvan Debating Club

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Alfred Harmsworth, Founder of the Sylvan Debating Club, by Seymour Lucas, R.A.

The Sylvan Debating Club is a free speech society in which topical issues are discussed. Founded in London in 1868, it meets monthly and employs a traditional motion-based debating format.[1][2]


The Sylvan Debating Club was founded in 1868. More specifically, the inception of the club was discussed on top of one of the Green Atlas buses, which ran from the City of London through Baker Street and the Abbey Road to the Princess of Wales Hotel in St. John's Wood. A conversation took place between Alfred Harmsworth and one of the other founders and resulted in the first meeting being held on January 6, 1868.[1][3]

The club, particularly in its early years, included a number of prominent members. This was partly driven by the Harmsworth family, who owned several leading newspapers.[4] Ultimately three of Alfred Harmsworth's sons were raised to the peerage, all of whom became members of the club. Their associates and those of the other founders ensured that the club enjoyed the presence of illustrious members of British society well into the early decades of the twentieth century.

Operating in such a milieu meant that the activities of the Sylvans were reflected in major British newspaper reports at the time, particularly in coverage of the club's annual dinner, which was something of a set-piece event. In 1901, the Duke of Norfolk was the principal guest.[5][6] In 1906, Charles Darling, a judge and future Privy Council member, was a guest.[7][8] Lord Carson, a former cabinet member and leader of the opposition in the government of the United Kingdom, was the principal guest at the dinner in 1927.[9][10][11]

Over the years the Sylvans discussed topics such as the probity of the British press,[12] the clarity of language used in British legal courts,[13] the past and future of the club itself,[14] the relationship between members of Parliament and newspaper editors,[1] the oratory style of the House of Commons,[9] the merits of public schools,[15] vegetarianism[16] and whether bachelors should be taxed[17] among many others.

While it is ironically debatable whether such clubs had any impact whatsoever on the course of history, there are some statements recorded in the newspaper reports providing relevant indications. During his speech at the 1901 Sylvan dinner, His Grace the Duke of Norfolk commented, according to the London Evening Standard, that "he thought that such clubs as the Sylvan Debating Club really did an important part in carrying on the public life of England, and the writing of the history of the great nation to which they belonged."[6]

The club continued its activities through both the first[18] and second World Wars, though the frequency of meetings reduced significantly, according to minute books recorded by the club's secretary. The customary schedule had been weekly[18] debates October through to April, with breaks over Christmas and Easter, with a program of topics announced in advance via printed cards.

Washington Edmonds Haycock as president of the Sylvan Debating club in 1902-1903

Membership in debating societies in London in general waxed and waned due to various factors, post an initial flourishing in the mid eighteenth century. By the mid twentieth century, few of these original clubs were still in existence.[19] Those that were experienced a general decline in membership, in particular when major newspapers closed their Fleet Street offices. The Sylvans continued uninterrupted during this period, though membership declined to a low point in the early 2000s, which has since been reversed.

Current activities[edit]

The subject of the club's now monthly debates typically relates to key topical issues of public and political life. Recent subjects have included Brexit, the NHS, the UK and US elections, the role of women in government, the war in Syria and many others.

The Sylvans debates are structured along the lines of the those held by the Oxford and Cambridge Unions and other debating societies.[2] There is a chairman who introduces the speakers and controls the debate generally. The debate is focused on a particular motion. This is proposed by the Proposer and opposed by the Opposer, following which all present are invited to contribute if they so wish, which are called "floor speeches".

Following rebuttals by the Proposer and the Opposer, the debate concludes with a vote, and the motion is thus declared to be either won or lost. Members and guests are invited to play a role in selecting the motions, and to put themselves forward for the position of Proposer or Opposer.

Notable members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "The Sylvan Debating Club. Mr. Maxse and the Sanctity of Confidence." The Times (London, England) 21 May 1913. Page 10. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Society of Cogers - Sylvan Debating Club".
  3. ^ a b c d e f Clark, J. H. M. (1967). The History of the Sylvan Debating Club 1868-1968. Retford, UK: Times Printing Works. p. 9.
  4. ^ "Profile: Lord Rothermere, Jonathan Harmsworth". BBC. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  5. ^ "Sylvan Debating Club." Morning Post (London, England) 24 May 1901. Page 3. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  6. ^ a b London Evening Standard (London, England) 22 May 1901, Page 4. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  7. ^ "A Judge's Confession" Illustrated Police News (London, England) 2 June 1906. Page 14. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  8. ^ "A Judge on the Idle Life" Wells Journal (Somerset, England) 31 May 1906. Page 6. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  9. ^ a b "Lord Carson's Confessions. When He Had a 'Good Cry.'" The Guardian (London, England) 29 March 1927. Page 11. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  10. ^ "'Had a Good Cry.' Lord Carson in Reminiscent Mood." Belfast News-Letter (Antrim, Northern Ireland) 29 March 1927. Page 5. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  11. ^ "Lord Carson's 'Good Cry.'" The Scotsman (Midlothian, Scotland) 29 March 1927. Page 7. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  12. ^ a b c "Sylvan Debating Club. Modern Journalism." The Times (London, England) 22 May 1912. Page 7. Retrieved 10 March 2018
  13. ^ a b "Chancery Fog. A Judge on Verbiage and Incomprehensibility." The Guardian (London, England) 27 March 1928. Page 11. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  14. ^ a b "Sylvan Debating Club. Mr. C. Harmsworth and Speakers' Training." The Times (London, England) 02 December 1919. Page 16. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  15. ^ "A Sylvan Debate." Pall Mall Gazette (London, England) 25 April 1922. Page 6. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  16. ^ "Sylvan Debating Club. Debate on Vegetarianism." Hampstead & Highgate Express (London, England) Page 6. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  17. ^ "Should Bachelors Be Taxed?" Pall Mall Gazette (London, England) 20 March 1923. Page 8. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  18. ^ a b "Sylvan Debating Club." The Times (London, England) 4 November 1920. Page 9. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  19. ^ "An Old London Debating Club." The Times (London, England) 17 June 1914. Page 35. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  20. ^ "Death of Mr. A. Lucas. A Noted Art Publisher." The Times (London, England) 24 February 1921. Page 13. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  21. ^ Sheffield Independent (South Yorkshire, England) 7 February 1923. Page 4. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  22. ^ London Evening Standard (London, 30 April 1902) Page 4. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  23. ^ a b The Globe (London, England) 18 February 1920. Page 5. Retrieved 10 March 2018.

External links[edit]