Had he set off today, Jules Verne’s creation might not have bothered returning. The Telegraph can reveal that the Reform Club, whose honorary members include the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, is being torn apart by faction-fighting.
The increasingly poisonous rows, amid claims of bullying, ageism and blackmail, have come to a head over plans to appoint a retired naval commander to run it. After the club lost two secretaries, effectively chief executives, in the past four years, attempts to appoint Rod Craig, 66, to the £80,000-a-year post have met fierce opposition.
Mr Craig’s predecessor, Crispin Morton, a management consultant and former Royal Naval officer who saw active service in the Falklands, made allegations before stepping down in May of staff being bullied and effectively blackmailed by members .
“I am not prepared to put up with this treatment any longer nor to preside over an organisation that is prepared to allow staff to be subjected to it with no prospect of protection or redress,” he wrote in an email.
Opponents of Mr Craig believe he is too old to run perhaps Britain’s best known private club, which has made literary history thanks to Fogg, hero of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
There have even been grumblings – raised in one email seen by The Telegraph – about his wife Anne. Mrs Craig, a personal development coach, has been embroiled in her own row with a countess, who tried to take her to court over claims – which a judge ruled were “ill-founded” – that she had “poisoned” her daughter’s mind.
The Reform, founded in 1836 as a bastion of liberalism, has attracted many of the great and the good, among them Sir Winston Churchill, who resigned his membership in 1913 in protest at the “blackballing” of a friend.
In 1981 the club was the first of the traditional gentleman’s clubs to allow women members.
At the heart of the dispute is a battle for control of the club. The 15-strong general committee, which controls the Reform, is said to be split down the middle, with one faction supporting Mr Craig and the other against him.
“It has got really nasty,” said one member opposed to Mr Craig’s appointment. “This is all to do with one group of people at the Reform who think the other group are s—- and vice versa. It is just factionalism. It’s as bad as a school playground. But we don’t think a 66-year-old retired Royal Navy commander is right for the job. We need someone a bit younger and forward-thinking.”
Lord Balfe, a one-time Labour MEP who now sits as a Tory peer, is understood to have demanded an extraordinary general meeting in an attempt to block Mr Craig’s appointment, writing that it “risked dividing and damaging the Club”.
But one supporter of Mr Craig said he was disgusted. “It’s insane if people think he is too old. There are lots of rumours being spread and it’s nasty,” said the member, who declined to be named.
Mr Craig, who is currently chief executive of the University Women’s Club, stepped down from a similar role at the Army and Navy Club amid fears for its financial future.
One Reform member has circulated an article in the Army and Navy’s magazine confirming Mr Craig was taking “voluntary redundancy ahead of likely future restructuring of the club’s operations”.
Emails circulating among Reform members have warned that Mr Craig’s appointment would be “disastrous”, although there is no evidence that would be the case .
Mr Craig was unavailable for comment and the Reform Club declined to respond.