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Historic London: The Linguists' Club

The Linguists' Club was a private members' language club in London, which operated between 1932 and 1971. Explore the history of the club and its enimatic founder, Teddy (Thadée) Pilley, in this retrospective

Unbeknown to many, a house called Niddry Lodge once stood on the patch of land now occupied by the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. From 1965 until the building’s demolition in 1972, Niddry Lodge was the home of the Linguists’ Club, an enigmatic private members’ establishment founded in 1932 in Kingsway before moving to Chester Close in Belgravia, with the eternally vibrant Principal Teddy Pilley at the helm. 

Born in Paris in 1909 to famous Jewish artists Leopold and Lena Pilichowski, Ari Thaddeus Pilichowski (his birth name) emigrated with his parents to St John’s Wood when he was four – throughout his life he was affectionately known as Teddy. After meeting his wife Nora in Holland, the pair bought the name of the Linguists’ Club and began to build up and manage the institution throughout the 1930s, but his extensive work as a leading linguist and interpreter took him off to more than 60 different countries, where he collected a lifetime of exciting stories and unusual encounters. 

During WWII, Mr Pilley was posted to Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where he served as squadron leader before becoming a station intelligence officer in the RAF. He was quickly recommended by his brother-in-law to become a linguist at Bletchley Park on the Enigma code operation. He was one of several responsible for distilling messages into a minimal form prior to being encoded and radioed to the various battle fronts. Warm, humble and hard-working, Mr Pilley has been described as having an unusual energy, which enabled him to carry on his work as an interpreter until 1975, alongside his duties at the Linguists’ Club.

 It was a hive of intellect for those over 18 years of age, buzzing with linguists, translators and language students

The Club opened its second location at Niddry Lodge in the 1950s, as the growing number of members called for more space. It was a hive of intellect for those over 18 years of age, buzzing with linguists, translators and language students. It was open six days a week, from 11am until 11pm, and would host a vast array of Conversation Circles, discussion groups and social activities – the keynote atmosphere of the place was informality. There was only one strict rule – Circles were not to sway towards the subjects of politics, religion or sex. An affirmation of this notion is the Club’s motto, “Se comprendre, c’est la paix”, meaning “peace through mutual understanding.”

There were both regulars, who would plan their lives around the events, and guest members. No matter the length of your membership, every newcomer would receive a unique card and number, all of which were handwritten on 5x3 filing cards and stored in a database that was kept meticulously up to date – not unlike the system at Bletchley Park.

In addition to linguistics-related activities, there were weekly evening dances, ping-pong and chess tournaments, foreign film nights, Scottish dancing or fencing classes, and even a group swim of the Channel in the early 1960s. Members would stretch out in front of roaring open hearth fires in the winter and stroll through the gardens in summer – smoking tobacco while practising French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and even Esperanto. One account recalls Mr Pilley asking the occupants of the Snack Bar what languages were being spoken in the room, to a cheery response which included Portuguese, Polish, Danish and Yiddish.

 After the war, being an active member of a London social club was hugely desirable

Judging from the extraordinary amount of saved thank you cards, lovingly-curated black tie dinner speeches and photographs preserved by the Kensington Central Library, the Club flourished well into the 1960s and became a second home to residents, visitors and celebrities alike. This included the likes of astronomer Fred Hoyle and author Richard Bergmann. After the war, being an active member of a London social club was hugely desirable. The Club at Niddry Lodge was often referred to as the Linguists’ Club School of English and was a sanctuary of learning through socialising, experience and interaction, meaning academic qualifications were irrelevant. Its atmosphere was revered – the well-honed ambience of a relaxed ‘home away from home’.

The Club ran at a loss, but Mr Pilley worked ferociously to keep the two locations running smoothly. This he did throughout his time at Bletchley Park and when he was made Officier d’Academie by The Order of Academic Palms in France, as well as when he helped found the Association of International Conference Interpreters and Institute of Linguists.

The Club began its graceful decline in the 1970s – the Council oversaw the lodge’s demolition to make way for the new Town Hall, and in 1975 the remaining period of the lease on the Linguists’ Club in Chester Close was bought back by the Grosvenor Estate, the same year Mr Pilley’s wife Nora died. Though Mr Pilley passed away in London in June 1982, some faithful club members tried to continue the Club at rented premises in Lower Belgrave Street. 

The Linguists’ Club had a staggering total membership of roughly 70,000 people, from nearly every single country across the globe, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and boasted many ‘Club Babies’ – the endearment assigned to the children of couples who had met there. Mr Pilley was one of a kind – an Oxford graduate, keen traveller, avid chess player, RAF squadron leader, Principal and father, among other things. His lifelong career as an international conference interpreter should never be forgotten.

Special thanks to Peter Pilley and Dave Walker