The Adelaide Club was formed on July 2, 1863. It was based on the British institution of corporation social clubs for men, which multiplied during the reign of Queen Victoria. The first South Australian club was formed in 1838, but it was declared bankrupt during the economic depression of the early 1840s.
Most of the colony’s “great capitalists” were members. Thomas Worsnop, town clerk of the Corporation of the City of Adelaide between 1869 and 1898, described the club as “deemed to be par excellence the resort of merchants, squatters and country gentlemen”, and as wielding power in the political arena. Robert Barr Smith, Sir Thomas Elder, David Murray, Joseph Fisher, J. H. Angas, Andrew Tennant, and Peter Waite were members. They were associated with each other in such organisations as Elder, Smith & Co., the Bank of Adelaide and the Adelaide Steamship Company. The club hosted the men who held most of the capital in the colony, and provided a meeting place for negotiations and business transactions.
Blewett and Jaensch described the Adelaide gentry as a resilient group who “progressed” from being political, economic and religious innovators and non-conformists to being traditional and conservative political, economic and social leaders who “hankered after the days of Victorian England” and “fought to preserve a 19th-century constitution, a hierarchical social order and a laissez-faire economy”.
This building was sponsored by a group of mainly English and Scottish merchants, professionals and farmers. Only a few of them, according to Van Dissel, “would have been considered ‘gentry’ in Great Britain, but they prospered during the general economic expansion of the Colonial period, thereby establishing [themselves and] their families as the ruling class of South Australia”. These families, some of whose antecedents had been devout and militant non-conformists, often became traditionally Anglican and further strengthened their bonds by intermarriage, or through social and business ties fostered by membership of the club.
Building plans were prepared by architects G. & E. Hamilton. The site, opposite Government House, cost £2000 and the building was estimated to cost £6000. The South Australian Register of January 20,1864, reported that it would “present a somewhat imposing elevation ... the walls will be of picked Dry Creek stone with brick dressings, moulded bricks being used for the strings, window-heads etc”.
The foundations and basement storey were built by English and Brown, and the contractor for the completion was William Lines. The amount of the contract was £6280.
The building is similar to Barry’s Travellers’ Club in London. Between 1866 and 1890 there were various additions and improvements. These included completing finishes to the top floor in 1875, and stabilisation due to subsidence caused by the construction of the adjacent Bank of New South Wales building in 1886. In 1890, there were substantial additions to the rear, designed by English & Soward, and Grainger & Naish. Since then there seem to have been few major alterations, although the cantilevered balcony has been shortened.