Friday, July 24, 2020

Club London in the Georgian and Regency Eras

By Lauren Gilbert

PAUL FARMER / White's Club St James's Street / CC BY-SA 2.0


During this time of social distancing and staying home, people miss socialising with friends. Just as we do, people in the Georgian and Regency eras enjoyed associating with others who shared their interests, a comfortable place to stay when traveling to another city to take care of business or for entertainment, and sharing a meal with friends or colleagues. For men during the Georgian and Regency eras, these activities frequently included a club.

In their earliest form, clubs were focused on providing food and drink. Some evolved from cocoa and coffee shops and taverns in the late 16th and early 17th century. Men visiting from the country wanted a comfortable place to sleep, eat a good dinner, and meet with friends or associates. Other men, living in town, wanted a place to go when they did not want to be at home (or somewhere else). Many clubs were formed with a political bent. Clubs began as a commercial enterprise. Then members’ clubs came into being. Membership became structured, with dues and rules. Some limited membership to a specific number. Membership criteria could be strict, good breeding and connections in some cases counting for more than money.

Gambling seemed to be a chief attraction of many of the clubs. Historical novels set in these eras frequently reference Brooks, Whites and Boodles, with excesses at the gambling tables (dissipated young men whose fortunes and properties were won or lost at the turn of a card; callow youths involved with frivolous bets, such as a race between raindrops on windows, cockroach races, etc.; the betting book at White’s, which could cause notoriety if one’s name (especially that of a woman) appeared). Jane Austen’s brother Henry Austen (the banker) was known to have visited White’s, although it does not appear he was a member. While some clubs did support, if not encourage, high stakes gambling, not all clubs were focused on gambling exclusively. We will take a look at some of the clubs that catered to people in particular groups or specific interests.

The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks got its start about 1735 when an actor named Henry Rich, in his private room at Covent Garden Theatre, used to fix himself a steak in his private room at 2:00. One Saturday, Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough happened to be there when Rich laid his steak on his gridiron to cook. It smelled so delicious, according to the story, the earl invited himself to share Rich’s meal. Thereafter, a group formed for dinner on Saturdays, where they enjoyed steak, toasted cheese and a variety of beverages including port, whisky toddy and porter. The membership was limited to 24 persons; a person desiring to join had to wait until a vacancy occurred. (George III’s son, George, Prince of Wales, supposedly was one who had to wait.) The Covent Garden Theatre burned down, so the group met at the old Lyceum Theatre. When that burned down, they met at the Bedford Coffee House until the new Lyceum was built, and they returned there. Rich’s original gridiron decorated the ceiling. The members sported blue coats over buff waistcoats adorned with gold buttons embellished with a design of a gridiron and the motto “Beef and Liberty.” They met at 5:00 each Saturday from November to June at the Lyceum, until the club dissolved in 1867.

The Guards’ Club was formed in 1810, and was the first members’ club in London, established to be a non-profit entity. The Prince Regent and the Duke of Wellington felt that Guards officers, returning from the Peninsula, needed a place that was affordable, yet with better surroundings than chophouses and taverns. The goal was comfortable but not luxurious accommodation. The club moved from location to location, depending on rents and funding. For a period of time, they occupied a house across the street from White’s on St. James’s Street and offered good food, decent wine and cards played for low stakes. They moved again, and finally built their own premises in Pall Mall. They were able to remain at that location until the end of World War I. A large increase in membership after World War I required larger accommodation, so that house was sold, and the club moved to a larger building in Brook Street. After World War II ended, they moved again to a different property, that (unfortunately) had been damaged and needed expensive renovation. Financial problems resulted and they finally merged with the Cavalry Club on January 1, 1976.

The Roxburghe Club  was a club for book lovers established after the sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe, which was one of the great libraries of the day, which concluded June 17, 1812. Its membership was men who loved and who could afford books, comprised of a mixed group of aristocrats, businessmen and academics. The original group dined together on the night of June 17, 1812 at the Saint Alban’s Club. Thereafter, they met annually on June 17 for dinner. The dinners became a feature of the club, and were held at various locations, including Grillion’s, the Clarendon and Albion House. These dinners became known as the Roxburghe Revels, not least because of the quantity of alcoholic beverages consumed.

The members of the Roxburghe Club were (and still are) known for producing facsimile editions of rare books and publishing medieval texts. The membership was, and still is, limited to 40 members. They still dine every year on or near the date of June 17. Although originally made up of men, women are now included in the membership. You can visit their website  to see the membership list from 1812 to present, and what books are being produced, which are available for purchase.

A final example of a club established for a particular group was the Royal Society Club. As its name suggests, this club was a social club established in 1743 for members of the Royal Society, where the scientists and philosophers met for dinner every Thursday before the Royal Society meetings. The President of the Royal Society was the president of the club. Eventually, Membership was fixed at 40 members. Initially, most of the members were Fellows of the Royal Society. Members paid a fee of  one shilling six pence per dinner. Members also contributed a sum of 6 shillings into a fund, intended to cover any excess needed if the members’ 1 shilling 6 pence fees were not sufficient to cover the charges for a meal. Visitors were welcome, although not for 2 consecutive Thursdays. Available data indicates the Royal Society Club actually came into existence much earlier, possibly as early as 1731, as The Club of the Royal Philosophers. Some earlier form of this group may have existed as early as 1709. There appears to be no record of when or why the name changed, but it appears the shorter name was in use in 1786.

Royal Society Club members were elected, and there were usually more applicants than vacancies. Dinners were held at various locations, and records were kept of what was consumed. (Black pudding was apparently a popular side.) Gifts of food to the club were apparently fairly common; there were special rules established. Venison, beef, a turtle, and salmon are all among foods listed as comestibles given to the club. Discussions of science, the arts and other matters over dinner were apparently lively. Because there were applicants who were rejected, a new club was formed in 1847 called The Philosophical Club, made up Fellows actively involved in the natural sciences. Although they also met for dinner, they seemed to have a more serious intent. The two clubs merged in 1901. A history THE ANNALS OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL CLUB OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY was published in 1919.

Clubs in London provided their members the comfort of a home away from home and the society, in many cases, of individuals with similar interests and tastes. A common thread is the pleasure of a shared meal, good food and drink, in company. One cannot help imaging the conversations that must have taken place around some of these tables.

Sources include:

Chancellor, E. Beresford. MEMORIALS OF ST. JAMES’S STREET. 1922: New York, Brentano’s.

LeJeune, Anthony. THE GENTLEMEN’S CLUBS OF LONDON. 1984: Dorset Press, New York. Photographs by Malcolm Lewis.

Archive.org Bonney, T. G. ANNALS OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL CLUB OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY. 1919: Macmillan & Co., London HERE. 

GoogleBooks. Timbs, John. CLUBS AND CLUB LIFE IN LONDON. 1872: Chatto and Windus, London HERE ; THE NATIONAL REVIEW Vol. VIII September to February 1886-7. 1887: W. H. Allen & Co., London. “Club Sketches of Old London” by H. W. Hoare, pp. 225-241 HERE.

Royalsocietypublishing.org THE ROYAL SOCIETY JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE. “The Thursday’s Club Called the Club of the Royal Philosophers, And Its Relation To The Royal Society Club.” By T. E. Allibone, F.R.S. pp. 73-80. June 1, 1971 HERE.

(All online sources accessed July 19-20, 2020.)

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Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors as a child. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented a number of programs. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her second novel, recently released. A long-time contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also writing a book about seven powerful women in Regency Europe for Pen & Sword Books. For more information, visit her website.

2 comments:

  1. Great post! Thank you! Setting up a London household was and is an expensive endeavor. Made sense back then to have rooms somewhere while belonging to a club in order to entertain and socialize. And the clubs were a convenient way for the wealthy members to escape their household! lol

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Anne. Thank you for commenting!

    ReplyDelete

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