When Clubland Reigned Supreme
By Denys Val Baker
London in the eighteenth century was Clubland with a vengeance. The Kit-Cat, the Blue Stocking, the Witenagemot, Dr. Johnson's Club, Almack's, White's, Brooks's, the Beefsteak, Boodle's, the Green Ribbon - the very names suggest a jolly world of conviviality which it would be difficult to rival in these welfare-conditioned days.
If you were anyone in London, then you belonged to one or other of the clubs. Those were times when the arts and literature were held in great reverence and, along with members of the aristocracy, it was writers and painters and actors who were assiduously wooed by the club-owners. Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, Richard Brinsley-Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell - these were among the first members of the original and most famous: "The Club," founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. Samuel Johnson. It was only later that membership was cautiously widened to include a few bishops and one or two politicians like Charles James Fox!
The Kit-Cat Club, one of the earliest and best known of the clubs, held its earliest meetings at a tavern off Chancery Lane kept by one Christopher Cat, and when he moved later to the Fountain Inn in the Strand, the club went with him. Cat was an expert in pastry-cooking, and it is said that his famous mutton pies acted as a great attraction - be that as it may, the club soon developed on ambitious lines. When, later, larger premises were taken for the club, Sir Godfrey Kneller was commissioned to paint portraits of each of the fifty members, and these were hung around the walls.
On of the customs of the club was to toast the reigning beauties of the day after dinner, and various well-known poets among the members were called on to cast these toasts in the form of verses which were afterwards engraved on to the toasting glasses of the club. Lady Manchester, the Duchess of Beaufort, and Lady Mary Churchill were among those so honoured. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, many years after, recollected how when she was but a little girl her father nominated her as a toast, but members protested that they did not know her - so she was brought down from bed and presented and elected with great enthusiasm!
On that night the members had no doubt circulated the wine bottles very freely, as they must have done on another night when Sir Samuel Garth, physician to George I, was present. He complained that he would have to leave early to visit his patients. But as the evening wore on, still he remained in his seat, until at last Richard Steele, the critic, reminded him of his engagements.
"Ah, well," declared Garth, pulling out a list of fifteen unfortunate patients. "It matters little whether I see them or not tonight. Nine or ten are so bad that all the doctors in the world could not save them, and the remainder have such tough constitutions that no doctors are needed by them."
The Blue Stocking Club was founded by Mrs. Edward Montagu, to take her mind off the loss of her only child as well as her mother and brother. She was particular about whom she invited: in a letter to David Garrick she wrote: "You will find here some friends, and all you meet must be your admirers, for I never invite Idiots to my house." Whist and other card games, gambling, quadrilles, music - none of these things was allowed, only conversation. It says much for the good lady that her club was still in existence in 1791, when she was aged seventy-one. To celebrate she invited to breakfast nearly five hundred of the leading lights of London social life.
Perhaps the most famous of the clubs was White's, which, of course, like the Athenaeum and Brooks's, is still in existence today. White's even then the oldest of London clubs, having started as a Chocolate House in 1698. Even in those far-off days, apparently, it was notorious for the wild doings that went on behind its discreet walls: the Earl of Oxford described it as the curse of half the English nobility, and Swift said it was "a Den of Thieves." After being destroyed by fire and then rebuilt, the Chocolate House became a club proper; and chiefly, a centre for gambling.
There was almost no subject upon which the young rakes of White's would not bet. If a young lady of rank married, they would bet 100 guineas that she would give birth to a child before some other young lady who had been married several months earlier. Someone wagered that an infamous nobleman would be the first baronet to be hanged. When a man dropped dead at the door of the club and was carried into the building, members began laying bets as to whether he was really dead or not, and attempted to stop a doctor from bleeding the body, as it might affect the fairness of the wagers.
White's was the chief haunt of the Tories; Brooks's catered for the Whigs. This political difference was amusingly caricatured by Gillray in a cartoon, "Promised Horrors of the French invasion," in 1796, in which he showed the invaders wreaking vengeance on White's, while at Brooks's Club, the Whigs being in favour of the Revolution, there was general rejoicing. He drew Canning hanging from a lamp-post, while Pitt, firmly lashed to a Tree of Liberty, was shown being flogged by Charles James Fox.
Like White's, Brook's too catered for gamblers. The scale of gambling was quite fantastic - young aristocrats would lose ten, or even fifteen thousand pounds in an evening's play. Two sons of Lord Holland lost £32,000 in two nights - no doubt to the satisfaction of the wily money-lenders who used to wait in an outer room which Charles James Fox nicknamed the Jerusalem Chamber.
Membership of Brooks's was sometimes difficult to obtain, as none other than Sheridan found, when he was black-balled by George Selwyn, one of the committee. However, Sheridan soon solved this by getting his friend the Prince of Wales to come along and engage Selwyn in conversation during the next meeting of the committee. By the time the conversation was over Sheridan was elected.
On another occasion of a more dramatic nature, George Robert Fitzgerald, a notorious and quarrelsome young man who was constantly challenging people to duels, demanded to be elected a member. Nobody wanted to elect him, but all were afraid of being challenged to a duel. When the ruffian forced his way in and taxed each member as to whether or not he had voted in favour, each tremblingly pretended that he had. Fitzgerald then proceeded to make himself at home and order numerous bottles of champagne which the waiters dared not refuse. By the next evening, however, half a dozen police constables were stationed outside the club to prevent a repetition - but Fitzgerald wisely did not show himself (this did not stop him boasting for a long time that he had been elected "unanimously" as a member!).
Among dozens of other clubs it is worth noting Boodle's which was famous for once holding a Masquerade which cost no less then 2,000 guineas. In the words of a distinguished member, Edward Gibbon, the historian: "Last night was the triumph of Boodle's. . . . A sum that might have fertilised a province vanished in a few hours, but not without leaving behind it the fame of the most splendid and elegant fête that was perhaps ever given in a seat of the arts and opulence."
Looking back on these eighteenth-century clubs, one can only say, sadly, that Clubland isn't what it was.
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LAUGHS FROM THE SHOWS
Heard by Harris Deans
"My dear," cries Thora Hird in horror. "Her dress went down to here. Plunge line they call it - disgusting I call it."
Saturday Night at the Crown.
"I'd sooner," asserts Charles Chaplin, "be a successful crook than a destitute monarch."
"I am quite rich, you know," says Maxine Audley as the Queen. - "Do you know," says Chaplin. "that from a woman on the verge of divorce that is a remarkable statement."
A King in New York.
"I am here," roars Bernard Lee to his new squad, "to help you to become officers. I take it you are already gentlemen."
"When we are married," announces Betsy Blair, "I'm going to have a double bed. I know in films they always have singles, but that's because of the Censor."
"You talk like a woman," sneers Don Murray to his wife. - "You take a good look at me," retorts Eva Marie Saint, "and you'll see I am a woman."
A Hatful of Rain.
"Listen, Daddy," protests Natalie Wood, "I am grown up now. I can say things I don't mean."
No Sleep Till Dawn.
"What was the last compliment a man paid you?" demands Richard Kiley. - "He said," recalls Carmen Sevilla, "that if I were to dive into the Arctic Ocean, the water would boil."
"I am the Vice-President of the firm," announces Tony Randall. - "Ssh! Don't mention vice," implores Jayne Mansfield, "it suggests one of those magazines."
"I was going to see a psychiatrist," admits Jayne Mansfield, "but it was in Hollywood, where they are always so busy with producers you can't even get an appointment."
Oh, For a Man!