Gentlemen’s Clubs of the Regency
REGENCY GENTLEMEN’S CLUBS
by Alicia Rasley
In the Regency era, it was said whenever an interest or political persuasion was shared by two or more men, a new club was formed. There was a club for ancient supporters of the Jacobite cause (the Mourning Bush), for short men (the Little Club, with an entry door only about five feet high), for literary and scientific gentlemen (the Athenaeum, 1824), and even for gentleman coachmen (the famous Four-In-Hand Club, 1809, before that known as the Whip Club). Only the names survive of other clubs, but those names speak volumes—the Humbugs, the Je ne sai quoi Club, the No Pay No Liquor Club, the Great Bottle Club. These provided a retreat from the world of care, of worry, of women. Regency men, as gallant as they were as suitors, all too often preferred their club to their home. One Regency bride wrote in her diary, “We have now been married exactly a year, in which my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he has dined at Mr. Brook’s Club.” (You can find more great anecdotes in the book Gentlemen’s Clubs of London.)
Here follows a map of Clublands including the famous, the infamous, the foolish. Founding dates, if known, are given.
(Let’s meet there! Grace Elliott takes a contemporary stroll through Clubland.)
The most famous club, White’s, offered a cornucopia of activities—a bit of politics (Tory), a lot of gambling, a lot of drinking (a White’s barman asked by a new member if the bar was open replied, “Bless my soul, sir, it’s been open 200 years!”). Founded in 1698 as a chocolate house, White’s remains the quintessential London Club three centuries later. Prince Charles had his bachelor party here (a dull affair with no stripper or exploding cakes, it broke up before midnight).
White’s became a private club about 1736, rapidly becoming known for its notorious betting book. Outrageous, even fatal bets were recorded in these books. Horace Walpole in 1744 wrote about a 1500-pound wager that a human could live twelve hours under water. The bettor hired a desperate man to prove his point. The experiment failed, of course, but Walpole reported angrily that an innocent man had been prosecuted for the murder, while “the assassin” got away free. More common were bets on the life-expectancy of famous invalids, on the marriage prospects of young ladies, on the birth of twins to countesses, on the likelihood of members’ giving up gambling forever.
White’s moved up and down St. James’s Street several times before settling in 1753 at its current address, 37 St. James’s. The white stone building boasts impressive wrough-iron fencing and ornamentation. The bow window added in 1811 was the haunt of Beau Brummell and Lord Alvanley, who insulted fashionable London through the glass.
White’s dues were comparatively high—an entrance or initiation fee of twenty guineas and a yearly subscription of eleven guineas. But the possibility of a great payoff in the cardrooms was mesmerizing. Foreign Minister Canning’s father-in-law General Scott won 200,000 pounds at whist (because he alone, among the players, remained sober), and Beau Brummell in one night won 20,000 pounds. Some young men signed markers at White’s on the hope that their fathers would die soon, and were “rolled up” when the old cusses did not oblige.
The man who benefited the most from gambling fever was George Raggett who took ownership of WhiteJs in 1812 from John Martindale. Raggett made a fortune providing personal service to the high rollers: “It is my invariable custom to sweep the carpet after the gambling is over, and I generally find on the floor a few counters, which pays me for the trouble of sitting up. By this means I have made a decent fortune.” Raggett died wealthier than most of his members.
Brooks’s, another great London club, was founded in 1764 by a Mr. Brooks, a wine-merchant and money lender, who had taken over the older Almack’s Club, established at No. 5 Pall Mall by a Scotsman named William McCall, who called himself Almack. The famous Assembly Rooms were opened a year later. Brooks’s, as it became known in 1778 at 60 St. James’s Street, was always “more” than White’s: more political (Whiggish), more raffish, more dangerous. The political discussions got heated (especially before the Tory Pitt gave up his membership and stuck to White’s). Thirteen prime ministers have been members, along with many opposition leaders. But Brooks’s also drew from the artistic and literary fringe, including the actor Garrick, and the playwright Sheridan, the historians Gibbon and Macaulay, and the painter Reynolds. Of course, the most famous member was the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent), who was personally responsible for getting scandalous Sheridan admitted after he had been blackballed three times.
The gambling stakes were stratospheric, with ten thousand pounds often risked on a single hand. One early member quit in disgust because he won “only 12,000 pounds” in two months! Charles James Fox, the great Whig politician, was bankrupted several times at the Brooks’s tables. His worshipful fellow members frequently bailed him out, some even selling shares in his future luck (usually bad). Often he was reduced to borrowing cabfare from the club’s waiters.
A third club, Boodle’s at 28 St. James’s, stands just opposite Brooks’s. Boodles’s has been Brooks’s opposite in many ways, though they shared a designer (ferny Holland) and a few members (Gibbon and Fox). Compared to its neighbor, Boodle’s is a quiet, even dull redoubt of the hunting set, complete with Stubbs’s paintings of horses and country scenes.
Boodle was headwaiter at the Brooks’s before he left in about 1770 to found his own club, which featured an elaborate fastidiousness – coins were courteously boiled before given in change to members, diners out of formal dinner dress were relegated to “the dirty room”. In two centuries, members proudly note, Boodle’s has been the site of not a single scandal — rather a pathetic boast, considering!
A few clubs were devoted unashamedly to gambling. Watier’s (about 1805) at 81 Piccadilly was the inspiration of Prinny, who had heard White’s and Brooks’s members complain about their club’s inferior meals. He asked his own cook Watier to found a dinner club. Though Watier’s was always known for its exquisite dinners, gambling was its biggest draw. Legendary for its high-stakes Macao play, Watier’s survived only about a dozen years. Supposedly the club folded because so many members committed suicide after losing all! Brummell flirted with just such an end one night, called dramatically for a candle and a pistol. A fellow member produced two loaded pistols from his pocket, telling the horrified Brummell that he needn’t bother the waiter.
Crockford’s is sometimes considered a Regency club, but was actually founded in 1827. William Crockford, a professional gambler, had owned a less elite gambling hell in King Street from about 1816 to 1823, and another at the site of the defunct Watier’s. At 50 St. James’s, Crockford’s sat next to White’s and drew many members to its wealthy hazard banks. Even the Duke of Wellington, who hadn’t gambled since he was almost forced to sell his commission as a young officer, joined the club just to stay fashionable. It was surely the only club to earn a public rebuke from that great clubman George IV (the former Prince Regent), who piously denounced Crockford’s as “not only a disgrace to the country at large, but the age in which we live.”
Other clubs catered to narrower and less disgraceful interests. Military clubs flourished during and after the war. Prinny and the Duke of Wellington are said to have been the instigators of the Guards’ Club in 1810, located across from White’s. They worried that officers on leave from the Peninsular War might fall into bad company at the more expensive or disreputable clubs. The low-stakes whist and the inexpensive but hearty meals made the clubhouse a popular place –at least until 1827, when Crockford’s next door excavated an icehouse and undermined the Guards’ foundations. Half the building fell into the hole. The United Service Club, the Duke of Wellington’s favorite, was founded in 1815 by army veterans. Initially restricted to high-ranking army officers, the club soon relented and also allowed in Navy officers.
Unusual experiences and talents were expected of members of other clubs. The Travellers Club at 106 Pall Mall, founded in 1819, provided a meeting place for those men who had travelled at least five hundred miles in a straight line from London. The French minister Talleyrand, who through revolution, empire and restoration always landed on his feet, spent his old age playing whist there. The custom of inviting foreign diplomats to Travellers’ made it the only racially tolerant club in Town.
The Dilettanti Society (1734) supported the fine arts by organizing tours of Italy and Greece, purchasing antiquities, and publishing guidebooks and volumes on art works. Yet, this was no solemn bluestocking group. The members liked to entertain the Prince Regent when he was in an art-buying mood, and they went on tours to Venice during carnival time. Horace Walpole once said the society’s membership requirements were having been in Italy, and being a drunk. Still the society’s membership boasted illustrious artists like Reynolds, and a half-dozen dukes. The offbeat attitude of the Dilettanti might be seen in its favorite fundraising activity, assessing fines on members who achieved some honor or distinction. Even marriage might bring a five-guinea fine. The funds, however, went for charitable causes. The Society’s clubhouse did not match their benevolence, only a large room in the Thatched House Tavern, though one graced with priceless Reynolds paintings.
The Alfred Club in Albermarle Street (1808) catered to men of letters or religion. Amazingly, Lord Byron was a member, but found the members vague and dotty, and the religious atmosphere oppressive. The irreverent Lord Alvanley said he dropped out of the Alfred when the seventeenth bishop joined, saying the club then put him in mind of his catechism.
Far removed in spirit from the tedious Alfred is the most famous sporting club, the Four-In-Hand Club. These coaching-mad Corinthians had no clubhouse, only meeting four times a year at George Street in Hanover Square to drive twenty miles in their drags or barouches to Salt Hill. There they dined at the Windmill and then headed back to town. Their distinctive costume included white drab driving coats with at least fifteen capes, a blue coat, yellow-and-blue striped waistcoat, white cravat with black spots, long white corduroy breeches, and a cone-like hat The clubmen worshipped professional coachmen and often bribed them to get a chance at driving a real stagecoach. Some even had a front tooth removed so they could spit just like their idols.
The following books provided my information, and offer a more in-depth look at these and other clubs, all of which paint a vivid picture of the manner in which Regency heroes spent their days and often their nights. Through the magic of the Internet, the first three are at your fingertips! So much for elitism!
Timbs’s CLUB LIFE IN LONDON is the classic of the genre, published in the 1860s but is available at the Internet Archive.
Gronow’s ANECDOTES AND REMINISCENCES; Captain Gronow knew every club and everyone, and willingly spills all their secrets.
Ashton’s THE HISTORY OF GAMBLING IN ENGLAND is filled with great anecdotes about the gambling clubs.
Lejeune and Lewis’s THE GENTLEMEN’S CLUBS OF LONDON is the newest book, chock full of gorgeous pictures, but unfortunately only discusses the clubs still extant.
In my The Reluctant Lady, the sinfully handsome Tressilian is a White’s member.