The Georgian aristocracy lived life to the full. They loved eating, drinking, carousing, partying, racing and… gambling.
During the Regency, most – if not all – of these could be enjoyed in one of the growing number of gentlemen’s clubs which thrived in the fair city of London. According to Captain Gronow, in his Anecdotes and Reminiscences, written at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the West End of London was home to only a few, prestigious such establishments. These were White’s – the oldest and most elite – Boodle’s, Brooks’, Watier’s, the Guards’, Arthur’s and Graham’s.
These bastions of male society sprang, in the main, from gatherings of like-minded gentlemen in coffee houses and taverns. The Jockey Club is said to have had its beginnings at the Star and Garter on Pall Mall, while Brooks’ and Boodle’s began at two neighbouring taverns owned by William Almack in the same area, and White’s originated as a chocolate house on Chesterfield Street, off Curzon Street in Mayfair.
Originally called ‘Mrs. White’s Chocolate House’, White’s was opened in 1693 by Francesco Bianco (also known as Francis White), an Italian immigrant. At the time, hot chocolate was expensive and therefore a commodity enjoyed by the wealthy. From the start, White’s attracted the most influential members of the haut ton and it soon became better known as an exclusive gambling club. After occupying several locations on St. James’s Street, in 1778 it took up residence at numbers 37-38, its home to this day.
|White's Club, by Paul Farmer|
Fortunes have been won and lost within its genteel rooms, the play frequently being for high stakes. Cards were the medium of choice, the preferred game being whist.
While the membership boasted most of the noblest names in the country, wealth, birth and wit did not guarantee acceptance to the hallowed rooms. When a new member was proposed, a ballot took place. At least twelve members voted with either a white ball (acceptance) or a black ball. One black ball meant the applicant was denied. It was soon the ambition of every young gentleman new on the town to be elected.
That famed arbiter of fashion, Beau Brummell, who became a member in 1789, made the club into the haunt of the dandy set, whereupon the celebrated bow window and the table directly in front of it, became his preserve. He dictated whom might sit there and decreed that no gentleman should acknowledge anyone passing by in the street. However, it was not unknown for the dandies to pass pithy comments on any gentleman and ogle any woman bold enough to be walking by. This group of elite dandies included Lord Petersham, Lord Pierrepoint, 2nd Baron Alvanley, ‘Poodle’ Byng, the Duke of Argyll, Lord Worcester, Lord Sefton, Lord Foley, ‘Ball’ Hughes and Sir Lumley Skeffington. After Brummell’s removal to the Continent in 1816, Lord Alvanley took over the Beau’s seat and it was at this time he purportedly made the famous bet of £3,000 with a friend on the outcome of two raindrops running down the bow window. White’s Betting Book has seen many bizarre bets over the years, on social matters – marriages, deaths and gossip – sporting events and, in particular, developments in politics, both at home and on the Continent.
White’s was for some time a citadel of the Tory party, as Brooks’ was for the Whigs, yet many members of the club either belonged to the other party (and the other club) or had no political affiliation. From about 1832, the club renounced such leanings and has remained apolitical ever since.
Brooks’, Brooks’s or Brookes’s Subscription-House (as described in Ackermann’s Microcosm of London) started life at 50, Pall Mall, a tavern owned by William Almack, owner of Almack’s Assembly Rooms. When two gentlemen were rejected by White’s, they formed a private society. This later dissolved, the various members separating into two groups, the second later to evolve into Boodle’s.
|Brooks', by Debonairchap|
The first group was initially called Almack’s and met at 49 Pall Mall, another tavern owned by William Almack, hence the name. Founded by several Whig noblemen, including the Duke of Roxburghe, the Duke of Portland, Lord Strathmore and Lord Crewe, in 1764, other prominent members were Charles James Fox (a precocious admission the following year, aged sixteen), the Prince Regent, the Dukes of Clarence and York, Lord Carlisle, William Lamb and Lord Robert Spencer. Less exalted, perhaps, in Society, yet nevertheless celebrated in other spheres, were Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Around 1777, the manager of Almack’s, wine merchant and money lender William Brooks, commissioned Henry Holland to build a house on St. James’s Street (now number 60). It was a bold move, but the members of Almack’s joined him at the new premises and Brooks’ was born. Limited to a membership of 450, a ballot was held during Parliament to decide on member nominations, a black ball system used as at White’s. For a subscription of eleven guineas per annum, members were entitled to admission to Miles’ and other respectable clubs, as well as clubs in Bath.
|The Great Subscription Room at Brooks', 37' long, 22' wide, 25' high|
The Palladian style building was renowned for its gambling saloons and had its main suite of neoclassical rooms on the first floor. These were the Great Subscription Room, the Card Room and the Small Drawing Room. There was no billiard table and according to Ackermann, the game of Hazard was rarely played, the fashionable card games being whist, piquet, quinze and macao. It was a common occurrence for gambling to continue all night; sometimes play went on all day and all night, fortunes being lost and won in the process. As with White’s, many an unusual wager has been recorded in the Brooks’ Betting Book. One reads as follows:
“[Ma]rch 11, 1774, Almack’s. Lord Clermont has given Mr. Crawford ten guineas upon the condition of receiving 500l. from him whenever Mr. Charles Fox shall be worth 100,000l. clear of debts.”
In his book about Ian Fleming’s James Bond, John Griswold quotes another, far more shocking, wager from Dr L.G. Mitchell’s biography of Charles James Fox. It seems that in 1785, the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley gave two guineas to the 12th Earl of Derby against five hundred guineas received when his lordship engaged in a certain activity with a woman (of ill-repute, one assumes) in a balloon one thousand yards in the air. It does, however, reveal the level to which even the titled could sink. One cannot help wondering if this was the beginning of the Mile High Club…
While Beau Brummell was the leader at White’s, Charles Fox was the undisputed ruler at Brooks’, even though Brummell was a member. The emphasis on gambling declined during the early nineteenth century with Brooks’ becoming more an ‘association of noblemen and gentlemen, connected by politics…’
Boodle’s began life at 50, Pall Mall in 1762. Founded by the future Marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Shelburne, it is the second oldest club in the world after White’s. The house was owned by William Almack and later Edward Boodle. It is thought they were partners. Boodle is variously described as the manager or head waiter. A board of six governed the club until 1879. The number was reduced to five from 1881 and fifteen years later it became a members’ club.
Edward Boodle died in February 1772 and Benjamin Harding took over the running of the club. Sanctioned by a general meeting, he bought the house at 28, St. James’s Street, built by Nicholas Kenney in 1775-6 for the short-lived Savoir Vivre club. Boodle’s moved to the new house in 1782-3 and has remained there ever since.
|Boodle's, by Debonairchap|
Originally a political club, Boodle’s soon became renowned for its fine food, gambling and calm atmosphere and thus, in the main, was patronized by those gentleman from the country seeking convivial company and a ‘good, plain dinner’. Notable members were the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Wellington, the Marquess of Lansdowne, Beau Brummell, William Wilberforce and Charles James Fox.
Also known as the ‘Great-go’ and called The Dandy Club by Byron, Watier’s was established in 1807 at 81, Piccadilly, on the opposite corner from Bolton Street. It was chiefly a gambling club where, in the words of John Timbs, “…princes and nobles lost or gained fortunes between themselves; and by all accounts ‘Macao’ seems to have been a far more effective instrument in the losing of fortunes than either ‘Whist’ or ‘Loo’.”
Captain Gronow had this to say about the club’s birth:
‘Upon one occasion, some gentlemen of both White's and Brookes' had the honour to dine with the Prince Regent, and during the conversation, the Prince inquired what sort of dinners they got at their clubs; upon which. Sir Thomas Stepney, one of the guests, observed that their dinners were always the same, “the eternal joints, or beefsteaks, the boiled fowl with oyster sauce, and an apple tart—this is what we have, sir, at our clubs, and very monotonous fare it is.” The Prince, without further remark, rang the bell for his cook, Wattier, and, in the presence of those who dined at the Royal table, asked him whether he would take a house and organize a dinner club. Wattier assented, and named Madison, the Prince's page, manager, and Labourie, the cook, from the Royal kitchen. The club flourished only a few years, owing to the high play that was carried on there. The Duke of York patronized it, and was a member. I was a member in 1816, and frequently saw his Royal Highness there. The dinners were exquisite; the best Parisian cooks could not beat Labourie. The favourite game played there was Macao.’
The house at 81, Piccadilly had originally been established for ‘harmonic meetings’ by Messrs. Maddocks and Calvert, along with Lord Headford, according to Mr. Thomas Raikes, himself a dandy and member of the club.
‘Watier's Club had a very short duration in London [It met its demise in 1819.] but it was
a feature in the society of that day, which will long be remembered as a scene of dissipation and high play, attended with the most fatal and ruinous consequences.’ Thomas Raikes goes on to say that after Watier took over, the dinners became so popular and talked about, all the young men of fashion were clamouring to become members. ‘The catches and glees were then superseded by cards and dice; the most luxurious dinners were furnished at any price, as the deep play at night rendered all charges a matter of indifference. Macao was the constant game, and thousands passed from one to another with as much facility as marbles.’
All the most influential men of the day flocked to the new club. The Prince Regent had insisted on Beau Brummell being President of the club, and as with all things to do with the Carlton House set, the Beau held sway over members’ manners, dress and, indeed, even ‘those magnificent snuffboxes’:
‘Brummell was the supreme dictator, “their club’s perpetual president,” laying down the law in dress, in manners, and in those magnificent snuff-boxes for which there was a rage; he fomented the excesses, ridiculed the scruples, patronised the novices, and exercised paramount dominion over all. He had, as I have before said, great success at Macao, winning in two or three years a large sum, which went no one knew how, for he never lost back more than a fourth of it before he levanted to Calais. During the height of his prosperity, I remember him coming in one night after the opera to Watier’s, and finding the
Macao table full, one place at which was occupied by Tom Sheridan, who was never in the habits of play, but having dined freely had dropped into the Club, and was trying to catch the smiles of Fortune by risking a few pounds which he could ill afford to lose. Brummell proposed to him to give up his place and go shares in his deal; and adding to the 10l. in counters which Tom had before him 200l. for himself, took the cards. He dealt with his usual success, and in less than ten minutes won 1500l. He then stopped, made a fair division, and giving 750l. to Sheridan, said to him, “There, Tom, go home and give your wife and brats
a supper, and never play again.”’
Thus Watier’s became renowned for superb food and very deep play, but despite the ‘honourable feeling which prevailed among the members’ and the ‘good breeding and good humour’, in the words of Mr. Raikes, an ill-omen signalled the end when founder John Maddocks cut his throat with a razor at his Stratton Street home.
‘The club did not endure for twelve years altogether; the pace was too quick to last: it died a natural death in 1819, from the paralysed state of its members; the house was then taken by a set of blacklegs, who instituted a common bank for gambling. To form an idea of the ruin produced by this short-lived establishment among men whom I have so intimately known, a cursory glance to the past suggests the following melancholy list, which only forms a part of its deplorable results.’ He continued, ‘None of the dead reached the average age of man, and those who have survived may always look back to the life at Watier's as the source of their embarrassments.’
Brummell himself could be deemed one of these, since he lost a fortune at Watier’s and was forced to spend the rest of his life on the Continent.
The Cocoa Tree
From 1757 to some time between 1787 and 1793, Number 46, Piccadilly was the site of the Cocoa Tree chocolate house. According to a drawing by Coney, it was a late seventeenth century house with a four-storeyed façade. On the ground floor was a shop front, while each upper storey had a narrow recess on the western side and three tall, sashed windows. The club then removed to Number 64 until 1799.
The Cocoa Tree Chocolate House was first referred to in manuscripts belonging to Earl Cowper in 1698 – ‘The Cocoa Tree in the Pell Mell’. In the early years of the eighteenth century, it appears to have become a Tory stronghold and it was probably around the start of George III’s reign that it changed to a proprietary club as had White’s. By 1780, however, Horace Walpole wrote, ‘Within this week there has been a cast at hazard at the Cocoa Tree, the difference of which amounted to an hundred and fourscore thousand pounds’, suggesting that in the intervening years the club had become a popular venue for high stakes gambling.
In 1799, after a succession of proprietors, the latest, William Newton, moved to 64, St. James’s Street, where it seems likely the Cocoa Tree merged with a club which had been formed there in 1781. Soon notable for the extravagance of its entertainments and its gambling, it consisted ‘of young men who belong to Government’. Writing to the Earl of Carlisle in 1782, James Hare remarked on the feeling at Brooks’:
‘A young Club at Weltje’s begins to alarm us, as they increase in numbers, live well, and are difficult in their choice of members; it is almost entirely a Ministerial Club as Brookes’s is a Minority.’
A drawing of the street by Tallis shows the property with a garret above three main storeys and an iron balcony railing reaching around the first floor. The ground floor lacked symmetry, a modest, square-topped entrance door being set between a wide, similarly shaped passage entrance on one side (leading to Blue Ball Yard) and a sash window with three lights on the other. A focal point in one of the main rooms was a large golden, ornamental tree.
Patronized by the Prince Regent, Lord Byron and Sheridan, the nineteenth century saw political affiliations lessen at the Cocoa Tree and its main notoriety seemed to be heavy drinking. William Newton continued as proprietor until 1810; in 1817 R. Holland took over, to be followed by members of the Raggett family from 1818 to 1835. After this date, much of the club’s history seems to have been lost, although a gunsmith’s shop occupied a large part of the ground floor during the twentieth century and the house was badly damaged by fire in 1926. The club closed in 1932.
The Jockey Club
There were two inns called the Star and Garter on Pall Mall in the 1750s. One, dating from at least 1740, stood on the site of Number 44, on the northern side. The other and far better known inn stood on the southern side and was probably originally two houses. A drawing by Coney shows a ‘four-storeyed building of early eighteenth century character’. Part of the site was later occupied by the Carlton Club.
The origins of the Jockey Club have been lost in the mists of time. It is generally acknowledged, including by the club itself from its records, that it began around 1750 or 1751, since in John Pond’s Sporting Kalendar of 1751-2 there was a notice, quoted in Robert Black’s The Jockey Club And Its Founders viz.:
In that publication it is announced that there will be run for, at Newmarket, on Wednesday, April 1, 1752, ‘A Contribution Free Plate, by horses the property of the noblemen and gentlemen belonging to the Jockey Club, at the Star and Garter in Pall Mall.’
Nevertheless, some authorities deem it conceivable that the club’s conception was much earlier. In a pamphlet of 1709, by Edward Ward (author of The London Spy), entitled The History of the London Clubs, there is mention of a Yorkshire Club and therein are described various persons – ‘Needle Pointed Inn-Keepers, Rich and Froth Victuallers, honest Horse Coursers, and pious Yorkshire Attorneys, the rest good harmless Master Hostlers’ – who met ‘together in the Room next the Market [Smithfield], Horse Flesh for certain is the first Subject that is started in the Company…’
Rebecca Cassidy, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Horeseracing states that: ‘Historians have long identified the formation of the Jockey Club as occurring either 1750 or 1751, and the earliest notice appears to be a notice in Pond’s Sporting Kalendar…’ Nevertheless, she goes on to claim: ‘In fact, the Jockey Club was formed a generation earlier in the 1720s…’
No matter which date is the correct one, the Jockey Club undoubtedly met at the Star and Garter, which Robert Black claims was ‘the favourite meeting-house of many clubs, was celebrated for its choice cookery and wines, was notorious for its expensiveness, and was, some few years after the foundation of the Jockey Club, the scene of the tragic quarrel in which Mr. Chaworth was killed by Lord Byron’. Of this I must research further! The Star and Garter was not the only meeting-place of the club. On occasion the members met at the Thatched House, the Clarendon or even in each other’s houses. Robert Black reports, ‘…and for some years (even after Messrs. Weatherby removed to Old Burlington Street, where the headquarters of the Club eventually became fixed) at what was known as ‘The Corner’ (Hyde Park), with a coffee-room and a cook, it is said, provided by the obliging Mr. Richard Tattersall.’
The word jockey refers to the owners rather than riders of racehorses, and indeed, the Jockey Club has always been a body for the wealthy and titled to enjoy society at its upper levels. Perhaps its inauguration stemmed from the court of a very Merry Monarch and his love of both horse racing and lavish entertainment – Charles II. It is no coincidence that the Jockey Club took up its headquarters at Newmarket.
|Hyperion statue outside The Jockey Club Rooms, Newmarket by Alarnsen|
It would seem that the club was active in ‘The Home of Racing’ by 1753. In the previous year, a plot of land was leased by the Jockey Club on the High Street in Newmarket – very likely because they wanted a base near to the racecourse – and a Coffee House was built as a private meeting-place for members. It is a reasonable assumption that it was run in a similar manner to White’s, the Cocoa Tree and other London chocolate and coffee houses. According to Amanda Murray, in her book All The Kings’ Horses, while the Coffee Room was being built, meetings were held at the Red Lion Inn. The New Rooms were added about 1771-2 and thus the club became established. When the lease expired, the club purchased the freehold, and the original Coffee Room, added to and altered over the years, became known as The Jockey Club Rooms. The elegant red-brick building remains the Newmarket headquarters of the Jockey Club to this day.
Famous members from those early times were the Dukes of Cumberland, Devonshire and Marlborough; Lords Barrymore, Bolingbroke, Carlisle, Clermont, Grosvenor, Molyneux, Orford and Rockingham; Sirs, Thomas Charles Bunbury, Thomas Gascoigne and Henry Grey, to name but a few. The Prince Regent famously fell out with the Jockey Club when his horse Escape was deemed to have been held up in a race and His Royal Highness took the part of his jockey, Chifney. The election of members remained pretty well unaltered into Victorian times, irrespective of any early system. Candidates were proposed by members (an unspecified number initially, but later set at two) and elected by ballot. Nine members made up a quorum and two black balls excluded the applicant.
Robert Black explains: ‘The rule for the election of members of the Coffee-room dates from 1767, when a Mr. Brereton made himself unpleasant, and it was resolved that nobody should be admitted but on the proposal of a member of the Jockey Club and after a ballot; and when the New Rooms were added there was a similar rule for admission to them. So that, after a while, membership of the Jockey Club Rooms by no means meant membership of the Jockey Club.’
© Heather King 2016
All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commmons