The Macaroni Club
Strictly speaking, the Macaroni Club was not a club for dining, gaming and conversation in the manner of the other gentlemen’s clubs, although they did meet at one of William Almack’s houses in Pall Mall – very likely Number 49, since there was a connection with Edward Boodle who managed Boodle’s. Boodle’s founding members originally met in this house.
The name ‘Macaroni’ comes from the young gentlemen who returned from the Grand Tour with a fondness for the Italian pasta, which was little known on these shores at that time. Horace Walpole, in a letter of 6 February 1764, is deemed to have made the first known comment about the Macaroni Club, when he wrote, it is ‘composed of all the travelled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses.’ A contemporary magazine, according to one source, states that these travelled and scholarly souls ‘judged that the title of Macaroni was very applicable to a clever fellow; and accordingly, to distinguish themselves as such, they instituted a club under this denomination, the members of which were supposed to be the standards of taste in polite learning, the fine arts, and the genteel sciences; and fashion, amongst the other constituent parts of taste, became an object of their attention.’
|The Macaroni, Philip Dawe|
From the Oxford Magazine of 1770 comes this satirical description:
‘There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, it wenches without passion.’
Thus the Macaroni, described rather unkindly in another account ‘as a person who exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion’ became synonymous with foppery. This encompassed affectation in manner and speech, in addition to the employment of the extremes of fashionable life, including fastidiousness in all matters of dressing, dining and gambling. Cartoonists such as Cruikshank and Gilray took great pleasure in ridiculing the most famous of them.
|What Is This My Son Tom, 1774|
The Dilettanti Society and The Hellfire Club
The Society of Dilettanti (literally meaning lovers of the Fine Arts) were a group of men who, having travelled about the Continent and thus discovered an appreciation for the arts, beauty in all its forms and ‘antiquarian remains’, decided to form a club to promote these matters. First formed at Parsloe’s in 1734, they removed to the Thatched House tavern in St. James’s, where, during the London Season, they held dinners on Sunday evenings. In a letter to Sir H. Mann, in connection with a subscription for the opera, Horace Walpole had this to say about being a member:
‘The nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk ; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy.’
The public room at the Thatched House was large and faced St, James’s Street. It was lined with portraits of the Dilettanti members, and when lit by candlelight the paintings could be seen from outside. The ceiling was painted to represent the sky, and ‘crossed by gold cords interlacing each other, and from their knots were hung three large glass chandeliers.’ John Timbs then describes the frontage: ‘Beneath the tavern front was a range of low-built shops, including that of Rowland, or Rouland, the fashionable coiffeur, who charged five shillings for cutting hair, and made a large fortune by his “incomparable Huile Macassar.”’
He goes on to say there was a passage through the hostelry to Thatched House Court and the evocatively-named Catherine-Wheel Alley, where lived ‘the good old widow Delaney’.
The Dilettanti Society were responsible for sending eminent gentlemen abroad in search of antiquities, both to collect measurements, drawings and elevations and purchase artefacts. Various venerable works were produced through the sponsorship of the society. Possibly the most famous acquisition was by the Earl of Elgin, Ambassador in Constantinople, who brought the ‘Elgin Marbles’ to Britain.
Other celebrated members, besides Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood (later 11th Baron le Despencer), included Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Dukes of Norfolk, Bedford and Dorset, Charles James Fox, Hon. Stephen Fox (later Lord Holland), David Garrick, George Selwyn, John Towneley, the Marquises of Lansdowne and Northampton, Earl Fitzwilliam and the Earl of Holderness, Lord Robert Spencer, George Colman, Richard Payne Knight, Sir William Hamilton and Sir George Beaumont.
As previously said, their portraits – many painted by Reynolds – adorned the walls of the Thatched House meeting room. Three paintings created by the artist and his master Hudson, after the manner of Paul Veronese states Timbs, portray ‘the Duke of Leeds, Lord Dundas, Constantine Lord Mulgrave, Lord Seaforth, the Hon. Charles Greville, Charles Crowle, Esq., and Sir Joseph Banks.’ A similar, second group show ‘Sir William Hamilton, Sir Watkin W. Wynne, Richard Thomson, Esq., Sir John Taylor, Payne Galway, Esq., John Smythe, Esq., and Spencer S. Stanhope, Esq.’, while a third is of Reynolds, garbed ‘in a loose robe, and in his own hair.’ Some of the members are depicted in familiar Georgian costume, while others wear dress of a Roman or Turkish flavour. Lord Sandwich, represented in ‘a Turkish costume, casts a most unorthodox glance upon a brimming goblet in his left hand, while his right holds a flask of great capacity.’ A common theme is one of conviviality, according to John Timbs, with many of the subjects holding ‘wine-glasses of no small size.’ He goes on:
‘Sir Bouchier Wray is seated in the cabin of a ship, mixing punch, and eagerly embracing the bowl, of which a lurch of the sea would seem about to deprive him: the inscription is Dulce est desipere in loco. Here is a curious old portrait of the Earl of Holdernesse, in a red cap, as a gondolier, with the Rialto and Venice in the background; there is Charles Sackville, Duke of Dorset, as a Roman senator, dated 1738; Lord Galloway, in the dress of a cardinal; and a very singular likeness of one of the earliest of the Dilettanti, Lord Le Despencer, as a monk at his devotions: his Lordship is clasping a brimming goblet for his rosary, and his eyes are not very piously fixed on a statue of the Venus de' Medici.’
This leads us nicely into the Hellfire Club, since some of the pictures, as Timbs points out, ‘remind one of the Medmenham orgies, with which some of the Dilettanti were not unfamiliar.’
The original Hell-fire Club was founded by the Duke of Wharton in 1719 – when Sir Francis Dashwood was only eleven – and lasted only two years.
“Wharton, the scorn and wonder of our days,
Whose ruling passion was the lust of praise.
Born with whate'er could win it from the wise,
Women and fools must like him, or he dies.
Though wondering senates hung on all he spoke,
The club must hail him master of the joke.”
Perhaps gossip of the club’s activities reached the young Francis’ ears, or perhaps he merely had a natural leaning in that in that direction; we can only speculate. History records that he inherited his father’s title when still only fifteen, and his fortune with it. He travelled on the Continent, ‘roaming from court to court’ and whether by accident or design, achieved notoriety through his escapades and wild exploits. According to Walpole, the story goes that while in Russia he impersonated Charles XII and in that guise tried to seduce the Tsarina Anne. His ‘outrages on religion and morality’ in Italy led to his ‘expulsion from the dominions of the Church.’ He returned to England and joined the household of Frederick, Prince of Wales. When the Earl of Westmorland (his uncle) was dismissed as Colonel of the 1st Troop of Horse Guards, these events made Sir Francis ‘a violent opponent of Walpole's administration’.
He became a prominent member of the Dilettanti Society, succeeded his friend the Earl of Sandwich as archmaster when he was removed from office for ‘his misbehaviour to and contempt of the Society’, and was an active politician, opposing Walpole’s administration. However, he continued to offend and get into trouble, possessing as he did the heart of a rake, and fell foul of Horace Walpole again when having ‘stolen a great fortune, a Miss Bateman’ while the lover of Lady Carteret. Nevertheless, he was married in December 1745, at St. George’s, Hanover Square, to Sarah, the daughter of George Gould from Buckinghamshire. She was already a widow, having been previously married to Sir Richard Ellis, 3rd Baronet of Wyham in Lincolnshire. Described by Walpole as ‘a poor forlorn Presbyterian prude’, Sarah failed to curb Dashwood’s licentiousness.
In 1755 or thereabouts, he founded the Hell-fire Club, although it was much later when it became known by that name. His home being in West Wycombe, the club was variously titled the ‘Order of Knights of West Wycombe’, the ‘Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe’, the ‘Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe’ and, most famously, the Monks of Medmenham Abbey, a property leased by Dashwood in beautiful countryside by the Thames near Marlow. A former Cistercian monastery, Dashwood rented the property from his friend Francis Duffield (Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell Fire Clubs) and some or all of the twelve members, including Dashwood’s half-brother Sir John Dashwood-King, his cousin Sir Thomas Stapleton, John Wilkes and Paul Whitehead, spent time there during the summer.
Sir Francis commissioned various expensive renovations, including rebuilding work in a Gothic revivalist style by architect Nicholas Revett. An inscription, coined from the Abbey of Theleme, ‘Fais ce que tu voudras’, was added over the grand entrance. None survive, but it is believed William Hogarth may have painted murals for the club. Beneath the abbey, Dashwood discovered an existing cave. This he had extended into an interconnecting network of such caverns and tunnels, decorating them with various symbols, items and images of a phallic, carnal and mythological nature.
Sir Francis himself presided over club rituals in the manner of a high priest, the so-called ‘Franciscans’ (after their leader) indulging in ‘obscene parodies of Franciscan rites, and with orgies of drunkenness and debauchery which even Almon, himself no prude, shrank from describing.’ According to the Dictionary of National Biography entry by Albert Frederick Pollard, Dashwood ‘used a communion cup to pour out libations to heathen deities’.
In Horace Walpole’s opinion, the club’s ‘practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighbourhood of the complexion of those hermits.’
Club meetings took place twice each month and lasted a week or more during June or September for club affairs to be discussed. According to Geoffrey Ashe, members are believed to have worn white ritual clothing of jacket, trousers and cap, while the leader, who changed on a regular basis and was referred to as ‘Abbot, wore matching dress in red. Many are the tales ascribed to the Club and their activities, ranging from devil worship, Satanism and Black Masses to whispers of scantily-clad female ‘guests’ (i.e. ladies of the night), who were alluded to as ‘Nuns’. Feasting, drinking and debauchery were the order of the day for Dashwood’s ‘monks’.
All the years spent travelling on the Continent had clearly had a lasting effect on Sir Francis, for at West Wycombe he had installed in the park a number of statues, follies and temples to various Greek and Italian gods, such as Daphne, Priapus and Flor a, besides those of love and wine. Inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the Temple of Music is situated on an island in the artificially constructed lake. The Temple of Apollo is now known as the Cockpit Arch because of the cockfights which took place there. Dashwood’s love of the Gothic was apparent here, too, in the boathouse beside the lake and a chapel.
Dashwood did finally ‘settle down’ to a quieter life during his later years. He became the first colonel of the Buckinghamshire militia during the Seven Years War with John Wilkes his lieutenant-colonel; he made a good attempt that year of 1757 to rescue Admiral Byng from ‘political murder’ and later was almost the only peer in the House of Lords to go to the Earl of Chatham’s assistance when he swooned. Sir Francis was made Chancellor of the Exchequer by the Earl of Bute, but lasted only a year after putting excise duty on cider which nearly caused a riot. Having inherited the title of Baron le Despencer through his mother, he sat in the House of Lords and was promoted to Lord-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire. He became comparatively respectable, including being joint Post-master General during Lord North’s tenure, but apparently this did not prevent him siding with his old friend the Earl of Sandwich in a libellous attack on John Wilkes over a bawdy book he had printed. Another publication by Charles Johnstone, states Ashe, featuring stories easily associated with Medmenham Abbey, the Earl of Sandwich and the various iniquities practised by the Hell-Fire members, spelled the Club’s doom. Since many of the ‘monks’ had either already met their own demise or were beyond travelling distance, the High Priest’s orgies were at an end.
After a long illness, Sir Francis Dashwood died at West Wycombe in 1781 and was buried there. His gardens there and the Hellfire Caves he created above West Wycombe are now tourist attractions.
The Beefsteak Club and The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks
Various clubs took the name of Beefsteak or Beef-Steak during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the one believed to be the first was founded by actor Richard Estcourt, possibly about 1705. It is conceivable it originated through defectors of the Whig Kit-Kat Club and perhaps because of that merited a mention in The Spectator in Number 9, dated 10 March 1710-11:
‘The Beef-steak and October Clubs are neither of them averse to eating or drinking, if we may form a judgment of them from their respective titles.’
Popular, merry and witty, Richard (Dick) Estcourt was made the club’s ‘Providore’ (president) and wore a small, gold gridiron on a green silk ribbon as his badge of office, the gridiron being the emblem of the Beef-Steaks. ‘Humbly inscrib’d to the Honourable BEEF STEAK CLUB’ was the poem Art of Cookery by Dr. William King, who wrote these lines:
‘He that of honour, wit, and mirth partakes,
May be a fit companion o’er Beef-steaks:
His name may be to future times enrolled
In Estcourt's book, whose gridiron’s framed with gold.’
In the First Edition (1709) of Secret History of London Clubs, Ned Ward offers this description of the club.
‘This new Society griliado'd beef eaters first settled their meeting at the sign of the Imperial Phiz, just opposite to a famous conventicle in the Old Jury, a publick-house that has been long eminent for the true British quintessence of malt and hops, and a broiled sliver off the juicy rump of a fat, well-fed bullock… This noted boozing ken, above all others in the City, was chosen out by the Rump-steak admirers, as the fittest mansion to entertain the Society, and to gratify their appetites with that particular dainty they desired to be distinguished by.’
Nevertheless, in spite of a membership consisting of statesmen and artists, before ten years had passed, the club was discontinued. It was not until 1735 that actor and theatre manager John Rich formed the Sublime Society of the Steaks.
The Sublime Society of the Steaks
Following the success of The Beggars’ Opera, John Rich (not Henry as stated by Timbs) left his position as manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and joined the Covent Garden Theatre. A comic actor, he did much to popularize pantomimes and would make models of his tricks in his room at the theatre. Such was his appeal, ‘men of rank and wit’ would visit him there, one being the Earl of Peterborough, who happened one day to be present when Rich cooked a beef-steak on a gridiron over the fire in his chamber. Invited to join his host, the Earl was so impressed that after a couple of bottles of wine, he suggested they meet again at the same time the following week. He brought with him three or four friends, gentlemen of wit and fashion, and the occasion being particularly successful, a Saturday club was proposed, to meet during the Season.
However, as John Timbs warns, there was a club established at Covent Garden named for George Lambert, chief scene-painter at the theatre, who ‘received, in his painting room, persons of rank and talent; where, as he could not leave for dinner, he frequently was content with a steak, which he himself broiled upon the fire in his room.’ These meetings grew into the Beef-Steak Society and later were held in a ‘noble room at the top of Covent Garden Theatre’. During the rebuilding of Covent Garden after the fire of 1808, Timbs suggests the club moved to the Shakespeare Tavern. However, later he says they were ‘re-established at the Bedford Coffee House’. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that one or two meetings were conducted at the former before removing to the latter around 1809.
Historian of the Society, Walter Arnold, is in favour of a third account of ‘The Steaks’’ foundation, which is that Rich and Lambert dined together on steaks cooked by Rich, and washed them down with a bottle of port ‘from the tavern hard by’. This collaboration then led to the creation of the Sublime Society.
|Beefsteak Dining Room, The Lyceum|
‘When Lun appeared, with matchless art and whim,
He gave the power of speech to every limb.
Though masked and mute conveyed his true intent,
And told in frolic gestures what he meant;
But now the motley coat and sword of wood,
Require a tongue to make them understood.’
This suggests he, too, was a member. John Wilkes was elected in 1754; Samuel Johnson in 1780 and John Philip Kemble in 1805. Royalty, noblemen, celebrated soldiers and politicians soon flocked to join this renowned group of gifted artists. Indeed, the Prince of Wales became a member in 1785 when the membership was increased by one to admit him. This was ‘an event of sufficient moment to find record in the Annual Register of the year.’
“On Saturday, the 14th of May, the Prince of Wales was admitted a member of the Beaf-steak Club. His Royal Highness having signified his wish of belonging to that Society, and there not being a vacancy, it was proposed to make him an honorary member; but that being declined by His Royal Highness, it was agreed to increase the number from twenty-four to twenty-five, in consequence of which His Royal Highness was unanimously elected. The Beaf-steak Club has been instituted just fifty years, and consists of some of the most classical and sprightly wits in the Kingdom.”
It was not long before the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Sussex, his royal brothers, were also accepted, as was the Duke of Norfolk. Members wore a blue coat and, beneath it, a buff waistcoat with brass buttons embossed with the ubiquitous gridiron, plus the legend ‘Beef and liberty’. Meetings were held each Saturday between November and the following June – i.e. the London Season – and continued until 1867, when the Society closed its doors. Club dinners were always beef steaks, cooked in a variety of ways, and served with onions and baked potatoes, on hot pewter plates. Toasted or stewed cheese completed the meal, the whole being accompanied by arrack punch and ‘port-wine’. With the table cloth removed and the cook paid, the remainder of the evening was passed in merriment and jollity.
The Society of Eccentrics
There were several clubs called the Eccentrics, beginning in the 1780s and continuing through to 1986. The most famous is no doubt the one which closed its doors in the last century, as it is also the longest-lived, being founded in 1890 and spending most of its years at 9-11 Ryder Street, St. James’s. However, it is the first club in which is of interest here.
The Society of Eccentrics was a branch of The Brilliants and from 1781 met in Chandos Street, Covent Garden, at a tavern belonging to a man called Fulham. In due course, they moved to St. Martin’s Lane, to Tom Rees’ in May’s Buildings, and other Covent Garden venues until the club’s demise in 1846. At some stage in the 1820s, the club’s name was changed to The Eccentric Society Club.
It is reported that the Eccentrics boasted 40,000 members and more from its beginnings, many being from the upper echelons of Society and including politicians and literary men. Some of these were Lord Melbourne, Lord Petersham, Lord Brougham, Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Theodore Hook was accepted on the same night as Lord Petersham and Sheridan, and it was believed that some of his ‘high connections’ were achieved through his club membership. Author F. W. N. Bayley, ‘sketched with graphic vigour the meetings of the Eccentrics at the old tavern in May’s Buildings’ in a novel ‘published in numbers’.
The club, apparently, was given to night-time revelries, but the authorities indulged the flights of the celebrity membership. When a new member was inaugurated, a ceremony was carried out, ending in ‘a jubilation from the President’.
According to John Timbs, it seems the early books of The Society of Eccentrics passed into the hands of Robert Lloyd, hatter to the nobility, of 71, The Strand. Known for being an eccentric himself, Robert Lloyd was a philosopher, inventor and the author of a ‘small work’ describing fashionable hats of the era, complete with illustrative engravings.
It is possible that the succeeding clubs, including the present day Eccentric Club UK, may have connections with the original Society. A white owl was the crest of the club in the 1800s and was said to have been adopted by the 1890 version. One source claims Sir Charles Wyndham and other founding members made references to a revival of the earlier club.
Pictures Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
© Heather King