Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Gentlemen's Clubs ~ Part Two

In this second article, I look at some of the – perhaps – lesser-known clubs frequented by gentlemen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gentlemen’s clubs had existed since Shakespeare’s time, although the word ‘club’, to mean a place of conviviality, is more recent. Samuel Pepys writes, in his entry for 26 July 1660, of a visit to ‘Pell Mell’:

“We went to Wood’s (our old house for clubbing), and there we spent till ten at night.”

In these few words, the diarist provides us with not only an early reference to Pall Mall being known for ‘houses of entertainment’, but also an early employment of the term ‘clubbing’, to mean calling at one or more clubs. What is more fascinating, is that when John Timbs was writing of the London Clubs in 1864, Pall Mall had maintained (quoting Peter Cunningham), “what Johnson would have called its ‘clubbable’ character”, while even today there are clubs on that street and in the locality.

However, for the golden era of the Gentlemen’s Clubs, we must look towards the beginning of the eighteenth century. The original The Spectator, launched in 1711, (the political magazine dates to 1828 although the name was quite possibly revived by its founding editor) did, with wit and insight, keep the clubs’ stories for posterity. In the ninth edition, Joseph Addison records:

“Man is said to be a sociable animal; and as an instance of it we may observe, that we take all occasions and pretences of forming ourselves into those little nocturnal assemblies, which are commonly known by the name of Clubs. When a set of men find themselves agree in any particular, though never so trivial, they establish themselves into a kind of fraternity, and meet once or twice a week, upon the account of such a fantastic resemblance.”


Rev. Joseph Spence, in his Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, relates an instance which reveals much about the men who frequented such establishments.

‘There was a club held at the King's Head in Pall Mall, that arrogantly called itself “The World.” Lord Stanhope, then (now Lord Chesterfield) Lord Herbert, &c. &c. were members. Epigrams were proposed to be written on the glasses, by each member after dinner; once when Dr. Young was invited thither, the doctor would have declined writing, because he had no diamond: Lord Stanhope lent him his, and he wrote immediately—’

“Accept a miracle, instead of wit;
See two dull lines, with Stanhope’s pencil writ.”—
Dr. Young.

 In his descriptive book of London in 1807, David Hughson refers to what, historically, is considered the first mansion to be used as a club for the entertainment of gentlemen. He wrote: “Adjoining to Carleton House Gardens, are those belonging to the residence of his Royal Highness, Henry Frederick, late Duke of Cumberland, brother to his present Majesty [George III].” He goes on to state that the house, having been built for Prince Edward, Duke of York, was sold following the death of the Duke of Cumberland. “…and is at present occupied by a subscription club, and called the Albion Hotel. The fronts of the above two houses are in Pall Mall.”

The Albion Hotel was Number 86 and became part of the War Office; its creation as a subscription club was the beginning of the ‘Club land’ which came to be centred around Pall Mall and St. James’s.


The Kit-Kat Club

If you are partial to a certain brand of chocolate biscuit, you may be surprised to learn that the appellation of the club was, in all likelihood, derived from the name of a pie maker or the mutton pies he baked. Historical sources have varying opinions.

Formed probably around 1700, the titled members of the Kit-Kat (otherwise called Kit-Cat, Kit-Catt and Kit-Katt, with and without the hyphen) met originally at a tavern on Shire Lane. Running parallel with Bell Yard and by the Temple Bar, the lane has long been lost beneath the Royal Courts of Justice. The Cat and Fiddle was the house of noted pieman Christopher Katt (or Catt, or even Catling) and his mutton pies were known as ‘kit-kats’. Thirty-nine noblemen and gentlemen met to discuss literature, art and Whig politics, including ‘the Dukes of Somerset, Richmond, Grafton, Devonshire, and Marlborough’; ‘the Earls of Dorset, Sunderland, Manchester, Wharton, and Kingston’; the Earl of Stanhope; Viscount Cobham; Lord Halifax; Sir Robert Walpole and Sir John Vanbrugh; writers Joseph Addison, William Congreve and John Locke, as well as artist Sir Godfrey Kneller. Many of the latter’s ‘kit-kat’ portraits of the members are at Beningborough Hall in Yorkshire, courtesy of a collaboration between the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery.

Christopher ‘Kit’ Catt’s pies became a feature of the Club’s suppers and in The Spectator, Joseph Addison clearly denotes them as the source of the nomenclature. In the prologue to a comedy in Volume 9, it says: “A Kit-Kat is a supper for a lord.” Nevertheless, Dr. King, in Art of Cookery, published 1708, considers the honour goes to the pieman himself:

His glory far, like Sir-Loins, Knighthood flies.
Immortal made as Kit-cat by his Pies.

 This all seems fairly cut and dried, but there is yet another possibility. It is conceivable that the club stemmed from an earlier institutional practice. According to John Timbs, in 1699 one Elkanah Settle designated a manuscript poem thus: “To the most renowned the President and the rest of the Knights of the most noble Order of the Toast.” Timbs states that the verses assert “…the dignity of the Society; and Malone supposes the Order of the Toast to have been identical with the Kit-Kat Club…”

A further possibility is a purported ‘friendship’ between the pieman and bookseller Jacob Tonsen, whereby pastries were offered to poets and authors either by the one or the other. Did Tonsen have a first refusal on new works? Meetings apparently became weekly and since Christopher traded under the sign of the Cat and Fiddle, it is not beyond the bounds for one wag to have put the two together.

Whether or not those well-bred gentlemen deigned to pass ‘along the narrow and filthy pathway of Shire-lane,’ the Kit-Kat Club possessed a set of toasting glasses. Each was ‘inscribed with a verse, or toast to some reigning beauty; among whom were the four shining daughters of the Duke of Marlborough—Lady Godolphin, Lady Sunderland, Lady Bridgewater, and Lady Monthermer…’ The list also included the ‘witty niece’ of Sir Isaac Newton, the Duchess of Bolton, Lady Carlisle and Lady Wharton. It would appear from an epigram written by Dr. John Arbuthnot, the Queen’s physician, that he considered the name of the club to come from this after-dinner custom rather than from the celebrated maker of ‘mutton pyes’.

 “Whence deathless Kit-Kat took his name,
Few critics can unriddle:
Some say from pastrycook it came,
And some from Cat and Fiddle.
From no trim beaus its name it boasts,
Grey statesmen or green wits,
But from this pell-mell pack of toasts
Of old Cats and young Kits."

The members of the Kit-Kat Club were middle-aged and respectable; Horace Walpole (whose father Sir Robert was a member) described them as ‘generally mentioned as “a set of wits”’, while Timbs declares they were ‘in reality the patriots that saved Britain’. Himself a member, as stated above, it was Joseph Addison’s view that all celebrated clubs were founded on eating and drinking, which are points where most men agree, and in which the learned and the illiterate, the dull and the airy, the philosopher and the buffoon, can all of them bear a part.” To illustrate this point, he went on, “The Kit-Kat itself is said to have taken its original from a Mutton-Pye. The Beef-Steak and October Clubs are neither of them averse to eating and drinking, if we may form a judgment of them from their respective titles.”

This, we may assume, was the root from whence the gambling clubs of the Regency sprang.

The club met at the Upper Flask, Hampstead Heath, during the summer and moved to Barn Elms, the home of Secretary Jacob Tonson, when a special clubroom was built to house the Kneller portraits. It was still standing in 1817, but not long after that date was connected to a barn and converted into a ‘riding-house’. Some sources state that the club also met at the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.

The Club

Another renowned literary club and, indeed, called The Literary Club following the death of David Garrick, it originated in 1764 from dinners held at the Leicester Square home of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The regular meetings of artists, statesmen, wits, authors and scholars evolved into a society, suggested by Reynolds and seconded by Dr. Samuel Johnson, which met at seven o’clock on Monday evenings until 1772, when it was changed to Friday. Somewhere about this time it was decided that during the sitting of Parliament members would dine together only once a fortnight. Initially the club met at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street, the number of its members limited to nine.


The original members, in addition to artist Reynolds and essayist Johnson, were author, playwright and poet Oliver Goldsmith; Dr. Christopher Nugent; Topham Beauclerk; Bennet Langton; writer and future Member of Parliament Edmund Burke; author John Hawkins and Under-Secretary at War Anthony Chamier. The following year, they were joined by Samuel Dyer, who became the first elected member. It was decided to increase the membership to the optimal number of twelve and thus writers George Colman and Thomas Percy, with barrister Robert Chambers, joined the select group. The idea was that should two members meet, they might converse and pass an agreeable evening without the need of further company.

In 1773, the membership was increased to twenty, then to twenty-one by the latter part of 1775. The new members included David Garrick; author and diarist James Boswell; Charles James Fox; Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury; author Edward Gibbon; 1st Earl of Charlemont and economist and philosopher Adam Smith. By March 1777, the number had become twenty-six and in November the following year it increased to thirty; in May 1780, the club boasted thirty-five members and the decision was then taken on a maximum of forty.

In 1783 the landlord of the Turk’s Head died and the club removed to Prince’s in Sackville Street, thence to Baxter’s (later Thomas’) in Dover Street. After a sojourn at Parsloe’s on St. James’s, 1799 found them further along at the Thatched House. The members list recorded by James Boswell in 1791 included Lords Spencer, Palmerston and Charlemont; Charles Fox, Bishop Thomas Percy, Joseph Warton, Edward Gibbon and Joseph Banks.

Many famous names graced the members’ list during the nineteenth century, including Alfred Tennyson, but possibly the most celebrated one to be excluded is Sir Winston Churchill, who was ‘considered too controversial’.

The Savoir Vivre

The Star and Garter Inn on Pall Mall was the base for many societies and clubs in the eighteenth century, including the Jockey Club. The Savoir Vivre Club also began life here in 1772 and was referenced in newspapers and periodicals, including The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine (established in October 1772), which changed its name in April the following year to The Macaroni, Savoir Vivre and Theatrical Magazine, according to Sheppard’s Survey of London.

The club seemingly had a uniform, since the above source quotes a newspaper cutting:

‘These gentlemen have thought fit to decorate themselves with a Uniform of scarlet Cloth, with Velvet Collar and Sleeves of Bleu Celeste’ and also mentions the existence of ‘a print showing a member garbed in this uniform’, giving the date as 12 July 1772.

The club entertained lavishly at the Pantheon, was involved in the fêted masquerade and regatta at Ranelagh Gardens on 23 June 1775 and gave five prizes each year for the best painting, sculpture, engraving, poem and musical composition. This tends to suggest their chief desire was to flaunt their wealth. It was Horace Walpole’s opinion that the club ‘only shone by excess of gaming’ and Thomas, Lord Lyttelton, who led the society, was the ‘wicked Lord Lyttelton’.

Former assistant to Longchamp, ‘who then conducted the Jockey Club at Newmarket’, one Nicholas Kenney was the proprietor of the Savoir Vivre and soon after its conception, he moved the club to a house almost across St. James’s Street from the present Boodle’s Club. Three years later, when the lease expired, he took over the lease of three ‘old and very low houses’ on the other (east) side of St. James’s. These houses were demolished and architect John Crunden was commissioned to build a new clubhouse, which opened in the spring of 1776. It cost ‘£10,000 and upwards.’

A goodly proportion of this amount seems to have been spent on the décor, for Sheppard records it “is said to have been ‘furnished in a style beyond any preceding club: classical pictures, sofas and chairs covered with satin, etc.’” The Savoir Vivre was noted by Horace Walpole in his entry of 22 March 1776 as a new club is opened in St. James's Street, that piques itself on surpassing all its predecessors’, and then, on 5 April, he stated that James Boswell ‘mentioned a new gaming-club, of which Mr. Beauclerk had given me an account, where the members played to a desperate extent. Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, this is mere talk. Who is ruined by gaming…?”’

Who indeed? The son of the owner of ‘a little cheese monger’s shop in Jermyn Street’, the club’s most notorious member, General Richard Smith, apparently committed ‘some atrocious acts that endangered his neck’ and was sent to India, where he ‘amassed prodigious wealth’. He became a Member of Parliament for Hindon in a void election of 1774 and was decreed ‘the deepest of all deep gamesters in London’. He was, according to Walpole, involved in drawing ‘all the young extravagants’ to the ‘magnificent house in St. James’s Street’ where ‘the richest and most wasteful members’ might be ‘furnished in the house with loans of ready money, even as far as forty thousand pounds.’ General Smith was elected to Hindon in 1776 under a cloud of ‘gross instances of Bribery and Corruption’ and was sentenced to six months in prison and fined one thousand marks. Sheppard tells us that Smith was said to be ‘in great poverty’ in 1792, but when he died in 1803, not only was he domiciled in Park Place, he had left ‘a very large fortune’.

While in the words of Richard Miles, Nicholas Kenney’s partner, ‘no club ever did or ever will flourish as this Club did for some years’, the Savoir Vivre’s success was short-lived. Nicholas Kenney fell into debt, possibly through unsuccessful money-lending to members, and mortgaged the lease to General Smith. Brooks’ had become established on the other side of St. James’s and the new Boodle’s Club (then in Pall Mall) was seeking larger premises. Richard Miles wrote that Kenney ‘was induced to offer his house to Mr. Harding who conducted Boodle’s.’ Boodle’s held a club meeting on 14 June 1782 and the motion was passed that ‘Harding do take Mr. Kenney’s house in St. James’s Street for their Use’. Since it was also decided to increase the membership by fifty, it seems likely some members of the Savoir Vivre stayed on with the new club.

Boodle’s has sojourned at 28, St. James’s Street ever since.



A renowned club, Crockford’s is not technically a Regency club, since it was not established until 1827. William Crockford was the son of a fishmonger and started work in his father’s fish shop in the Strand, adjoining Temple Bar. He had a taste for speculation and according to William Biggs Boulton in Amusements of Old London, began his gambling career ‘punting for half crowns at a low gaming house kept by a man named Smith in King’s Place’. He became a ‘table keeper’ with a quarter share in a ‘little hell at No. 5 King Street’ in partnership with three others named Abbot, Houldsworth and Austin. Their practices, it seems, were ‘not above suspicion.’

Crockford then held a French hazard bank at Number 81, Piccadilly – the address, curiously, of the old Watier’s Club, which had seen its demise in 1819. He and his partners are said to have ‘cleared £200,000 in a very short time’. Lord Thanet, Lord Granville, Mr. Ball Hughes and two other gentlemen apparently lost £100,000 to the establishment during one night’s play. False dice, purported to have come from there were exhibited in Bond Street, and accusations of cheating were ‘persistently’ made. If sued – and he must have been – Crockford avoided court action by settling before the hearing.

The Hazard Room at Crockford's, T.J. Rawlins 1837 courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Whilst keeping out of the limelight, he became ‘a sleeping partner in one of the more fashionable of the hells of St. James’s’ and decided to gather the cream of the gaming fraternity together. He commissioned Benjamin Wyatt to build his ‘palace of gentlemanly pleasure’ in 1827, at a cost of £94,000. Edward Walford in Old and New London, Vol. 4 gives this description of the clubhouse:

‘On the ground floor are the entrance-hall and inner-hall opening into a grand suite of rooms of noble proportions; on the principal floor are a suite of very lofty and splendid reception-rooms, gorgeously decorated à la Grand Monarque, approached from a superb staircase, itself an architectural triumph, and a great feature of the building.

Crockford's, later the Devonshire Club, Debonairchap

Rather than gentlemen playing other gentlemen for high stakes, Crockford instituted a ‘Gentlemen versus Players’ system. The players were the staff in charge of the French hazard table, Crockford’s objective being to win his patrons’ money. He operated an exclusive house with a low subscription charge, the only bar to membership being convincing the committee of eligibility. The finest wines and food were offered, the convivial company of the ‘most fashionable of male society’ could be met with in the elegant rooms, putting Crockford’s on a level with White’s and Brooks’. Admittance was made by a committee who conducted the ballots and made entry as difficult as it was to those two august institutions. It became almost a custom, therefore, for non-gambling members to toss a ten pound note on to the playing table at the close of the season in acknowledgement of the low subscription. As William Biggs Boulton puts it:

‘In exchange for the princely accommodation of his house, and such fare as was unobtainable at any other club in London for love or money, Crockford asked for nothing in return but that gentlemen should condescend to take a cast at his table at French hazard.’

The club closed soon after Crockford’s death in 1844, recalled by Thomas Raikes in his Journal without much sorrow:

‘That arch-gambler Crockford is dead, and has left an immense fortune. He was originally a low fishmonger in Fish Street Hill, near the Monument, then a ‘leg’ at Newmarket, and keeper of ‘hells’ in London. He finally set up the club in St. James’s Street, opposite to ‘White’s with a hazard bank, by which he won all the disposable money of the men of fashion in London, which was supposed to be near two millions.’

Many are the stories told about Crockford, most to his discredit. Various large sums are known to have been lost within the club’s palatial surroundings, yet no instances are recorded, states William Biggs Boulton, of substantial winnings. Nevertheless, the noble and great visited 50, St. James’s Street in vast numbers and gleefully donated their wealth and estates to the fishmonger of Temple Bar.

The building became a restaurant, described by Gronow as ‘a sort of refuge for the destitute, a cheap dining-house. How are the mighty fallen; those who remember Crockford’s in all its glory cast, as they pass, a look of unavailing regret at its dingy walls, with many a sigh to the memory of the pleasant days they passed there, and the gay companions and noble gentlemen who have long since gone to their last home.’ After a brief tenure as a military and naval club, from 1874 until 1976 it was home to the Devonshire Club.

Arthur’s and Miles’

This is really the story of Number 69, St. James’s Street, now the home of the Carlton Club, and, ironically, it begins with White’s Chocolate House. When Francis White died, his widow Elizabeth took over the business until her (probable) death in 1729. John Arthur, assistant to Francis White, is then listed as the occupant of the house. He also appears to have occupied Numbers 68 and 70. In 1731 he is recorded as a chocolate licensee and the following year his son Robert is listed as occupying Number 69, along with Francis and Bartholomew White, although it is doubtful they were involved in the business at that time. In 1752, Robert Arthur is reported as White’s sub-tenant. The three houses burned down in 1733 and while rebuilt, with Robert Arthur once more in residence at Number 69, the other two houses were unoccupied by members of the two families until 1755.

Numer 69, home of Arthur's and Miles' Club, later the Carlton Club Debonairchap

In 1755 Robert Arthur bought what are now Numbers 37-38, St. James’s, on the eastern side, from Sir Whistler Webster, and he was the occupant of that house the succeeding year. White’s has been there ever since.

The White family continued at Numbers 68-9 until 1785, when it came into the possession of Richard Miles, Nicholas Kenney’s partner at the Savoir Vivre. Following the closure of that club, Miles took the opportunity afforded by a house ‘of considerable magnitude, originally called White's Chocolate House’ and refurbished it to the tune of two thousand pounds, thence to open ‘a club of the first importance...’ This seemingly flourished for thirty years in his hands.

In his Club Life of London, John Timbs mentions Miles’s in a quote from Pepys.

‘It met in New Palace Yard, “where they take water at one Miles's, the next house to the staires, at one Miles’s, where was made purposely a large ovall table, with a passage in the middle for Miles to deliver his coffee.”’

Richard Miles continued to run the club, which was ‘apparently noted for its high play’ until 1810, one renowned member being William Wilberforce. The story goes that around 1807 heavy gambling became the order of the day at the Union Club (21, St. James’s Square) and many of Miles’ patrons changed their allegiance. With losses of seven or eight thousand pounds annually, he terminated his venture at the close of 1809.

The house at Number 69 was taken over in due course by Arthur’s, founded in 1811 during a meeting held at Number 16, St. James’s Street, the site of a bank. The proposal was for a new club which would have three hundred members. It was the first members’ club, as opposed to proprietary clubs such as White’s, Brooks’ and Boodle’s. Numbers 69 and 70 were rebuilt in 1826-7 and the club remained there until its closure in 1940. The Pall Mall home of the Carlton Club was bombed in 1941, leading to their acquisition of Arthur’s clubhouse. In a strange twist of Fate, from being the domain of a non-political membership, the house then became that of one of the main parties.

All pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons

© Heather King