Gentlemens Clubs -
|Of all the modern schemes of Man
That time has brought to bear,
A plague upon the wicked plan
That parts the wedded pair!
My female friends they all agree
They hardly know their hubs;
And heart and voice unite with me,
We hate the name of Clubs!
One selfish course the Wretches keep;
They come at morning chimes;
To snatch a few short hours of sleep-
Rise breakfast read The Times -
Then take their hats, and post away,
Like Clerks or City scrubs,
And no one sees them all the day, -
They live, eat, drink, at Clubs!...
The words at right appeared in the Comic Annual, under the title Clubs Turned Up by a Female Hand, a satirical comment on the widely held belief that a man of means during the Regency divided his time between his wife, his mistress and his club, and often spent most of it in the latter. The role of club-widow was an accepted fact of married life, however much the wives may have disliked it. Another point of view, however, was that clubs were an excellent institution inasmuch as they acted as buffers in marriage: if the couple were having a row it was better for the husband to take his bad temper out on his friends at the club than his wife and children at home. (Murray,157-158)
It seems little has changed in more than 200 years.
The Gentlemen with whom we are acquainted through our favourite authoress, of course did not fit this description, they were more than content to reside in the country. Having endured such agonies in pursuit of connubial bliss, would they have jeopardised their happiness by taking a mistress? I think not. However their membership of one or more Clubs would have been seen as normal and their attendance whenever they were in London an accepted part of life.
The role of the clubs was of course much more than that of a haven for gentlemen to escape to. As today they were places where men could meet and talk off the record, where it is said many a career was made, many a cabinet decided over a lengthy dinner. They were places where those with similar interests could meet, where ambitious young politicians could make the acquaintance of the party leaders, artists could meet patrons and poets publishers. On a less elevated level the aspiring dandy could feast his eyes on the accredited beau, sportsmen could gamble, gluttons indulge and gossips chatter. (Murray,158)
During the Regency, the three clubs that epitomised the grace and elegance of the period were Whites, Brooks and Boodles and the common denominator between them and all other clubs was gambling, the passion which had dominated high society in London from the reign of Queen Anne to that of Queen Victoria. These clubs had their origins in the chocolate and coffee houses of the 17th and early 18th century. Whites was the offspring of a chocolate house of the same name which flourished at the end of the 17th century. The Cocoa-Tree Club, of which Byron was a member, was originally a Tory chocolate house, famous for once having been the headquarters of the Jacobite Party. .(Murray,163)
Because these houses were open to the public it became evident to the Gentlemen of the day that the risk associated in gambling with strangers was becoming unacceptable and moreover could prove most embarrassing as the following report shows:
Even highwaymen of the more presentable type were constantly to be met at the Chocolate House; judges there were liable to meet the man whom they might afterwards have to sentence in the dock: it was no uncommon thing... to recognise a body swinging in chains on a heath outside London as a man with whom you had called a main at hazard a few weeks before at Whites or at the Cocoa-Tree (Murray,163).
From these concerns arose the concept of private houses or clubs.
The clubs were similar in style, although each tried to retain its own distinctive flavour and each was governed by their own rules of conduct and honour. The facilities they offered their members were predicated on comfort and privacy. The buildings were furnished like grand private houses, with thick carpets, marble fireplaces, rich upholstery, beautiful looking glassware and extremely comfortable chairs. (Murray,161)
These establishments were obviously the envy of not only the locals but of visitors from the continent as this quotation attributed to Prince Puckler-Muskau illustrates.
In the first place, the foreigner must admire the refinement of comfort which the Englishman brings to the art of sitting; I must confess that anyone who does not fully understand that work of genius, the English chair, designed for every grade of fatigue, illness and peculiarity of constitution, has truly missed a great part of earthly life. It is indeed a real pleasure just to see an Englishman sit, or rather lie, in one of those bedlike chairs by the fireplace, an arrangement like a writing desk placed on the chair arm and furnished with a light, so that with slightest pressure he can push it nearer or further away, right or left, as he wishes. Moreover a curious device, of which several stand around the great fireplace, holds up one or both of his feet, and the hat on his head completes the charming picture. (Murray,161)
Whites was seen as the smartest and most exclusive of the three great clubs of the Regency with Walpole having declared that when an heir was born to a great house, the butler was sent to Whites to put his name down in the candidates book before he went on to record the childs birth at the registry office (Murray,162)
The other side of the coin however was that Whites was the bane of the English nobility because of the fortunes lost at play, and Lord Lyttleton wrote of his dread that the rattling of a dice box at Whites may one day or other (if my son should be a member of that noble academy) shake down all our fine oaks. It is dreadful to see, not only there, but almost in every house in town, what devastations are made by that destructive fury, the spirit of play (Murray,162)
Brooks was the most openly political of clubs and was founded in 1778 by one of the ex-managers of Almacks, a man named William Brooks. The original 27 members of Brooks were all macaronis, young dandies who specialized in outrageous dressing and enormous wigs. The average age of the founder members was 25; they were all rich, smart and extravagant, so it is hardly surprising that the club acquired a reputation for wild behaviour and sensational gambling. At the same time, these young men were, for the most part, scions of the great Whig families, and as such had been indoctrinated with politics and the concept of liberalism from the earliest age. Thus, with its reputation as a gambling hell, Brooks soon became known as a breeding ground for Whig politicians and, within a few years, as the ex-officio headquarters of the party. It was the stamping ground of Charles James Fox, elected at the age of 16, and other like-minded advocates of reform. Membership of Brooks, however was by no means confined to politicians: other celebrities included Edmund Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon, Richard Sheridan, William Wilberforce and the Prince of Wales, who joined so that he could talk to Fox in comfort and privacy (and enlist Foxs support in Parliament). Sheridan, incidentally, was proposed three times for membership of Brooks and blackballed on each occasion by George Selwyn, because his father had been on the stage. In the end Sheridan did get in.
Boodles was the domain of the country squires and the fox hunting set (Murray,162)
At the end of the 18th century the most popular games were hazard and faro, which were played against the bank. Hazard was a game of pure chance, in which the players threw dice against a particular number between five and nine, which was chosen by the caster. It could be played by any number of people, who took it in turn to call the main. Since the odds were well known, it was a game of pure chance, similar to the modern American game of craps. Faro was a variation on the theme of roulette, but eventually fell into disrepute because it was so easy for the bank to cheat, and was succeeded by a craze for macao, another game involving several players. At the same time too, there was always plenty of single combat going on in the clubs, members chancing huge sums of money on a hand of piquet or a round of backgammon. Whist was popular as well, but regarded, as comparatively harmless, even though it was possible to raise the stakes to dangerously high levels.(Murray,165)
There were innumerable instances of huge sums being lost and won at all of these clubs during the latter part of the 18th century. For those whose losses could not be covered by family or friends, complete ruin left but two alternatives either to flee to the Continent in disgrace or take such action as described by Knyveton.
January 1st 1787:Summoned early this morning to the house of a lady of rank, whom I was to attend in her second pregnancy. Her pains had come on in the early hours, and the midwife was sent for. About an hour later the ladys husband returned home in company with her brother; both were intoxicated, and the husband particularly had plunged very heavily at the Cocoa Tree, losing, it is said, upwards of £11,000 at the faro tables between eight and one oclock; and so rose and came home, where making an excuse to his brother-in-law stepped aside into the library and blew out his brains.
The poor lady hearing the shot and feet running up and down, asked what had occurred. to which the midwife very sensibly replied that the butler had accidentally fired off a pistol. A little later however the ladys brother burst into her bedroom, and foolishly acquainted her of the tragedy; whereupon she uttered a loud shriek and fell back insensible. It was in vain I was summoned. The lady was quite dead when I arrived. and there is no doubt the sudden shock of the terrible news thus rudely broken to her was responsible. Ladies at such times are always in a highly emotional state, but it is sad to reflect that this vice of heavy gambling has at a stroke claimed three victims. (Brander,184)
Although the 19th century brought a lessening of the high stakes previously played for, gambling continued to cause havoc amongst the leaders of the Regency. The betting book at Whites shows that Lord Alvanley bet a certain Mr Talbot a hundred guineas to ten guineas that a certain person understood between them does not marry a certain lady understood between them in eighteen months from this day. January5, 1811. There is a postscript to the effect that Talbot paid. (Murray,158)
Probably the most significant club was The Royal Society which had its foundation in 1662. During the Regency it became the meeting place for all the most distinguished scientists, engineers, astronomers, explorers and botanists of their day from Cook to Stephenson. The Royal Society, however, was not solely confined to scientific celebrities, soldiers, sailors, bishops, poets, musicians, writers and artists were all welcome. Gibbon, Reynolds, Benjamin Franklin, Boswell, Wedgwood, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Turner and Watt were all either regular guests or actual members in their time. (Murray,168)
In the context of Janes novels, it is interesting to consider to which clubs her characters would belong and what their main interests in attending would be. None of her male characters were completely ruined by excessive gambling, although several of them came very close to such an end. I leave it to members ingenuity to decide.
Murray Venetia, High Society A Social History of the Regency Period, 1788 1830, Viking Books. London. 1998
Brander Michael, The Georgian Gentleman, Saxon House Ltd. Farnborough, Hants. England.1973
01 August 2004