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.
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.
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(C) Heather King
Pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons