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.”—
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.
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 remainder of this article may be read at A Regency Reticule