This is the first in a series of postings about 19th century London Club-houses, popularly known today as a Gentleman’s Club. John Weale (this posting is an excerpt from his book) describes how the ‘clubs’ have changed over the last 30 years (between about 1820 and 1850).
London Club-houses of the 1800s
“The feast of reason and the flow of soul”
As at present constituted, the London clubs and club life have produced a new phase in English society, at least in the metropolis one that will claim the notice of some future Macaulay, as showing the very “form and pressure of the time;” while to the more patient chronicler of anecdotes, club-house traditions and reminiscences will afford materials all the more interesting, perhaps, for not being encumbered with the dignity of formal history. Our task is merely to touch upon and attempt a slight characteristic outline of them; not to trace the history of clubs to their origin in the heroic ages of Greece. We shall not go back even to the clubs of the last century, except just to indicate cursorily some of the special differences between them and those of the present day.
Until about thirty years ago a club was seldom more than a mere knot of acquaintances who met together of an evening, at stated times, in a room engaged for that purpose at some tavern, and some of them held their meetings at considerable intervals apart. Most of them were anything but fashionable some of them upon a footing not at all higher than that of a club of mechanics. Among the regulations of the Essex Street Club, for instance (instituted by Dr. Johnson shortly before his death, and which was limited to twenty-four members), one was, that each person should spend not less than sixpence; another, that each absentee should forfeit threepence, and each of the company was to contribute a penny as a douceur to the waiter!
At that period the chief object of such associations was relaxation after the business of the day, and the enjoyment of a social evening in a homely way in what would now be called a snug party. The celebrated “Literary Club,” which was founded by Reynolds in , and whose meetings were held once a week at the Turk’s Head, in Gerrard Street, Soho, now a very unfashionable locality, consisted at first of only nine members, which number was, however, gradually increased to the large number of thirty-five; yet, limited as it was, it would not be easy even now to bring together as large a number of equally distinguished characters. That club dined together once a fortnight, on which occasions “the feast of reason and the flow of soul” were, no doubt, enjoyed in perfection.
In most clubs of that period, on the contrary, the flow of wine, or other liquor, was far more abundant than that of mind, and the conversation was generally more easy and hilarious than intellectual or refined. The bottle, or else the punch-bowl, played too prominent a part; and sociality too frequently partook of bacchanalian festivity, if not revelry, at least, of what would now be considered such according to our more temperate habits; and it deserves to be remarked that, though in general the elder clubs encouraged compotation and habits of free indulgence as indispensable to goodfellowship and sociality, the modern clubs, on the contrary, have done much to discourage them as low and ungentlemanly. “Reeling home from a club” used to be formerly a common expression; whereas now inebriety, or the symptom of it, in a club-house, would bring down disgrace upon him who should be guilty of such an indiscretion.
The old clubs have passed away, for though some of them, or similar societies, may still exist, it is behind the scenes, instead of figuring conspicuously upon the stage. Quite a new order of things has come up, the clubs of the present time being upon quite a different footing, and also, comparatively, gigantic in scale. From small social meetings held periodically, they have become permanent establishments, luxurious in all their appointments; and of some of them the locales are quite palatial. No longer limited to a few acquaintances familiarly known to each other, they count their members by hundreds, and, sleeping accommodation excepted, provide for them abundantly all the agrimens of an aristocratic home and admirably-regulated menage, without any of the trouble inseparable from a private household, unless it be one whose management is, as in a club-house, confided to responsible superintendents.
Excerpt from London Exhibited in 1852 – by John Weale – published in 1852
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