Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Almack's, Brooks's and Whites's

In the late eighteenth century, gentleman's clubs came into their own as the primary social oulet for men of fashion, supplanting the coffee houses and chocolate houses of former years. Their membership was at this time, fairly exclusive as many of the clubs specalised in 'high play' - the wagering of significant sums of money. Indeed, Horace Walpole's description of the prominent Whig Charles James Fox losing a seemingly inordinate amount of money in a single sitting does not seem to be an unusual occurrence at this time:
He had sat up...playing hazard [a gambling game played with dice] at Almack's, from Tuesday evening 4th till five in the afternoon of Wednesday 5th. An hour before he had recovered £12,000 [approximately £720,000 pounds today] that he had lost and by dinner, which was five o'clock, he had ended by loosing £11,000 £660,000 today].
Indeed, Walpole himself notes that:
In less than two hours, the Duke of Cumberland lost four hundred and fifty pounds at Loo [a card game] Miss Pelham won three hundred and I, the rest. On another occasion, I lost fifty-six guineas before I could say Ave Maria.
Within their confines gossip was exchanged, heated debate of a political nature took place and men, like Charles Fox, gambled themselves into near-ruinous debt.

Exterior of Whites's Club
The first of these clubs to gain prominence was Whites's which originally took over the site of Whites's Chocolate House in Chesterfield Street. In 1778, it moved to St Jame's Street which simultanously became the premier street for the gentleman's clubs. Horace Walpole records how:
The [citizens of London] trudge[d] to St James's Street in expectation of seeing judgements executed on Whites's angels with flaming swords and devils flying away with dice-boxes.
Almack's Club began as a rival to White's on the opposite side of the St James Street. It's name derives from a reversal of it's founder's name, Macall. It was among the first of its kind to admit both men and women, indeed, it was once described as a 'female Brooks's' and it was presided over by a prestigous committee of six or seven influential ladies who constituted its governing body - the Lady Patronesses. These women determined who was admitted into the club and were scrupulous in their judgement to say the least - The Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, was at one time barred from entering for committing the gross satorial crime of wearing trousers in place of the customary stockings and breeches.

The Assembly Room at Almacks's
The third club I will introduce today is Brooks's, which was launched in 1778 on St James Street as a rival to Almacks's and became the spiritual home of the Foxite Whigs (that is, the followers of Charles James Fox). Brooks was a wine merchant -
whose speculative skill
In hasty credit and distant bill,
...nursed in clubs, disdain[ed] a vulgar trade,
Exult[ed] to trust, and blush[ed] to be paid
More simply, George Selwyn (a man who incidentally spent a record 44 years in the House of Commons without making a speech) described him as "the completest composition of knave and fool that ever was, to which I may add liar." Unsuprisingly, Selwyn "relinquished nasty Brooks's" in favour of Whites's across the road, which he described in a manner that suggests it become more conservative after the establishment of its competitors - for Selwyn maintains that Whites's had, at this time, 'no more than 300 members', little gambling beyond 'the occasional trente-quarante for a few guineas' and afforded 'very little amusement'. But still, it was better than Brooks's which he deemed 'a precipice of perdition.'

Gaming Room at Brooks's

Gentleman's clubs is subject on which I have much to say and thus, this post will be no means be the last resource I post on them, but I thought it best to begin with a brief introduction.

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