Wed
Nov 15 2017 9:30am

A Virtual Tour of Regency England: Clubbing in London

When novelist Georgette Heyer created the first Regency Romance with 1935’s Regency Buck (discuss!), she began a tradition of both namechecking and fictionalizing, for dramatic or comedic effect, real locations, events and personages of the time that persists in the genre today. True, other historical literary endeavours certainly employ the technique, but one could argue that Regency Romance is its most sincere proponent, for what even is a Regency without the Elgin Marbles visits, the illicit Rotten Row gallops, the Vauxhall masquerades, the Gentleman Jacksons, Mrs. Siddonses and Beau Brummells that we have lovingly come to expect?

But what are these places, these events and these people that are so crucial to a well-told tale of aristocratic historical love (and/or lust, depending on one’s tastes) between the years of 1811 and 1820? And, most importantly, do there remain remnants of any of these worthies for the intrepid Regency fan to explore?

The answer: Yes!

Let us begin in London, out and about among the Upper Ten Thousand…

ALMACK’S

Address: 28 King St, St James.

Getting there: Green Park and Piccadilly Circus underground stations are only a short walk away; many of London’s iconic double-decker buses pass close by as well.

History: More properly known as Almack’s Assembly Rooms, this prestigious venue hosted the very crème de la crème of Society at weekly balls throughout the Season. Founded by businessman William Almack (whose real name was very possibly Macall), Almack’s began life in 1765 as a high-class gaming house to which women were somewhat scandalously admitted, but by the Regency period had taken on the mantle of an exclusive social club to which admittance was essential for anyone aspiring to the ton. Presided over by its fastidious guardians, the aristocratic “patronesses” in whom resided the power of selection, members found worthy were grudgingly granted permission to pay the princely sum of ten guineas – over US$800 in today’s money – for a “voucher,” a season-long pass, which could be withdrawn at any time at the whim of any one of the club’s stringent arbiters.

Heyer History: When the prissy Miss Wraxton realises that the outlandish Miss Sophia Stanton-Lacey of The Grand Sophy not only knows but is beloved by several of Almack’s patronesses, she is most put out; when the eponymous, impecunious heroine of Arabella receives a voucher to Almack’s, it is a magical dream come true. Indeed, rare is the London-set Regency that doesn’t pay a visit to Almack’s, idly commenting on the plainness of its décor and the studied stinginess of its snack table. (Thinly sliced bread and butter, pound cake, tea and lemonade were the norm.) Much of what we know – or think we know – about Almack’s comes directly from the works of Georgette Heyer, especially the historically controversial “rule” that a young lady needed permission from a patroness before embarking on her first waltz within its walls (or even in Society at large, depending on the interpretation).

Today: The building that housed Almack’s was first damaged in 1941 during a World War II air raid, and then completely destroyed in 1944. The site is currently home to an office building called Almack House, housing the likes of mining companies, investment firms and international consultants, continuing the tradition of exclusivity.

WHITE’S

Address: 37 St. James’s St., St James.

Getting there: The closest Underground station is Green Park, about a five-minute walk.

History: First opened as a luxurious chocolate house in Curzon St in 1693, by the Regency period White’s had become London’s preeminent gentlemen’s club, mostly associated with gaming. Moving to its St. James St location in 1778, White’s is famous for its betting book which, as Dr. Matthew Green writes in the UK’s Telegraph, “… reads like a litany of morbid and bizarre predictions: ‘Mr. Howard bets Colonel Cooke six guineas that six members of White’s Club die between this day of July 1818 and this day of 1819’, reads one typical entry (Colonel Cooke won). Elsewhere there are bets on which celebrities will outlive others; the length of pregnancies; the outcomes of battles; the madness of George III; the future price of stock; and whether a politician will turn up to the Commons in a red gown or not.”

Heyer History: It was in the morning room at White’s that young Freddy Standen told his amused father, Lord Legerwood, all about the “take-in” that is the British Museum in Cotillion, and even as Lord Ravenscar is plotting to save his young cousin from marriage with the unsuitable – but strangely attractive – Deborah Grantham in Faro’s Daughter, he learns that his forthcoming carriage race is heating up that infamous betting book.

Today: White’s still exists as a gentlemen’s club with a membership limited to five hundred and a waiting list at least a decade long. The only woman ever to have entered its hallowed halls is Queen Elizabeth II, back in 1991 and again in 2016 (though women have worked there in various capacities over the years). Prince Charles is a member, and Prince William was forcibly enrolled shortly after his birth; former British Prime Minister David Cameron, a conservative, resigned his membership in 2008 over the club’s refusal to admit women.

Other Gentlemen’s Clubs:

  • Brooks’s, established in 1764 and originally known as Almack’s – as it was housed in a building owned by William Almack (née Macall?) – moved to its current home at 60 St. James’s St. in 1778, when it was renamed. It is still men only.
  • Boodle’s, established in 1762 and born out of the same rejection from White’s that led to the foundation of Brooks’s, it has been located at 28 St. James’s St. since 1782. It is famously the site of Beau Brummell’s last bet before he fled to the Continent to escape his debts. It is still men only.
  • Watier’s, established by the Prince Regent in 1809, was a club set up to showcase the talents of his favorite chef, Jean-Baptiste Watier. It was located at 81 Piccadilly and closed down in 1821. The building still stands and is home to offices and an outlet of sandwich chain Pret a Manger. One can only be glad Watier didn’t live to see it.
  • The Cocoa-Tree, established as a club in 1742 and known to be a hotbed of pro-Stuart sentiment, was also a hotbed of gaming in the Georgian and Regency periods, with hundreds of thousands of pounds lost and won over the course of any given month. The site in Pall Mall was rebuilt in 1882 and now houses an insurance company.
  • The Daffy Club met weekly in the Castle Tavern in Holborn, there to discuss all things boxing and drink the low-class tipple popularly known as Blue Ruin (gin). The Daffy Club no longer remains, but there is a Castle Tavern on the same site at 26 Funival St, Holborn, though the original 1541 building has been rebuilt, most recently in 1901.

THE FOUR HORSE CLUB

Address: Cavendish Square, Marylebone; Salt Hill Park, Slough.

Getting there: Cavendish Square is about a five-minute walk from Oxford Circus station, or take any bus that runs down busy Oxford St.; Salt Hill Park is about a fifteen-minute walk from Slough station, which is around ten minutes by train from Paddington, in London’s north.

History: While coaches-and-four became more common throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, these were usually driven by highly experienced commoners in the employ of various mail delivery services. It was in the early 1800s that the pastime became an attractive challenge to the nobility and gentry, and in 1807 the Bensington Driving Club was formed. But with its membership limited to only twenty-five, 1808 saw the establishment of the rival Four Horse Club which, while it disbanded in 1826—a full quarter century before the BDC—has nevertheless become the hallmark of Corinthian excellence in Regency fiction, thanks in large part to Georgette Heyer. Also known (perhaps erroneously) as the Four-in-Hand Club, the Barouche Club and the Whip Club, this exclusive gathering was open to gentlemen with a yen to take to the open road while also following some very strict rules governing everything from the speed at which they were to drive to their outfit while doing so. To wit, as reported by the Duke of Beaufort in his thrilling 1889 tome Driving (with contributions by other authorities), the uniform “… consisted of a drab coat reaching to the ankles, with three tiers of pockets, and mother-o’-pearl buttons as large as five-shilling pieces; the waistcoat was blue, with yellow stripes an inch wide; breeches of plush, with strings and rosettes to each knee; and it was de rigueur that the hat should be 3 1/2 inches deep in the crown.” Stylish.

Heyer History: Any Heyer hero described as a “noted whip” must surely be a member of the FHC – eg. Sir Waldo Hawkridge of The Nonesuch and the infuriating Lord Worth of Regency Buck – and their spiritual heirs throughout the genre assuredly are, too. Given that by even the most generous estimates, membership in the club never exceeded forty gentlemen, it is a wonder indeed that we have met so many who have claimed the right to wear that distinctive waistcoat.

Today: While no longer in existence, a pilgrimage can be undertaken to follow in the foot (and hoof) steps of the club. The traditional, bi-monthly route was to travel from Cavendish Square – home of Charles Buxton, founder of the club – to Salt Hill via the Bath Road. The distance of 24 miles would take the club the better part of a day, encompassing rest stops for luncheon and afternoon tea. According to Google Maps, the same journey would now take around an hour, depending on traffic. The club would usually dine at a coaching inn called the Windmill after their arduous journey, which sadly no longer stands. (The Windmill also variously played host to The Duke of Wellington, the Prince Regent, the King of Prussia and Percy and Mary Shelley; it was destroyed by fire in 1882.)


H&H Editor Picks:

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Rachel Hyland is Editor-in-Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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