Anne here, musing today on the question of clubs. Gentlemen's clubs, for the most part, though not exclusively. It's one of the side alleys one gets lured down when writing a historical; your hero is meeting his friends for dinner at his club, and before you know it you're wondering, yes, but which club? And you trawl through the various historical sources and the possibilities. Mostly what I do is write something like "He walked into the XXXX club and…" and later fill in the XXXX.
But inevitably, at some stage you have to return to that part of the manuscript and and decide which club. Will I use a real historical club, or shall I make one up to suit my purpose?
There are plenty of precedents in literature for making it up. P.G. Wodehouse invented the Drones Club, where Bertie Wooster popped in to avoid Aunts and other undesirables, and the Junior Ganymede Club which was for gentlemen's gentlemen (valets). Dorothy Sayers invented the Egotists Club, and Arthur Conan Doyle created several fictitious clubs in his Sherlock Holmes' stories, most famously the Diogenes Club. There are many more.
And then there are the actual historical clubs, the three most famous in Regency times being Whites (established in 1693), Brooks's (1764), and Boodles (1762). There was also Watiers, which was started by the Prince Regent and named for his chef, who ran it, and the Cocoa Tree Club, (whose chocolate house origin is obvious) and many others.
White's at 37-38 St. James St. began as a chocolate house owned by an Italian named Francesco Bianco who Anglicized his name to Francis White. Whites became famous for its bow window, built in 1811, where Brummel and his cronies sat and ogled any pretty female who wandered by. I say 'females' because no proper young lady would dream of walking down St. James's St.
Whites' was so exclusive that it was claimed that when an heir to a great family was born, the child's name was put down for membership at Whites before his birth was even was registered. Its members have included Beau Brummel and Baron Alvanley, Horace Walpole Edward VII, Evelyn Waugh, David Niven and the current Prince of Wales.
Brooks's at 60 St. James St, was founded in 1764 by 27 rich young men, four of them dukes. They were young, rich, outrageous and wild, and the club soon became known for wildness and high stakes gambling. It was also the most political of the clubs, and to this day the members of Brooks's are a force in the land.
Brook's was originally kept by a man called Almack (yes, that Almack — some sources claim he was actually named William Macall but reversed the syllables of his unfashionably Scottish name to become Almack) but it was taken over by his former employee, Brooks, whose name it still bears, when Almack established the famous Assembly Rooms — which you should note, also encouraged gambling, this time for both genders. [Above: The interior of a gaming room at Brooks's, Rowlandson and Pugin, 1808.]
Boodles, at 28 St. James St, was, by contrast, the club with a reputation for attracting country squires and the "fox hunting set".
In practice many gentlemen would be members of a number of clubs, and it was not simply for gambling that men gathered there. A man's club was a home away from home, a place where he could escape his wife, his mistress, and his creditors, where he could while away the evening in convivial company, and get a good plain dinner and a comfortable bed for the night.
Many of the early clubs began life as coffee and chocolate-drinking houses in the 17th century, over time becoming meeting places for people of similar political persuasion, and at various times were regarded as hotbed of political sedition; indeed the Cocoa Tree was once considered the headquarters of the Jacobite Party.
What most clubs had in common was gambling, which was illegal outside of members-only establishments. Chocolate and coffee houses were open to anyone with the money to pay, and since young gentlemen with fat purses attracted men eager to relieve them off their fortunes— by fair means or foul— clubs, with exclusive entry criteria, were seen as a solution. So while aristocratic parents might deplore their sons' gambling, they comforted themselves with the reflection that in establishments like 'gentlemen's clubs' they could be sure the play was fair (the gentlemanly code of honor ensured that,) so that if their sons were to be fleeced, it would be by a gentleman, at least.
It was more than that, of course. The private 'code of conduct' ensured that the club was a place where men could discuss business in private, and off the record.'Many a political and business deal has been brokered over a long dinner at the club, and the practice still continues today.
Exclusivity always brings a certain cachet to any establishment, and at a time when men with 'new money' were trying to push their way into the upper classes, the clubs had a quietly elegant and ruthless way of keeping newcomers out. Members had to be elected – a man would be proposed for membership by one or more members, then each member would vote in a secret ballot by dropping a white ball or a black ball into a receptacle. All it took was one black ball for a man to be denied membership — the origin of the term "to be black-balled." The Garrick Club justified it thus: "it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted."
The response to this was the proliferation of clubs that developed during the Victorian era, but as always, the most exclusive clubs remained the most desirable, and the inner workings of the most exclusive clubs remains secret.
The notion of exclusive gentlemen's clubs spread across the Atlantic and also downunder. In my home city, we have The Melbourne Club, established in 1839. It's long been considered the headquarters of the conservative establishment and its influence reaches Australia wide. The US has its own similar clubs; the Knickerbocker Club, of New York, founded in 1871, the Pacific-Union Club in San Francisco, the California Club in Los Angeles, Union Club and the Somerset Club in Boston.
In the early years of the 20th century women's clubs were established and many still exist today. I visited one in Melbourne once, the Lyceum Club, which was established in Melbourne in 1912, though there are Lyceum clubs in many parts of the world. Membership is restricted to women graduates and other women who have distinguished themselves in art, music, literature, philanthropy or public service. I had a wonderful dinner in the restaurant there with two members, and was charmed and impressed by the library, which has a whole section devoted to books written by its members — some of the great female writers of the past century. There was something wonderfully personal about it, and the visit made me understand the appeal of a club — it's much homier than a hotel.
But I've gone off track, as is usual with me, when I get caught up in research. I need a club for my "devil riders" (Rafe, Luke, Harry and Gabe) to meet in. I don't want it to be one of the main clubs — I'm thinking of a place where young men would go, not to be fashionable, or to gamble excessively, nor to relive old soldier stories — I imagine they'd avoid that like the plague — but somewhere to stay when in London, a home away from home, a masculine retreat.
So I'm asking for help — any suggestions for a club for my guys to meet in? Should it be real or fictional? If fictional I want a name and a thumbnail sketch of what it's like. No prizes, but if your name takes my fancy I'll use it in my book and credit you with it.
Otherwise, are you a member of any club? A tennis club, a book club — it doesn't matter. What is your club and why do you like being a member of it?