I’ll Be at My Club – Gentlemen’s Clubs in Georgian England and America
Updated: Feb 26
The most natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself, is that of combining his [energy, ideas and dreams] with those of his fellow creatures and of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty.... Nevertheless, if the liberty of association is only a source of advantage and prosperity to some nations, it may be perverted or carried to excess by others, and from an element of life may be changed into a cause of destruction. -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The right to freedom of association has been a hallmark of equality. Nonetheless, a conflict exists in the context of private clubs between individuals working toward open membership and access, and groups looking to limit membership and access to selected individuals. This desire for exclusivity dates to the earliest of human civilizations and continues to the present. Membership in private clubs (city or country) has often been associated with being able to make the personal and business connections to ensure success in life. At the same time, it is often used by those with wealth and position to keep others from entering their social and business circles.
GENTLEMEN'S CLUBS IN ENGLAND
A traditional gentlemen’s club was a private social club originally set up by and for British upper-class men in the 18th century and popularized by English upper middle-class men and women in the 19th century and early 20th century.
The clubs were, in effect, "second homes" in the center of London where men could relax, mix with their friends, play parlor games, get a meal, and in some clubs stay overnight. Expatriates, when staying in England, could use their clubs, such as the Oriental Club, as a base. They were a convenient retreat for men who wished to get away from female relations, "in keeping with the separate spheres ideology according to which the man dealt with the public world, whereas women's domain was the home." Many men spent much of their lives at their club, and it was common for young, newly graduated men who had moved to London for the first time to live at their club for two or three years before they could afford to rent a house or flat.
These Clubs allowed upper and upper-middle-class men with modest incomes to spend their time in grand surroundings. The richer clubs were built by the same architects as the finest country houses of the time and had similar types of interiors. A gentleman's club typically contained a formal dining room, a bar, a library, a billiards room and one or more parlors for reading, gaming, or socializing.
Designed for communication, these clubs helped the sharing of information and the development of relationships between men of similar social standing. These bonds helped confirm a man's identity, both in his community and within society at large. The confidential information that might be shared at a man’s Club was often useful as a tool to climb the social ladder and establish oneself in the commercial world.
The times and places a man told stories, gossiped, and shared information showed a man's awareness of proper behavior as well as his discretion. There were rules that governed gossip in the clubs covering the privacy and secrecy of members and clubs regulated this form of communication so that it occurred in the most acceptable manner.
Clubs took over some parts of the role occupied by coffee houses in 18th-century London and reached the height of their influence in the late 19th century. The first clubs, such as White's, Brooks's and Boodle's, were aristocratic in flavor, and provided an environment for gambling, which was illegal outside of members-only establishments.
In the Georgian Era, most gentlemen had only one club, which closely corresponded with the trade or social / political identity he felt most defined him. There were, however, a few people who belonged to several.
When a club accepted a member, it was known as an “election”. If a gentleman had been a member for 3 years, others would say “three years after his election into so and so”. All exclusive gentlemen's clubs in London used a similar method of voting for proposed new members.
The method of carrying out such an election is as follows. A large supply of black and white balls is supplied for voters. Each voter casts a single ball into the ballot box under cover of the box, or a combination of a cloth and the box. This allows observers to see who votes but not how they are voting. The number of votes in support is irrelevant, except to prove a quorum existed for the vote.
When all voting is complete, the box is opened, and the balls displayed. All present can see the result at once, however, they have no way of knowing which members objected. While the actual number of black balls needed to disqualify one for membership varied, at the most exclusive Clubs, a single black ball could be enough to deny membership. This is the origin of the expression “blackballing someone.”
The principle of such election rules in a club is that the method helps to preserve the current ethos (and exclusivity) of the club, by ensuring that candidates are agreeable to (almost) all the existing members. It also preserves the anonymity of those voting against a candidate. Since a difference of opinions could be divisive, and lead to quarrels or even a duel between members, the method of election must be secret as well as correct.
Rules in larger clubs were often designed to ensure that a single member could not exercise a veto to the detriment of the future of the club. Examples of these rules include: two black balls required to exclude; a limited category or committee of members vote, rather than all members; in the event of a blackball, the election may be repeated immediately to ensure that there is no mistake, or after a fixed period, to allow further information or opinions to be discussed discreetly.
Let’s take a quick look at a few of the most exclusive London Clubs in the Georgian Era.
White's, founded in 1693, is the oldest gentleman's club in London and considered the most exclusive private club in the world. The club was originally established at 4 Chesterfield Street, off Curzon Street in Mayfair, in 1693 by an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bianco as a hot chocolate emporium under the name Mrs. White's Chocolate House. Tickets were sold to the productions at King's Theatre and Royal Drury Lane Theatre as a side-business.
White's quickly made the transition from teashop to exclusive club and in the early 18th century, it was notorious as a gambling house; those who frequented it were known as "the gamesters of White's." The club gained a reputation for both its exclusivity and the often-raffish behavior of its members. Jonathan Swift referred to White's as the "bane of half the English nobility." In 1778 it moved to 37–38 St James's Street. From 1783 onward, it was the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party.
The architecture at the new address featured a bow window on the ground floor. In the later 18th century, the table directly in front of it became a seat of distinction, the throne of the most socially influential men in the club. This belonged to the arbiter elegantiarum, Beau Brummell, until he removed to the Continent in 1816. Lord Alvanley took the place of honor. It was here that, according to legend, Alvanley bet a friend £3,000 as to which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of a pane of the bow window. It is not recorded whether he won his bet. Lord Alvanley's was not the most eccentric bet in White's famous betting book. Some of those entries were on sports, but more often on political developments, especially during the chaotic years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, a good many were social bets, such as whether a friend would marry this year, or whom.
Later, after Lord Alvanley lost his fortune and he resigned his membership at White’s, the spot was reserved for the use of Arthur Wellesley the 1st Duke of Wellington until his death in 1852.
Brooks’s and Boodle’s
In January 1762, Messrs. Boothby and James, having been blackballed for membership at White's, set up a private society located at 50 Pall Mall, the location of William Almack’s Tavern. Two years later, a club, was founded by twenty-seven prominent Whig nobles including the Duke of Portland, the Duke of Roxburghe, Lord Crewe and Lord Strathmore. Charles James Fox was elected as a member the following year at the age of sixteen. Many of the Club’s younger members, fashionable young men, known as Macaronis, would frequent the premises for the purposes of wining, dining, and gambling.
Eighty-eight gentlemen, none of whom appears to have been a member of White's, paid subscriptions for 1762, and thirteen managers for the period February 1763 to February 1764 appointed.
In March 1764, the club appears to have divided itself into two separate societies. The reason for this is not known, but it may have related to members' differing political affiliations. One of the two successor societies moved to No. 49, Almack's tavern, and converted it into a clubhouse; this club would go on to become Brooks's. The other successor society remained at No. 50: this was the club that would become Boodle's.
In September 1777 William Brooks, a wine merchant and money lender who acted as Master, or manager, for Almack's, commissioned Architect Henry Holland to design and construct a purpose-built clubhouse at a site on neighboring St James's Street. This building, paid for at Brooks' own expense, opened in October 1778 with all existing members of Almack's invited to join. Brooks' gamble paid off as all existing members swiftly moved into the new building and the club then took on Brooks' name as its own.
The main attraction of Brooks's was its gambling rooms. Gambling all night was common, and all day and all night, not unheard of. Charles Fox once gambled without a break from 8 o’clock in the evening until 3 o’clock the following afternoon; then, with his wits unimpaired by a lack of sleep, he delivered a long speech in the House of Commons before returning to Brooks’s for dinner at eleven-thirty!
Numerous eccentric bets were made in the Brooks's betting book. One extraordinary entry from 1785 is: “Lord Cholmondeley has given two Guineas to Lord Derby, to receive 500 Guineas whenever his lordship has sex with a woman in a balloon one thousand yards [900 m] from the Earth." There is no sign that the bet was paid, or even how they would check it if it were claimed.
The partnership between Almack and Boodle probably ended in 1768 as records show that in 1768 Boodle held a sub-lease from Almack for the property. Although early members were opponents of William Pitt the Elder’s foreign policies relating to the Seven Years' War, and political allies of Lord Shelburne, the club was not formally tied to any political party. During the Regency era, Boodle's became known as the club. In 1782 Boodle's took over the building at 28 St. James's Street, London, and has been there ever since. Legend has it that Beau Brummell's last bet took place at the Club before he fled the country to France.
Gentlemen’s Clubs in the United States
When the English came here to settle North America, they brought many of their traditions with them. Gentlemen’s Clubs made that transition however there were changes due to the nature of our Colonial and Federal Period society. In the United States today, the term "gentlemen's club" commonly refers euphemistically to strip clubs. As a result, traditional Gentlemen's Clubs today are often go by the name of "men's clubs", "city clubs", or simply as "private social clubs" or "private clubs".
The oldest existing American clubs date to the 17th/18th centuries; the five oldest are the South River Club in Annapolis, Maryland (c.1690/1700), the Schuylkill Fishing Company in Andalusia, Pennsylvania (1732), the Old Colony Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1769), The Philadelphia Club in Philadelphia (1834), and the Union Club of the City of New York in New York City (1836).
The South River Club (also known as "The Old South River Club")
This Club survives today as one of the oldest, continuously active organizations of its type in America. Old articles in the Maryland Gazette suggest the club was born as early as 1690. The date of its founding is still unknown because of a fire in 1740 that destroyed the original clubhouse along with the early records. Club records show that it existed before February 11, 1742 when a resolution was passed to attempt to record all previous members names. As early as 1746, the club was called "The Ancient South River Club" in the Maryland Gazette.
The first settlers of this area, according to the minutes, were planters and merchants, with a few clerics and doctors thrown in — men determined to civilize a rugged land. Living miles apart on farms, they needed a place for sharing information and socializing. About 20 such men used London's social clubs as models when they started the South River Club, eventually known as the Ancient or Old South River Club. The Club was founded to promote "fellowship and fulsome discussion" among the area's English settlers
By 1800 or so, the group was holding four dinner meetings a year, as it does now. Members alternated as steward, the individual who prepares the dinner and gets it to the site The Club was exclusive for space reasons: The clubhouse could accommodate only 25 people, which in time became the limit on club membership. Any local male could apply, though the process heavily favored descendants of earlier members. Socially connected or not — and about 80 percent of today's members have blood links to prior ones — no one could or can be admitted without visiting on club day, proving himself a good storyteller and surviving not just a wave of pointed barbs but also a secret ballot (unanimous approval required).
There's lots of history in the minutes , including how members toasted the Duke of Cumberland for quashing the Jacobite rebellion (1746), and delayed a meeting due to "the alarming situation … occasioned by an invasion of the British Fleet" (1777). Although the earliest minutes were lost in the fire, independent historical accounts suggest the Old South River Club predates England's oldest current social organization, White's, which was founded in 1698, and America's next-oldest, the State in Schuylkill Club of Philadelphia (1732).
The Schuylkill Fishing Company of Pennsylvania
Also known as the State in Schuylkill, was the first angling club in the Thirteen Colonies and claims to be the oldest continuously operating social club in the English-speaking world.
The club began in 1732 by 27 Quakers, many of them emigrants with William Penn, as the Colony in Schuylkill under a treaty with the chiefs of the Lenni-Lenape (Delaware) Indians. Officers of the club assumed governmental titles: governor, lieutenant governor, three councilors, sheriff, coroner, secretary. In 1737, membership was limited to twenty-five. After the American Revolution, in 1782, the club changed its name to "State in Schuylkill", but kept its rules and organization.
In 1747, the members decided to build a clubhouse, dubbed The Castle, at the foot of the Schuylkill River falls near Fairmount, now part of Philadelphia. It used some of the nearby walnut trees for timber.
During the American Revolution, Samuel Morris, the club's governor, was the captain of the First City Troop, which many other members joined. While Philadelphia was the young nation's new capital, President George Washington, an honorary member, was a frequent visitor to the clubhouse and on July 21, 1825, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette visited the Castle and was elected a member.
The club claims to have been the origin of Fish House Punch, an alcoholic drink consisting primarily of rum. The first mention of Fish House Punch — though not yet by that name — may be in the notes of William Black, the secretary of an embassy of Virginia Commissioners who visited Philadelphia in 1744. He recounted meeting local officials on the bank of the Schuylkill, where they were greeted “very kindly and welcomed . . . into their Province with a Bowl of fine Lemon Punch big enough to have Swimmed half a dozen of young Geese."
Traditionally, the Punch is made in a large bowl also used as a baptismal font for the members infant sons; “it’s ample space would indeed admit of total immersion”, as one member noted. According to legend, on a visit to the Castle, George Washington drank so much of the potent Fish House Punch, he couldn’t bring himself to make an entry in his diary for three days. Legend also claims it to be Washington's favorite.
The Old Colony Club of Plymouth, MA
The Club was instituted at Old Colony Hall, Plymouth, on January 13, 1769, with its Hall on Market Street just southwest of the Old Town House. It was 20 feet wide and 35 feet long. John Thomas, one of the founders of the Club, owned the hall. At this first meeting, the purposes of the Club were recorded in the minutes as follows:
"We whose names are underwritten, having naturally weighed and seriously considered the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town, and apprehending that a well-regulated club will have a tendency to prevent the same, and to increase not only the pleasure and happiness of the respective members, but also will conduce to their edification and instruction, do hereby incorporate ourselves into a society, by the name of the Old Colony Club".
On December 22, 1769, the Old Colony Club for the first time celebrated the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The event appears as follows in the records of the Club:
“Friday, December 22. The Old Colony Club, agreeable to a vote passed the 20th instant, met in commemoration of the landing of their worthy ancestors in this place. On the morning of said day, after discharging a cannon, was hoisted upon the Hall an elegant silk flag with the following inscription, “Old Colony 1620”. At eleven o’clock A.M. the members of the Club appeared at the Hall, and from there proceeded to the house of Mr. Howland, innholder (which is erected upon the spot where the first licensed House in the Old Colony formerly stood). At half after two a decent repast was served up, which consisted of the following dishes; namely, -
1. A large baked Indian whortleberry pudding.
2. A dish of sauquetash.
3. A dish of clams.
4. A dish of oysters and a dish of codfish.
5. A haunch of venison roasted by the first jack brought to the Colony.
6. A dish of sea-fowl.
7. A ditto of frost-fish and eels.
8. An apple pie.
9. A course of cranberry tarts, and cheese made in the Old Colony; dressed in the plainest manner (all appearances of luxury and extravagance being avoided, in imitation of our worthy ancestors whose memory we shall ever respect).”
At four o’clock P.M., the members of the Club, marched in procession to the Hall. As the procession approached the Hall, a group, consisting of descendants of the first settlers, discharged a volley of small arms fire followed by three cheers. At sunset, after the discharge of a cannon, the club lowered the flag and the Hall illuminated. The President of the Club then delivered the following toasts:
"1. To the memory of our brave and pious ancestors the first settlers of the Old Colony
2. To the memory of John Carver and all the other worthy governors of the Old Colony.
3. To the memory of that pious man and faithful historian Mr. Secretary Morton.
4. To the memory of that brave man and good officer Capt. Miles Standish.
5. To the memory of Massasoit, our first and best friend and ally of the natives.
6. To the memory of Mr. Robert Cushman, who preached the first sermon in New England.
7. The Union of Old Colony and the Massachusetts.
8. May every person be possessed of the same noble sentiments against arbitrary power that our worthy ancestors were endowed with.
9. May every enemy to civil and religious liberty meet the same or a worse fate than Archbishop Laud.
10. May the Colonies be speedily delivered from all the burdens and oppressions they now labor under.
11. A speedy and lasting union between Great Britain and her Colonies.
12. Unanimity, prosperity, and happiness to the Colonies."
The evening ended at 11 o’clock P.M. signified by firing a cannon. At that time, the assembled company gave three cheers and withdrew to their homes.
Over the years, The Old Colony Club occupied several buildings prior to getting the current clubhouse at 25 Court Street in Plymouth, MA.
The Philadelphia Club
In 1830 several gentlemen were in the habit of meeting to play cards at Mrs. Rubicam's Coffee House, at the northwest corner of Fifth and Minor Streets. They were joined later by another party of gentlemen who met at Mrs. Arney's Coffee House, at Sixth and Minor Streets. In early in 1834 they removed to the old “Adelphi Building”, on the west side of Fifth Street, below Walnut (now No. 212 South Fifth Street). At that time, they adopted the name of “The Adelphi Club”, and on March 21st, 1834, held their first recorded meeting for the purpose of organizing and adopting a Constitution and By-Laws. At the next meeting, held March 28th, 1834, the first Board of Directors was chosen, consisting of many of the elite of Philadelphia Society. This initial board consisted as Edward S. Burd, Chairman, Henry Bohlen, George Cadwalader, William M. Camac, George Follin, James Markoe, Henry Ralston.
In April 1835, the Club rented the old Bonaparte House (so called from having been at one time the residence of Joseph Bonaparte - Napoleon's Brother), at No.260 South Ninth Street. Shortly after moving into its new quarters, the name of the Club changed to “The Philadelphia Club”, and continued to be known as such until its incorporation in 1850.
The Philadelphia Club has been a stronghold of the Philadelphia elite since its founding in 1834. The first Chairman of the club was George Cadwalader and the first president was Commodore James Biddle. Through the years, the members of the Philadelphia Club have dominated the management of the annual Assembly Balls in Philadelphia. Of the eighteen directors of the Assembly between 1820 and 1840, eight were founding members of the club.
I hope you found this post on the history of Gentlemen’s Clubs in the Georgian Era both informative and thought provoking. If you did, please take a moment to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post) and let us know your thoughts by posting a comment. We also invite you to return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier posts.
Bourke, A. (1892). The History of White's, Vol. 1. London: Honorable Algernon Bourke.
Felten, E. (2009, March 21). What America's Oldest Club May Quaff. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123758172905298941
Margetson, S. (1971). Regency London. New York: Praegar.
Milner, W. (1830). An Authentic Historical Memoir of the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill. Philadelphia: Judah Dobson.
Old Colony Club (Plymouth, Mass). (1887). Records of the Old Colony Club, 1769-1773. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (pp. 383 - 444). Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society.
Pitts, J. (2012, September 21). Old South River Club has met for more than 320 years. Retrieved from Baltimore Sun: https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/bs-md-ancient-south-river-club-20120921-story.html
The Philadelphia Club. (1903). The Philadelphia Club; Charter, By-laws, Officers and Members of the Philadelphia Club. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane, & Scott.