If two Englishmen were cast away on a desert island, what’s the first thing they would do? They’d set up a club. The brothers Goncourt’s celebrated quip chimes precisely with a much cherished image of the bewhiskered Victorian gent digesting the Times at the Reform or Athenaeum, before sorting out the world’s evils. But as Peter Clark, Britain’s leading urban historian, notes in a characteristically fact-packed but thoughtful study, that most English of institutions was going strong long before then.
Indeed, Sam Johnson’s beloved ‘clubbable’ men must have been in clover in 18th-century England. In those days Oxford offered the Eternal Club, the Jelly Bag Society, or the Town Smarts, whose members decked themselves out in white stockings, silver buckles and frilly shirts; and after dining at one of these, you could go on to the catch club, the poetry and philosophical club, the bell-ringing club, the antiquarian society, or a variety of benefit, cricket, botanical, rowing and other college clubs, to say nothing of the Anti-Gallicans and the Irish and Welsh clubs, or your pick of the masonic lodges.
Johnson’s biographer would have found Georgian Edinburgh brimming over with convivial hangouts. Citizens could choose from more than twenty different types, ranging from dining and social clubs to the religious, literary, medical, musical, masonic and benefit. Old Reekie’s ladies were praised for gathering themselves into ‘select and voluntary societies for the improvement of their knowledge’, among them the Fair Intellectual Club, founded soon after the Act of Union.
It didn’t even need a great city to provide a critical mass. Take Maidstone. In addition to the Maidstone Society for Useful Knowledge – which, stunningly, had Benjamin Franklin, the Sanskrit scholar Sir William Jones and the agriculturalist Arthur Young among its corresponding members – that one-horse Kentish town boasted a humane society, assorted drinking and dining clubs, an agricultural society, concert and music societies, trapball and card societies, a book society, a cricket club, party-political clubs, a bachelors’ club, freemen societies, benefit clubs, a masonic lodge and, by the mid-1790s, a radical Corresponding Society and an opposing Loyalist association.
Inevitably, however, London was the clubbers’ heaven, with, it was claimed, up to twenty thousand men assembling nightly in its clubs. Of the staggering two thousand societies said to have met there in early Georgian times, many were social, like the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, some debating, like the Robin Hood, while others were aesthetic, like the Society of Dilettanti. When, early in George III’s reign, the Duchess of Newcastle drew up her own guide to ‘what’s on in London’, she listed not merely theatres, pleasure gardens and so on, but ‘the Macaroni Club, Boodle’s Club ... the Goose-trees Club, Savoir Vivre Club, Bill of Rights, Royal Society, Antiquarian Society, Tiptop, Border, Constitutional Society ... Bucks, and Anti-Gallican’.
If the Kit-Kat had once been the great talking shop of the Whig grandees and men of letters, pride of place went later on to Johnson’s Literary Club, whose gatherings at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street included Burke, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Sir Joseph Banks, Burney, Garrick, Sheridan, Gibbon and Adam Smith. In their role as self-appointed custodians of culture, literary clubs combined some of the functions of the Paris salon and the university the capital lacked.
There was no true continental equivalent to the British obsession with the institution Johnson’s Dictionary defined as ‘an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions’. Plenty of academies were founded in absolutist France and ancien régime Italy and, thanks to princely patronage, many, like the Académie Française and the Académie Royale des Sciences, achieved great éclat. But these august assemblies offered something quite different from the face-to-face camaraderie of their distant counterparts in this country. In the 1770s, one English traveller lamented the fact that, ‘religious raree-shows’ aside, Italy had a lack of ‘public diversions’ and ‘nothing of that sociality which reigns in an English circle’. The Gentleman’s Magazine entertained no doubts at all: ‘the institution of clubs ... is wholly English.’
Yet even here club mania was fairly new: it was not until after the Glorious Revolution that the club became as English as roast beef. Its phenomenal rise is interpreted by Clark as a response to the needs and opportunities of burgeoning urban life. Before the Civil War, religious confraternities, trade guilds and the tavern had played the leading roles in promoting public sociability. That function was then taken over by the coffee house – by 1739 there were more than five hundred in London alone.
Coffee houses had sprung up initially in the City, serving as exchanges for foreign and domestic news, but were soon seen as essential to cultural networking in the West End. Newspapers and pamphlets were laid on, critics sparred, and debate raged over the latest operatic extravaganza, political squib, court scandal or heretical sermon. Dryden held court at Will’s in Covent Garden, where Pope was later an habitué; Addison patronised nearby Button’s, and the Tory wits the Smyrna in Pall Mall. The Bedford buzzed with theatre folk; Old Slaughter’s in St Martin’s Lane became the artists’ haunt; and, when in London, Edinburgh cronies caroused at the British, by Charing Cross.
From the coffee house it was but a short step to the more intimate and regulated environment of the club, which catered particularly well to socially mobile newcomers lost in the anonymous urban scramble:
Men feel their weakness, and to numbers run,
Themselves to strengthen or themselves to shun;
The need for buddies, identified by George Crabbe, explains why the English club was homosocial through and through, serving as it did to strengthen male bonding in a competitive, insecure marketplace awash with unmarried apprentices, artisans and confirmed bachelors, and with husbands itching to get away from home.
In an essay curiously overlooked by Clark, Marie Mulvey Roberts made the point that women were not without new modes of socialising of their own, notably the tea table and the blue-stocking salon. But the number of all-female societies – primarily charities – and even mixed clubs (musical, debating and philanthropic bodies) was pretty small, and even they were the target of endless sexist digs. Note the defensive air of shock and scorn with which essayists like Joseph Addison greeted women’s clubs like the fictive She-Romps or Chit-Chat – at the latter, as a special concession, Mr Spectator reported that he was allowed to hold forth, as guest speaker, for a whole minute without interruption.
Voluntary societies talked themselves up. They rejoiced in an effusive patriotic rhetoric of liberty, particularly potent at a time when ‘freeborn Englishmen’ loved to lash the ‘tyranny’ and ‘corruption’ of great sharks like Walpole in the name of freedom of speech and assembly. The masonic lodge above all was trumpeted by its brethren as the palladium of British constitutionalism. The origins of freemasonry remain contested, but what is clear is that it grew rapidly after the capital’s lodges affiliated in 1717 to form the Grand Lodge of England, with its own Grand Master, the Duke of Montagu, the first in a line of noble patrons. Within eight years, Britain boasted 52 lodges; by 1768 nearly 300 had sprung up, including 87 in the metropolis, and more than 500 were active by 1800, to say nothing of other quasi-secret and semi-mystical organisations, like the Noble Order of Bucks, which claimed Nimrod as its founder.
Thought of as a mini-parliament, with its members divided into the three estates of apprentices, journeymen and masters, masons saw their movement as the champion of enlightened conduct: fraternity, benevolence, conviviality and, above all, English liberty. The ‘Royal Art’, so its Constitutions proclaimed, had been practised by the ‘free born ... from the beginning of the world, in the polite nations’. In truth, however, freemasonry, like the club scene at large, was full of tensions, its fraternal egalitarianism clashing with a deep deference to hierarchy, and its commitment to enlightened rationality made a mockery by a weakness for ritual and mystery.
An expansive but anxious bourgeoisie relished the ‘world within a world’ provided by the club, tricked out with its comforting rituals and regalia, civic processions and philanthropic gestures. Through such familiar observances as well as its boozy male hospitality, the club could reinforce identities – occupational, regional and even, as with the London Welsh or London Scots, ethnic – as well as giving a helping hand to members who had fallen on hard times. The invitation to serve as a patron to some such association could likewise be flattering to the Quality.
Experience soon taught that, after the initial flush of enthusiasm, clubs were liable to fold. One way to try to make them last was to use elaborate rules and protocols; the key to freemasonry’s extraordinary success was in part its intricate constitution and federal structure, presided over by the Grand Lodge. British clubs may have seemed obsessed with petty regulations and schoolboy ceremonial – all those silly hats, weird initiation rites, secret oaths and queer titles, ballots and blackballs, to say nothing of arcane toasts, songs, drinking customs and fines – but these things cemented a sense of fellowship and belonging. Similar considerations also explain the drive later in the century to procure royal charters. The Society of Artists was chartered in 1765 and the Royal Academy three years later; beneficiaries in Scotland included the Royal Society of Antiquaries (1783), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783) and the Highland Society (1787).
In time every taste got its club. Sports clubs multiplied, and included, from 1767, the Marylebone Cricket Club. Industrialising regions spawned scientific societies, notably the Lunar Society of Birmingham and literary and philosophical societies in Manchester, Derby, Leeds and Newcastle, set up from the 1780s. The provinces also bred associations for labouring men, in particular ‘box clubs’, set up to pay out benefits in the event of disability or death. In 1801 it was estimated that there were more than seven thousand such friendly societies in England and Wales, with about two-thirds of a million members. Among the élite, there were associations designed to police and prosecute the vices of the masses, such as the Proclamation Society, which targeted drinking and swearing.
In the polarised atmosphere of George III’s reign, a host of political clubs took root. John Wilkes’s success in mobilising antigovernment sentiment during the 1760s owed much to a battery of radical associations, including the Anti-Gallican, Beefsteak and Albion clubs, and the masonic lodges. From the 1790s the Society for Constitutional Information galvanised reform societies across the British Isles, while the London Corresponding Society became the nerve centre for a loose network of radical associations.
British Clubs and Societies bears the stamp of authority: it covers a constellation of clubs, and provides a persuasive account of their development. It is not without its blindspots, however. Readers may be surprised to find that the most fêted institutions of all – White’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s and the other aristocratic gambling and drinking clubs festooning St James’s and Pall Mall – rate hardly a mention. Also omitted are the ‘molly clubs’, backroom gatherings which afford an early window on the gay and cross-dressing subcultures of the capital. It is almost as though, in his eagerness to convey the positive social functions and the aura of improvement behind the movement, Clark has felt obliged to play down the extent to which clubbiness primarily meant hedonism and dissipation.
Clubs are largely interpreted by Clark in socioeconomic terms, as offshoots of a thriving but insecure urban world. Their cultural rationales would have repaid greater attention. Clubs were a classic early media product. They sprang up because persuasive boosters willed and coaxed them into existence, while they answered the cravings of a reading public anxious to be recognised as participating in the sophisticated social circuits sustained by print culture. What was the Spectator, if not a soap opera whose heroes were united by a club? ‘Man is said to be a Sociable Animal,’ Addison explained, ‘and, as an Instance of it, we may observe, that we take all Occasions and Pretences of forming our selves into those little Nocturnal Assemblies, which are commonly known by the Name of Clubs.’ The dangers of exclusiveness, disputatiousness, territorialism and other threats to harmonious polite society could be surmounted, taught the Spectator, by clubbability. To point the moral, the fleeting fortunes of the Club of Duellists were ironically chronicled in its pages, its shortlived members perishing either by the sword or at Tyburn. Go forth and found clubs, that flagship magazine in effect told its readers: and that they surely did, from Scotland to Surinam, meeting to discuss its issues as they arrived, hot from the press.
A non-stop barrage of publications and prints gave the nation its daily diet of club talk, gossip, anecdotes and amusement. In his Compleat and Humorous Account of all the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster (1709) – it raced through seven editions – Ned Ward dished up a droll users’ guide to club life. For every imaginable vice, the Tory journalist huffed, a club was sure to be created so as to ensure its promotion. The No Noses and the Big Noses, the Tall Club and the Short Club, the Scarecrows and the Club of Fat Men: all these Wardian whispers first created the fantasy club and then invited readers to translate the virtual into the real.
Like the lodge, the club proved an institution riddled with paradoxes. It stood for participation and equality, but thrived on élitism; while encouraging the social ambitions of the freedom-loving, bourgeois self, it underwrote a new social hierarchy with all its attendant restrictions. But why not? For, alongside the pleasure of exercising petty prerogatives denied to others, club members enjoyed the privilege of basking in their very own make-believe worlds. In that respect, the club provided the perfect secular successor to and substitute for the church.
Clubs, Clark concludes, often failed to realise their stated ends: benefit societies went bust, anti-vice societies met public defiance. Nevertheless, they played a crucial role in nurturing that sociability the Augustans designated as the key to progress. They served as clearing houses for news and ideas, and as vehicles for social contact and cohesion, while helping to foster regional and local identities. By promoting social affiliations, facilitating social networking and defining separate spheres, the club played a crucial part in the making of Britain’s public culture.