On the unhappy night of his drunkenness William Hickey was returning from a drinking club at the Red House. “Clubbing” is first used as a term in the seventeenth century; in July 1660, Pepys wrote that “We went to Wood’s, our old house, for clubbing.” But it was in the succeeding century that a variety of clubs emerged for a variety of members. Addison made the characteristic point that “Man is a sociable animal and we take all occasions and pretences of forming ourselves into those little nocturnal assemblies which are commonly known as clubs.” A club was not very different from a gang, however, a point which the Spectator made on 12 March 1712 in allusion to “a general History of Clubs” then being written. It is suggested that the compendium ought to include a “Set of Men” who have taken “the Title of The Mohock Club” and who set out to terrorise the streets of the city where citizens are “knocked down, others stabbed, others cut and carbonadoed.” In similar vein the Spectator noticed signs of “club” spirit at the opera where the women had placed themselves in opposite boxes with various “Party-signals” to display their loyalty to either Whig or Tory junta.
This is the context, then, for the drinking clubs of the eighteenth century. Characteristically they met weekly, in a tavern, to eat and sing and debate. There was the Kit-Kat Club of notable Whigs, which met in Shire Lane, and there was the Robin Hood Club in Butcher Row, which included “masons, carpenters, smiths, and others.” The discussions in Shire Lane continued well into the night, but in Butcher Row “each member has five minutes allowed him to speak.” There was the Beefsteak Club, which met in a room in the Covent Garden Theatre, and was devoted to drinking and wit “interspersed with snatches of song and much personal abuse.” The atmosphere of such a place is evoked by Ned Ward in The London Spy: he entered “an old-fashioned room where a gaudy crowd of odoriferous Town-Essences were walking backwards and forwards with their hats in their hands, not daring to convert them to their intended use, lest it should put the foretops of their wigs into some disorder … Bows and crimps of the newest mode were here exchanged … They made a humming like so many hornets in a chimney corner.” In contrast was the poor man’s Twopenny Club where one of the rules declared that “If any neighbour swears or curses, his neighbour may give him a kick upon the shins.” A club known as the House of Lords met at the Three Herrings in Bell Yard; it was made up from “the more dissolute sort of barristers, attorneys and tradesmen.” There were punch clubs, “cutter” clubs for those with boats upon the Thames, and “spouting” clubs for burgeoning public speakers.
These were centres of argument in the combative London tradition, combining obscene songs and egalitarian speeches in equal measure. They were often known as chair clubs, but there were also card clubs for gamesters and cock and hen clubs for youths and prostitutes. There was a No-Nose Club, and a Farting Club in Cripplegate where the members “meet once a Week to poyson the Neighbourhood, and with their Noisy Crepitations attempt to out-fart one another.” C.W. Heckethorn, in London Souvenirs, intones a litany of other London clubs: a Surly Club at a tavern near Billingsgate, filled with the tradesmen of that quarter who met to sharpen “the practice of contradiction and of foul language”; a Spit-farthing Club, which met weekly at the Queen’s Head in Bishopsgate, and was “composed chiefly of misers and skinflints; and the Club of Broken Shopkeepers, which met at Tumble Down Dick in Southwark and comprised bankrupts and others unfortunate in trade. The Mock Heroes Club met in an alehouse in Baldwin’s Gardens, where each member would assume the name of a “defunct hero,” while the Lying Club congregated at the Bell Tavern in Westminster where “no true word” was to be uttered during its proceedings. A Man-Killing Club which met at a tavern in a back-alley adjoining St. Clement Danes admitted to membership no one “who had not killed his man”; but there was also a Humdrum Club “composed of gentlemen of peaceable dispositions, who were satisfied to meet at a tavern, smoke their pipes and say nothing till midnight” when they went homeward. An Everlasting Club was so called “because its hundred members divided the twenty four hours of day and night among themselves in such a manner that the club was always sitting, no person presuming to rise until he was relieved by his appointed successor.”
The club tradition continued into the following century with members of the “free and easy” pub institution subscribing a shilling a week; there were also tavern debating clubs, characteristically to be found among such quarters of artisans as Spitalfields, Soho, Clerkenwell, or Finsbury. They were in part derived from the atheistical societies of the previous century, which had met in Wells Street as well as the Angel and St. Martin’s Lane, and were similarly disliked by the civic authorities. Many establishments flourished throughout the early nineteenth century in defiance of official policy, however, among them the Swan in New Street, the Fleece in Windmill Street, the George in East Harding Street and the Mulberry Tree in Moorfields. These taverns became the centre of London radical dissent. In 1817 the Hampden Club met at the Anchor Tavern, for example, from which alehouse issued the first demand for universal male suffrage.
There is a case for arguing that these societies and tavern debating clubs are associated, in London at least, with the informal debates of the early eighteenth-century coffee house. Such was the formative influence of that institution, however, that it can be held responsible for a club quite different from those which met in Windmill Street or Moorfields. It became known as “the gentleman’s club” which, according to a nineteenth-century account, arose from the “ill-appointed coffee-house or tavern” to effect “a revolution in the constitution of society.” White’s Club, the oldest of these establishments (1736), is the direct descendant of White’s Chocolate-house; Brooks’s and Boodle’s are of eighteenth-century date but the others, including the Athenaeum and the Garrick, are all of nineteenth-century foundation. These more recent establishments combined private associations with buildings which were deemed and planned to be on a public scale. They were designed by architects such as Wilkins and Barry and Smirke, and, with their bas-relief sculpture and elaborate modelling, they resembled large country houses or Italian palaces. They remain impressive principally because of the essential vulgarity of their appearance. In that sense they are very much the stage property of London.
The endless contrasts of the city can in fact be exemplified by those other gentlemen’s clubs of the nineteenth century, the working men’s clubs, generally held on the first floor of the local public house where the atmosphere was one of unrefined entertainment. Lectures were sometimes given, as in George Gissing’s The Nether World—“What would happen to the landlords of Clerkenwell if they got their due. Ay, what shall happen, my boys, and that before so very long”—but adult education or jolly debate often gave way to “the rattle of bones, the strumming of a banjo, and a voice raised at intervals in a kind of whoop.” In Arthur Morrison’s account (1896) of the Feathers in Bethnal Green, there is a clubroom where “the sing-song began, for at least a score were anxious to ‘oblige,’” although the effect is somewhat diminished by Morrison’s comment that the countenances of those attending were “as of a man betrayed into mirth in the midst of great sorrow.” Here again the importance, indeed the stern necessity, of drink is left unstated.
Such places were known variously, according to their locations, as glee clubs or mughouses. Between songs, there were toasts and speeches. The more formal of these establishments were known as saloons and generally demanded money for entrance in exchange for refreshment varying from “ale, inky-coloured porter, or strong beer” to tea and brandy. Tables with covers of oilcloth or leather were pushed against a wall, while at the end of the room was a table and a piano or harp. “There was no curriculum of entertainment,” one customer is reported as saying in Roy Porter’s London: A Social History, “every now & then one of the young women would say, ‘I think I’ll sing a song.’” A French visitor reported how, at the sound of an auctioneer’s hammer rapped upon the table, “three gentlemen, as serious as Anglican ministers, start singing, sometimes alone, sometimes in chorus, sentimental ballads.” He also noticed that in some taverns of the same type the landlords “have unfortunately installed mechanical organs which grind away unceasingly.” So complaints about pub entertainment are as old as public houses themselves. These taverns and saloons had their counterparts in “night cellars” such as the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane and the Coal Hole in Fountain Court, the Strand, where established entertainers appeared as singers or performers among the combined fumes of ale, gas-jets and tobacco …