The Need for Buddies

Roy Porter

  • British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World by Peter Clark
    Oxford, 516 pp, £60.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 19 820376 4

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.

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