4 Secret Societies That Operated In The Shadows Of London

By Jane Alexander Last edited 53 months ago

Last Updated 23 January 2020

4 Secret Societies That Operated In The Shadows Of London
Image: Shutterstock

London is a social beast — it's been home to a vast number of social clubs and organisations, which have been well documented over the years.

But what about the city's secret societies, which were, by definition, designed to remain obscure and mysterious to outsiders? Here are some of the most notable secret organisations in the history of London, what we know of these mysterious societies which mostly succeeded in operating under the radar, and the incidents that occasionally dragged these clandestine clubs into the public eye.

1. The School of Night

Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe

Late 16th century London was one of the literary peaks in the capital's history; an era which saw Shakespeare and many of the greatest English Renaissance writers at the height of their fame and accomplishment. But some of these authors were said to have an additional form of connection than just their profession. Many notable figures, including Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh, were rumoured to be members of The School of Night, an underground society whose work allegedly included explorations of alchemy, as well as the discussion of atheism. At the time, the expression of atheist beliefs was not only illegal; people were burned at the stake for it.

On 18 May 1593, a warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest after the playwright Thomas Kyd claimed he had been responsible for writing a text viewed as 'heretical', found in Kyd's own home. Before he could be tried on any charges, Marlowe was killed later that same month in Deptford, in circumstances which still remain mysterious. As so much secrecy continues to surround the School of Night, what happened to the society afterwards remains unknown. They continue to be a subject of discussion alongside the conspiracy theories that emerged in the aftermath of Marlowe's murder, many of which continue to be debated to this day.

2. The Calves' Head Club

A Description of the Calve's Head Club © Trustees of the British Museum

The Calves' Head Club were one of London's most controversial secret societies, emerging in London in the second half of the 17th century, and dedicated to mocking the execution of Charles I. Members were said to gather on 30 January every year, the same day the former king was beheaded in 1649. Their name came from the barbaric practice at each meeting of decapitating and eat a calf, which members treated as a stand in for Charles. Also on the table was a boar, representing the public, and a cod, representing Charles' son Charles II. A satirical drawing from a 1707 book The Secret History of the Calve's Head Club shows these objects, along with an image of the devil — looking particularly sneaky — standing at the door of the club.

The last major documented incident involving a version of the society occurred in early 1734, when a group of men calling themselves members went on a drinking spree in Suffolk Street in the West End. They caused havoc, built a bonfire nearby, and eventually, were confronted by an angry mob.

3. The Gormogons

William Hogarth's The Mystery of Masonry brought to Light by ye Gormagon © Trustees of the British Museum

Freemasonry is one of the most famous secret societies in the world. Slightly less well documented is a rival group which emerged in London in 1723, following the expulsion of one member, the Duke of Wharton. Known as the Gormogons, this group was designed to ridicule the society that had kicked Wharton out.

A degree of mystery surrounds the Gormogons. There is very little surviving documentation of their work; all that seems certain is that they conducted a number of rituals designed to make fun of the Freemasons. Evidence for this can be found in contemporary illustrations such as a print by the great artist and satirist William Hogarth, The Mystery of Masonry brought to Light by ye Gormagon, which depicts a parade of people in costumes designed to mock the behaviour of some Freemasons. Their lifespan seems to have been relatively brief and the exact reasons for their collapse remain as mysterious as much of their activity.

4. The Golden Dawn

W.B. Yeats by George Charles Beresford
W.B. Yeats

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, commonly known as the Golden Dawn, was a secret society founded in London during the 19th century, and was defined by its interest in magic, the occult, and mysticism. One of its most famous members was the (notoriously eccentric) poet W.B. Yeats, who joined the society in 1890 after moving to London.

Yeats was caught up in one of the craziest moments in this secret society's history. At a meeting headed by the poet in London in April 1900, a former member of the Golden Dawn named Aleister Crowley burst into the society's premises in Blythe Road, threatening members with knives and attempting to take over the building. The resulting chaos led to the police being called and matters being taken to court. This didn't put Yeats off — he remained a member of the Golden Dawn until the 1920s when the society splintered into a number of different organisations.