Randy Politicians And Breathtakingly Stupid Bets: A Brief History Of London's Members Clubs

By Londonist Last edited 24 months ago
Randy Politicians And Breathtakingly Stupid Bets: A Brief History Of London's Members Clubs

Author Stephen Hoare takes us on a whistle-stop tour of some of Mayfair's most reputed member's clubs. Turns out they were often dens of ill-repute, too.

A View of St James Palace, Pall Mall , Thomas Bowles, published 1763. Image: public domain

Take a stroll down Pall Mall and St James's Street and you will pass huge stone buildings flanked by cast iron gas lamps with stone staircases and doric columns. These are London’s celebrated members’ clubs, a tally which includes The Athenaeum, The Travellers Club, The Reform Club, Brooks’s, White’s and many others. These are home to the great-and-the-good who make up that vague and ill-defined demographic known as 'The Establishment'.

Discretion and secrecy are the guiding principle of London's clubland. But what have the clubs got to be secretive about? Well plenty, as it turns out. Their 300 year history throws up a colourful cast of characters that includes gamblers, cheats, prostitutes... and the odd prince or two.

A breathtakingly stupid bet

Image: Amanda Jones @amandagraphc

The most exclusive gentlemen's clubs in St James's Street, White's and Brooks's trace their origins back to 18th century gambling casinos where tens of thousands of pounds could be won or lost at whist in a single night by dissolute aristocrats. Crazy wagers were also made between members such as one made at White's that a manservant "could breathe unaided underwater for 12 hours". The bet was lost and the servant drowned. Brooks's betting book reveals that in 1785 "Ld Cholmondeley has given two guineas to Ld Derby to receive 500 guineas whenever his lordship f***s a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the Earth." The outcome of the bet is not recorded.

"Who's your fat friend?"

Image: public domain

After a brief stint as a junior officer in the Hussars, the dandy Beau Brummel found his true vocation as a card sharp and womaniser. In awe of the Beau’s charm and sophistication, the Prince of Wales appointed Brummel president of Watier's Club, an establishment in Piccadilly he founded and helped finance to provide an outwardly respectable front to hide his twin passions – high stakes gambling and French gastronomy. At first all went well for Brummel. He once won £20,000 at cards at a single sitting. But his luck began to run out. He couldn't pay his tailor's bills and very soon the Prince disowned him. On one famous occasion Watier's Club held a ball at the Argyll Rooms. The Prince accompanied by the military dandy Lord Alvanley encountered Brummel looking the worse for wear. Determined not to be snubbed, Brummel is reported as remarking to Alvanley in an audible whisper, "Who's your fat friend?" The rest is history. Bankrupt, in disgrace and suffering from syphilis Brummel fled to France where he took refuge in the Hopital de St Sauveur in Caen where he eventually died on 30 March 1840.

The Wild West End

The general out-generalled, or, first come, first served Abstract: Wellington demands attention outside a house, while Duke of Argyll, inside with Harriette Wilson, pretends not to recognise him. Image: public domain

Today it may appear prim and upmarket, but back in the day, St James's was quite the red light district. The high class brothels or 'nunneries' located in the alleyways and courtyards leading off St James's Street co-existed cheek-by-jowl with gentlemen's clubs; and it was said that no woman other than a courtesan or demi-rep could be seen south of Bury Street. One of the most popular entertainments of the Beau Monde was the masquerade balls at which cross-dressing was common and where sexual liaisons were arranged. Costumes could be very revealing like that of Elizabeth Chudleigh who once appeared naked under a diaphanous veil with only sprig of blossom to cover her modesty. It was de rigeur for men of a certain rank to keep a mistress. Society courtesan Harriette Wilson slept with virtually every politician, nobleman and clubman of note including the Duke of Wellington who she described as a 'ratcatcher'. We know this from Wilson's best-selling memoirs. Prior to publication she tried to blackmail the Duke to buy her silence. His famous response was "write and be damned!"

Prince with a penchant for American divorcees

Edward VIII. Liked jazz and American women. Image: Creative Commons

Leader of fashion between the wars, Edward Prince of Wales scandalised clubland by snubbing marriageable debutantes in favour of unsuitable female actors and American divorcees like Freda Dudley-Ward and Gloria Vanderbilt's sister Thelma, Lady Furness. A typical night on the town began with cocktails at York House and a tour of the jazz clubs and restaurants like Ciro's and the Embassy Club. Edward's party piece was to jump up on the stage with the band and start working out on the drum kit. He cultivated a fast set that included the handsome and virile Grenadian cabaret singer Leslie Hutchinson. Better known by his nickname 'Hutch', the singer spoke six languages, was dressed by Savile Row and exercised a magnetic attraction for Society ladies. One of 'Hutch's' most celebrated conquests was Lady Edwina Mountbatten. Meanwhile the Prince fell heavily for the charms of Mrs Wallis Simpson. And we all know where that ended.

Palaces of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland by Stephen Hoare, published by The History Press, rrp £25 (buying via this link will help support our site with a small commission)

Last Updated 28 October 2019