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'Clubbing' In St. James's

Posted 26.09.19 - Heritage

London’s Westminster district of St. James’s is home both to Turnbull & Asser’s historic emporiums of refinement, and the most robust definition of ‘clubland’ the world has ever seen. Both have been built, and will forever stand, on intimate connections, individuality, initiative, good taste and exacting standards.

Pall Mall’s Reform Club (1834), built by Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster.

The oldest of St. James’s gentlemen’s clubs started as chocolate and coffee houses, which sprang up widely in England during the seventeenth century following the discovery of cocoa and coffee in the New World. These houses brought together travellers returning from the continent with fresh ideas and interests, and attracted an aristocracy increasingly turning from its country estates to a ‘metropolitan sociability that allowed more spontaneity and less ritual’. Although open to anyone able to place a penny on the bar and contribute to a conversation typically stimulated by the press, the very accessibility of these houses ultimately led to the formation within them of closed communities.

Interior of a seventeenth century coffee house. Anonymous, c. 1690.

The evolution of White’s, St. James’s oldest gentlemen’s club, is typical of the development of the area’s first clubs. Formed within White’s Chocolate House (established by Francesco Bianco in 1693), White’s Club was initially no more than a coalescence of individuals trusted to pay their gambling debts. For years, this club met within the confines of the chocolate house before eventually superseding it. During the eighteenth century, White’s, Boodle’s and Brooks’s were, at heart, regulated upper-class gambling houses popular among an aristocracy that was expected to live life fully. Hogarth’s representation of the members of White’s so absorbed in gambling that they fail to notice that their club is on fire has some basis. In 1750, Horace Walpole gave an account of a man found collapsed at the doorstep of White’s being carried into the club, only for some of its members to begin wagering on whether or not the man was dead. When it was suggested that help might be provided, it was interposed that such an action might affect the fairness of the bet. To this day, Brooks’s Fox Club dinners fondly remember the eighteenth century English statesman Charles James Fox, an inveterate gambler who on one occasion sat at hazard - the progenitor of craps - from a Tuesday evening to 5pm the following afternoon, when, after being £12,000 up, he finished play £11,000 down. The following day he made, as Graves describes it: a ‘lamentable’ speech in the House of Commons on the Church of England’s 39 Articles, dined at Brooks’s at 11.30pm, drank at White’s until 7am, went on to Almack’s where he won £6,000, and then to the races at Newmarket at 4pm. Club wagers in more recent times are relatively tame, though occasionally the betting books record the novel and amusing - such as the ability or otherwise of a member to skim a saucer from the steps of White’s through the windows of the Devonshire Club opposite - this before the latter’s closure in 1976.

Charles James Fox (1749-1806), statesman and gamester.

As the Regency era progressed, the gentlemen’s clubs became standard-bearers of taste and behaviour. White’s now became famed - less for its gambling - and more for its fashions. From the morning rooms of its clubhouse at the top of St. James’s St., ‘Beau’ Brummell and friends would critique the appearance and conduct of passers-by, and decide their social fate with a nod of approval or a disdainful gaze. Brummell was also a member of Boodle’s, one of the inspirations behind Baroness Orczy’s famous novel: The Scarlet Pimpernel. For a while after the arrival of modern sanitary facilities, this club kept chamber pots in a small lobby overlooking St. James’s St. ‘for the benefit of those members whose habits were formed before the days of modern sanitation.’ This was not, actually, the club’s ‘dirty room’ - nomenclature reserved instead for the ‘undress’ dining room. Boodle’s was Bond author Ian Fleming’s own club, and the inspiration for his fictional club Blades, which features prominently in Moonraker. The clubs of St. James’s have long served as backdrops in literature and on the screen. When P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster is forced to vacate his beloved Drones Club for its annual clean, he is relocated to the Senior Liberal Club, ‘where the youngest member is about eighty-seven, and it isn’t considered good form to talk to anyone unless you and he went through the Peninsular War together.’

Facade of Boodle’s (1762), 28 St. James’s St.

Inspired by the success of the old clubs, new clubs quickly emerged with no direct connection to the coffee and chocolate houses of the seventeenth century. Establishments such as the Travellers’ Club (1819) and the Athenaeum (1824) set a model for future clubs with their impressive scale, opulent decor, comprehensive facilities and sophisticated structure. Later, under the direction of chef Alexis Soyer, the Reform Club (1834) set a precedent for palatable club food. Before Soyer, clubs had largely kept to the coffee and cocoa house standard of modestly priced meals of mediocre quality and poor originality. A departure from the high-living ethos of the eighteenth century clubs, the social and political clubs of the nineteenth century were subdued arenas for ‘subtle display and restrained conviviality’ that would become, according to P. Gordon Bamber writing at the start of the twentieth century, ‘the quintessence of our British temperament’. In 1910, the 6d monthly publication Clubland - edited by P. Gordon Bamber - began chronicling ‘the inner life and happiness of our London clubs’. This periodical ran features such as: ‘Round the Clubs’ - extending clubland gossip, ‘Fixtures of the Month’ – listing clubland events, ‘Biographical Sketches’ - of distinguished clubland members (the foremost being the King). There was ‘Clubland’s Short Story’, and focusing further afield: ‘Trips Abroad’, ‘The Horse and Course’, ‘The Japan-British Exhibition’, ‘Golf’, ‘The Motorist and the Car’, ‘The Universities’ (i.e. sporting events at Oxford and Cambridge) and ‘Society Small-talk’. Clubland expressed sorrow over the diminution in the number of clubs for eccentrics, and helpfully quashed the rumour - ‘owing to a misunderstanding’, that the Oxford & Cambridge Club on Pall Mall was about to be acquired by the American Universities Club. Alas, Clubland ceased publication after issue 3.

The Athenaeum writing desk of nineteenth century Whig politician and essayist Lord Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859).

With the exception of White’s one-time barber, whose trade in copper bracelets among members was made known to the press, causing a deluge of cheques and postal orders from people supposing the club was a shop, trading in St. James’s has been in the hands of its merchants. At about the time that Edward VII was ‘huffing’ out of White’s to establish the Marlborough Club so that he could smoke without restriction, Turnbull & Asser had begun provisioning the club scene of St. James’s. In so many ways, Turnbull & Asser’s ethos reflects that of the clubs among which it is so very well known. James Cook, manager of Turnbull & Asser’s Jermyn St. store and the ideas-man behind many of these articles expresses it thus: “Like the clubs and the very best hotels, Turnbull & Asser offers a home from home - a space shared by like-minded people with common interests, a place of intimacy without intrusion. Our long-serving staff are a collection of unique individuals who know their customers by name, and who meet their needs extensively and efficiently. Like every club, we need new ‘members’, which we achieve by honouring our heritage, maintaining our distinctiveness, and upholding the very highest standards. Our reputation is everything to us.”

Mr. James Cook, 25 years with Turnbull & Asser and manager of the company’s flagship Jermyn St. store in the heart of St. James’s.
Alain Rowe Turnbull & Asser Store Team

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