The King of Clubs
The King of Clubs was founded in February 1798 by a group of friends meeting at James Mackintosh’s house but constituted as a club by 1801, the brain-child of the elder brother of the famous English wit and fellow member, the Rev Sydney Smith, Robert aka Bobus. He earned his sobriquet because of his excellence at knocking out perfect Latin hex and pentameters, an undervalued skill I always think.
At the time when politics was split between Whigs and Tories, the King of Clubs was firmly in the Whig camp and was known around the metropolis as a dining club where you would hear and engage in erudite conversation across all manner of subjects but principally around books, authors and literature. You were sure to be dazzled by wit and erudition, the club being described by one contemporary as “a gathering-place of brilliant talkers, dedicated to the meetings of the reigning wits of London”. One topic was banned, the one that bound them together, politics!
The club seems to have met on a Saturday and one of the venues it frequented was in Harley Street where sumptuous dinners were held at the cost to members of the princely sum of 10 shillings and six pence. However, over time the club settled on the Crown and Anchor which was at the Fleet Street end of the Strand, on what is now Arundel Street. Membership was not cheap. The original subscription was 2 guineas although this was reduced to £2 in 1804, rising again to 3 guineas in 1808 and settling at £3 from 1810. Nevertheless, membership was highly sought after and in 1808 it was decided that the club would be restricted to thirty persons, all of whom had to be resident in England.
Sometimes you could become a member without the requisite wit and repartee. In 1810 Sydney Smith reported that they had elected an importer and writer, one Mr Baring, on the condition that he lends £50 to any member when applied to!”
By 1819 the club had moved to the Freemasons’ Tavern and then to Grillions in Albemarle Street and latterly to the Clarendon Hotel. Despite the high cost of the dinners, accounts from the club suggest they represented very good value. One dinner for twelve members cost £24 and included two bottles of Madeira, two bottles of Port and three bottles of Claret. The availability of so much hooch doubtless added to the conviviality of the occasion and the flow of conversation.
Rather like guests appearing on modern-day “ad lib” panel shows members were expected to prepare bon-mots, witticisms and anecdotes which they would weave into their conversation at appropriate moments to achieve maximum effect. There were some perils in adopting this approach as the experience of one Mr Boddington shows. Boddington had carelessly left his notes lying around and one of the leading lights, Richard “Conversation” Sharp, alighted on them. He made a note of all the stories and took particular delight in recounting each of them before the hapless Boddington could open his mouth.
So taken by their wit and conversation that one member suggested that they should be recorded in a magazine, the Bachelor, even suggesting that there was enough material for a twice-weekly edition. Nothing came of it and so little remains of their sparkling wit. All this cleverness was not to everyone’s taste and contemporary evidence suggests that the club became a parody of its former self, where show outweighed substance. After a quarter of a century the club folded but as one member reminisced, “our King of Club days with Mackintosh, Bobus, Dumont and Romilly were days that the Gods might envy!”