Almack’s Assembly Rooms
These Assembly Rooms were to be found on King Street in St James’, the fashionable district just off Pall Mall, and opened on 20th February 1765. It was advertised as having been built with hot bricks and boiling water and the ceilings were said to be dripping wet. Notwithstanding that, just a few days after its opening Gilly Williams was writing, “there is now opened at Almack’s, in three elegant newly built rooms, a ten-guinea subscription for which you have a ball and supper once a week, for twelve weeks”. He went on, “the men’s tickets are not transferable, so, if the ladies do not like us, they have no opportunity of changing us..”
The rooms were named after their founder, William Almack who had changed his surname from Macall to avoid the opprobrium that all things Scottish met with at the time. The key distinguishing feature of the club in its earliest manifestation was that it was home to a ladies’ club where both sexes met to gamble and dance in the great room. Amounts gambled were prodigious – a Mr Thynne was said to have won so much in a year that he was able to pay off all his debts, buy a house and furnish it. The club became a byword for extravagance and avarice.
Almack’s soon declined in popularity, being eclipsed by the Pantheon (more of which anon), and in the 1790s re-launched itself, dispensing with the ladies’ club and the excessive gambling. Instead it became a venue for dances and assemblies. It soon became the place for a young lady to be seen to be, emphasising her position in fashionable society, and for gentlemen to come to find a suitable wife. Not before long Almack’s was nick-named the marriage mart.
Not any Tom, Dick or Harry or Henrietta could turn up at Almack’s. You needed to buy an annual voucher and to obtain this highly prized symbol of acceptance into the highest ranks of society you had to be approved by a committee of some six or seven high-ranking ladies who ruled Almack’s and who met on Monday evenings to go through the list of applicants. Subscribers could bring a guest on a Stranger’s voucher, but only if the guest had been approved by the all-powerful committee of harridans. To be accepted was your ticket to the upper echelons of fashionable society. To lose your subscription was little more than social ostracism.
The club had rules which were strictly enforced no matter who you were. Supper was served at 11pm and the Duke of Wellington was famously turned away for arriving too late. If you turned up at Almack’s looking for a gastronomic delight you would be sorely disappointed. Supper consisted of bread and butter and fairly plain cake with just tea or lemonade to drink. The acceptable dress for gentlemen was knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras, a three-cornered flat silk hat usually carried under the arm.
To avoid any suggestions of impropriety dancing was limited to country dances such as reels. It was only in 1815 that more intimate dances such as the waltz and the quadrille were introduced.
In 1871 the new owner of the Assembly Rooms named them after himself, Willis’s Rooms. The site was damaged in the 1940 blitz and totally destroyed in 1944. There is an office block on the site which bears a brass plaque commemorating the existence of Almack’s.
Almack’s made frequent appearances in the literature and Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, refers to even the formidable committee of lady patronesses who ran the club as being powerless to stop the easterly wind and its accompanying dirt spreading across London.