The October Club
It seems that there was always an awkward squad in the Tory party, none more so than those who made up the October club which met in the Bell Tavern in King Street in early 18th century Westminster.
The club took its name from the October ale which its members drank in toasts in prodigious quantities. October ale has a long proud history and it is thought to have been a forerunner of Stock Ales and Barley Wines. Unlike many beers they were matured over time, sometimes up to three years after brewing, resulting in an incredibly strong brew with ABVs of around 10%, enough to knock your socks of. And they were called October ales because they were brewed in October, a month which was followed by six cooler months, perfect for maturing beer.
The club was made up of around 150 Tory squires and their beef was with their own party’s leadership. They felt that their party was too soft and backward in turning out their great adversaries, the Whigs. The October club was particularly active when the Tory administration under the leadership of Robert Harley, himself a former Whig, took the reins in 1710 and sought to take a less confrontational position against the Whigs, seeking to replace the from positions of influence gradually.
This shilly-shallying was not good enough for the country squires of the October. They were all for impeaching every last member of the Whig party and removing from position anyone who failed to show allegiance to the Tories. You can imagine a meeting, tempers raised and fuelled by the heady mix of October ale.
Harley’s administration was clearly discomfited by these inebriated squires and so called upon the services of one Jonathan Swift, the eminent satirist and author of Gulliver’ Travels, to use his diplomatic skills to come to an understanding with and pacify the members. Fortunately Swift has left us a bit of a written record of what went on. In his Journals to Stella a letter dated February 1711 sets out the position, “we are plagued here with an October Club; that is, a set of above a hundred parliament men of the country, who drink October beer at home, and meet every evening at a tavern near the Parliament to consult affairs, and drive things on to extremes against the Whigs, to call the old ministry to account, and get off five or six heads”.
Swift got to work, deploying the old tactic of identifying those members who were more amenable to reason and to try and split them off from the more hardened cases. On 22nd January 1712 an anonymous pamphlet appeared, although it had been written by Swift, called Advice humbly offered to the Members of the October Club. It was a finely written apologia for the government and when Swift’s authorship became certain, it sold well. He dealt with those errors that couldn’t be denied, pointed out the perils of another Whiggish ascendency and argued that the steady approach of the administration to the many issues before them, compounded by the indisposition of Queen Anne, was the only sensible course to take.
Swift had done his work and the Club split up and finally dissolved. Those who were not convinced by Swift’s diplomacy set up the March Club, even more Jacobite and anti-Whig in its position. But that’s another story.