Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen
The start of the 17th century saw the development of associations of like-minded men who met regularly at designated taverns to eat, drink and engage in animated conversation, what we would now call clubs. The antiquary, John Aubrey, claimed that the word club was derived from the wooden sticks the groups used to carry to protect them from footpads and the like as they wandered the streets of the capital.
One such club, the Sireniacs, met on the first Friday of the month at the Mermaid Tavern – their name was a pun on the French word for mermaid, sirene – at Bread Street. It is also said to have been situated in Friday Street and in Cheapside and, like as not, it had entrances on each of these thoroughfares. If you went there you would come across many of the leading literary figures of the age including Ben Jonson, John Donne, the Welsh poet, Hugh Holland, and dramatist, Francis Beaumont to name just a few. Legend has it that the club was founded in 1603 by Sir Walter Raleigh but as he was imprisoned in the Tower of London from that year until 1616 it is probably unlikely that he did.
William Shakespeare had links with a number of the Sireniacs – the landlord of the Mermaid, William Johnson, was named as a trustee for the mortgage the Bard raised to buy the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613 and Hugh Holland wrote a commendatory poem that prefaced Will’s First Folio of plays – and so it is fanciful to think that he may have attended the meetings. Victorian sources, always ones unable to resist the siren call of a good yarn, claim that the Mermaid was the venue for battles of wit between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Jonson was the cleverer but had the habit of going off at tangents and having a ponderous debating style which made it easier for Shakespeare to win round the audience. John Faed even went to the trouble of painting a picture of such an encounter in 1851.
Whether these set-tos occurred or not it is clear that the club was a venue for conversation and coruscating wit as this extract from a poem that Francis Beaumont penned to and for Jonson, “what things we have seen/ done at the Mermaid? Heard words that have been/ so nimble, and so full of subtle flame/ as if that everyone from whom they came/ had meant to put his whole wit in a jest/ and had resolved to live a fool the rest/ of his dull life..” Keats, a couple of centuries later in Lines on the Mermaid Tavern, picked up the theme, “souls of poets dead and gone/ what Elysium have ye known/ happy field or mossy cavern/ choicer than the Mermaid Tavern”.
But the membership was not restricted to literary types. Lawyers, parliamentarians and members of the Royal court could be found there imbibing the drink of choice which was Canary wine, a sweet, white wine with a yellowish tint imported from the Canary Islands. It must have been fine stuff because it is wistfully recalled by Beaumont who has to endure plonk of an inferior quality out in the country. In Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, published in 1614, John Littlewit refers pejoratively to canary-drinking wits who keep company at the Three Cranes, Mitre and Mermaid. It may be that these other pubs, in the vicinity of the Mermaid, hosted the Syreniacs.
Alas the Mermaid Tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but the club seems to have petered out before then.