Our story begins in 1828 when William Jerdan, Crofton Croker and some other members of the Society of Antiquaries travelled out to deepest Kent to excavate the site of what was thought to have been a Roman camp called Noviomagus. They unearthed the foundations of a temple and some coffins and fired by the success of their enterprise Croker treated his fellow Antiquarians to a talk on their discoveries on November 28th. Shortly thereafter, they founded a club, named after the camp, the Noviomagians.
It was a rather eccentric club with a restricted membership – you had to be a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. They dined six times a year, initially at Wood’s Hotel in Portugal Street, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, before transferring their patronage at a much later date to the Freemasons’ Tavern. On the first Saturday of July, the club went for a trip to the country, ladies being invited to attend and they were treated to a reading of a historical or antiquarian paper by one of the members. What fun!
The club had a range of positions including Lord High President, a role which Crofton Croker bagged until his death, Father-Confessor, Poet laureate, the Seneschal and the Extraordinary Physician. Visitors were welcome and over the years such eminent figures as Dickens and Thackeray were in attendance. The club had a coat of arms which featured a butter-boat rampant.
The true eccentricity of the club lay in the topsy-turvy way in which they transacted business. Resolutions were only adopted if they were greeted with a majority of Noes. When a toast was proposed in honour of a guest, the speaker was expected to say what he did not mean and to leave unsaid what he really intended to say. The Minutes were a piece of work, written with the objective of misrepresenting what had actually been said. However, jokes were to be faithfully recorded as were descriptions of the artefacts that were passed around at the convivial dinners. As one observer noted, the meetings were “often exceedingly instructive and always entertaining but in the midst of these high-jinks enjoyments, it must not be thought that the real business of Archaeological enquiry and science was quite neglected”.
The minutes of the proceedings of the club were printed and many have survived. To give you a flavour here is an extract from the meeting held on Wednesday 16th April 1845. “A subdued tone prevailed on the occasion in question, for more than five minutes after the cloth was removed; and several members were detected talking sense. This, however, was not an easy matter and did not last long”. It was at this meeting that subscriptions were increased from £2 a season to £3 to cover the increased cost of printing the minutes. The meeting also heard for the time a vaguely amusing joke; Louis XVIII ate so many oysters when he visited Colchester that he was thereafter dubbed Louis des huitres. What do you expect for £3 a year?
As proceedings drew to a close the membership grew increasingly more mellow or as the minutes more eloquently put it, “each succeeding hour shook fresher roses on the table and invoked brighter thoughts and feelings”. They departed echoing Rouchefoucault’s maxim, qui vit sans folie, n’est pas si sage qu’il croit.
They passed their convivial times together until the club disbanded in 1892.