The Society of Brothers Club
The Society of Brothers Club, not to be confused with the religious grouping that later became the Bruderhof Group, had a very short lifespan, lasting from 1711 until 1713. It was formed by Henry St John II in the turbulent political atmosphere leading up to the death of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian ascendency as an exclusively Tory dining club. Although it was relatively short-lived and not particularly successful, we know a lot about it because the satirist, Jonathan Swift, was a member. Indeed Swift had a major hand in compiling the rules of the Society.
They met every Thursday – there had been a forerunner of the club called the Saturday Club which, unsurprisingly, met on Saturdays – and their objective, according to Swift, was “to advance conversation and friendship, and to reward learning without interest or recommendation”. As for membership, Swift declared “we take in none but men of wit, or men of interest; and if we go on as we began, no other Club in this town will be worth talking of”. Having a relative as a member was no guarantee that you would get in. The Duke of Beaufort proposed his brother-in-law, the Earl of Danby, as a member but the proposal was successfully opposed by Swift because “Danby is not above twenty, and we will have no more boys”.
In the early days there were no more than around 20 members – Swift records “we are now, in all, nine lords and ten commoners…and we want but two to make up our number”. The Society met at the Thatched House Tavern on St James’ Street, a choice that was perhaps geographically convenient but put a strain on the Club’s coffers. The Duke of Ormond was in the chair one week and the meal, described as “four dishes and four without a dessert” cost an astonishing £20. That was without wine which was usually provided by the Society’s President.
There was soon dissension in the ranks over costs. The Treasurer, reported Swift, was in a rage over costs and soon afterwards “our Society does not meet now as usual”. In fact, the club met once a fortnight and held a committee meeting every other week to determine upon some charitable good cause to support. Often the beneficiaries of the Society’s largesse were impoverished writers and artists. One subscription was launched for a poet who had lampooned the Duke of Marlborough, all the members donating two guineas each, other than Swift, Arbuthnot and Friend who gave just one each.
Still dissatisfied with the expense of the Thatched House the Club had a bit of an itinerant existence. Arbuthnot, as president, hosted a dinner in “Ozinda’s Coffee-house, just by St James’s. We were never merrier or better company, and did not part till after eleven”. Then fifteen members dined under a canopy at Parson’s Green leading Swift to remark, “I never saw anything so fine and romantic”. Eventually, the Club settled for the Star and Garter in Pall Mall, although costs still were complained of.
According to Swift’s Journal to Stella, meetings were convivial where there was “much drinking, little thinking” – sounds my kind of club – and often the business which they had assembled to consider was put off to a more convenient time. Members would, however, entertain each other with their latest exploits or readings of their latest masterpiece. Swift’s The Fable of Midas “passed wonderfully at our Society tonight”.
By now, though, Swift and Arbuthnot had devised Martinus Scriblerus and went off to form the Scriblerus Club and the Brothers’ star waned.