The Roxburghe Club
Unlike many of the clubs we have looked at, this one is still going but it is dashed difficult to get into – membership was restricted to just 40 from 1839 and from its inception in 1812 until the present day there have been 348 in all. Members are elected but just one black ball is enough to kiss your chances goodbye. An early resolution encapsulated the ostensible purpose of the club; “it was proposed and concluded for each member of the Club to reprint a scarce piece of ancient lore, to be given to members, one copy being on vellum for the chairman, and only as many copies as members”. The club also published some volumes collectively.
The sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe in 1812 sent the bibliophiles in England all of a twitter. The library was so extensive that the sale lasted some 41 days, Sundays excepted (natch). The crown jewel of the collection was a rare copy of Il Decamerone di Boccaccio which fetched the prodigious sum of £2,260, purchased by the Marquis of Blandford. To celebrate this momentous occasion the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin suggested a dinner to be held at the St Alban’s Tavern in what is now Waterloo Place on 17th June 1812. This was the genesis of the club with some 24 worthies attending. Dibdin was appointed secretary and Lord Spencer was the President.
The club was itinerant meeting at Grillion’s, the Clarendon and the Albion taverns as well as St Alban’s and the members were clearly trenchermen. At the fourth dinner, at Grillion’s, under the chairmanship of Sir Mark Masterman Sykes, twenty members sat down and ate their way through a dinner which cost £2 17 shillings a head and demolished £33 worth of booze. This was a paltry effort compared with events at the 1818 dinner. Just fifteen sat down at the Albion in Aldersgate Street, near the Barbican, under the chairmanship of Mr Heber and ate and drank their way through £85 9 shillings and sixpence worth of food and drink.
As one Mr Haslewood wrote of the assembled company, “no unfamished liveryman would desire better dishes, or high-tasted courtier better wines” – I should think so at those prices. “With men that meet to commune, that can converse, and each willing to give and receive information, more could not be wanting to promote well-tempered conviviality; a social compound of mirth, wit and wisdom”.
With so much booze to consume, it was inevitable that there would be numerous toasts to honour, all reflecting their love for books. The opening toast was to the immortal memory of John Roxburghe, followed by one to Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Decameron in 1471, and then to the inventors of printing and William Caxton, the father of the British press. Many more printing luminaries were toasted before ending with hopes for the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club and the cause of bibliomania throughout the world. Their hopes were well-founded as the club still exists today, receiving its first female member, Mary, Viscountess Eccles, in 1985. Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage is a member, number 344 on the roll.
Books are still published and circulation is limited to 342, 42 for the Club and three hundred for general sale. They are of astonishing quality with lavish bindings and command an appropriate price. The Roxburghe is acknowledged as the first club of bibliphiles and was the model for many others. Books, food and drink – what could be better?