Fashionable Chocolate House circa 1700

For those who do not know the ‘ins and outs’ of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, and there is an In and Out Club, these establishments can pose a difficult challenge. What exactly are they all about? Take White’s, for example, one of London’s most elite.

White’s started out life as a chocolate house, back in 1693, when being seen (even at church) with a cup of hot chocolate was the ultimate status symbol. Chocolate was an expensive commodity when Mrs. White’s Chocolate House was founded at 4, Chesterfield St., by Francesco Bianco or Francis White. The original chocolate houses were seen as hotbeds of dissent in the time of Charles II, but as time passed they became fashionable and respectable establishments.

White’s moved to a larger location at 37-38 St. James Street in 1778. The upstairs became the place to be seen if you were an elegant young ‘macaroni’ (nickname for a young man who had done the Grand Tour and returned mimicking Italian ways, early 18c.). The upstairs crowd avoided the general hoi-polloi of the chocolate house downstairs. It gained in popularity when the upstairs evolved as a gaming club. The exclusivity of its upstairs clientele made the club highly desirable, and it eventually evolved into White’s Club, which claims to be the first of the London gentleman’s clubs with some justification.

White’s became the unofficial headquarters of the Tory Party. The Whigs gathered at Brooks’ Club just down the street. A bow window was added on the ground floor of White’s in the 18c. The table in front of this window became known as the “throne,” where the most socially influential members, such as Beau Brummell, reigned. It was here that Lord Alvanley bet £3,000 on which raindrop would reach the bottom of the window first. Bets were placed on sporting events and political developments, such as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

William Makepeace Thackeray set dramatic gambling scenes in The Virginians here. Often the Prince Regent was observed gambling among Thackeray’s fictional guests. Unlucky members were taken straight from the gaming tables to the debtors’ cells.

A group of extravagant blades from White’s splintered off in 1762 to join William Almack, a Scotsman, when he opened his gaming club, Almacks’s. Two years later Almack’s split again to form two new clubs, Boodles and Brooks’. In the 18c Brooks’ led the fashion in hazard and faro. Fox, Pitt, and the Prince Regent (later George IV) were members. Boodles was founded by Edward Boodle. It moved to its present premises in Pall Mall in 1783. It was chiefly for country gentlemen in London on business. Members included: Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, the Duke of Wellington, and Beau Brummell. Brummell like many fashionable gentlemen belonged to several clubs.

In 1765 this same William Almack opened a suite of assembly rooms where weekly subscription balls, under the auspices of ‘ladies of the highest rank,’ became de rigeur for 75 years. Being admitted was almost as highly prized as being presented at Court.

Clubs have long played a role in the social life in Britain. Whether political, gambling or sporting, they came into vogue in the reign of Queen Ann, i.e. as seen in Tatler and the Spectator. Samuel Johnson started the Ivy Lane (1749) and the Literary Club (1769)(with Joshua Reynolds. The first club exclusively for ladies was the Alexandra (1830.)

In Trollope’s Paliser novels set in the mid-1800s, club life is vividly portrayed. The club was where members of Parliament and notable young men dined, gambled and spent a large part of their evenings into the morning hours. Business deals and political decisions and duels were planned there. Clubs were an important focus of a gentleman’s life and membership was highly esteemed. They were veritable homes away from home.

Clubs were traditionally centred around Pall Mall and were where like-minded gentlemen of culture could meet and converse.

One former Chairman of White’s was David Cameron’s father, Ian Cameron. Prince Charles’s bachelor party was held at White’s.

— Mrs M

Whites Gentlemens Club
32-38 Leman Street
London E1 8EW

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