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The Fascinating Story of Gentlemen’s Clubs

Hello, again, my dearies! 

Every well-respected Regency novel should mention at least one Gentleman's Club. In my mind, when I think of those clubs, I picture staid facades hiding smoke-filled rooms and intrigue amid wallpapers, expensive carpets, leather and mahogany furniture...

The Gentlemen's Clubs started in London in the 17th century and were places where the men of high society in England were gathered. Every respectable Regency gentleman belonged to a gentlemen's club. 

When a member was accepted into the club, it was known as an “election.” All exclusive gentlemen's clubs in London used a method of voting for proposed new members whereby a system of back and white balls were deposited, in secret by each election committee member, into a special box. A single black ball was sufficient to deny membership. Hence the term “blackballed.”

But why did men of that time need special places like those? If we take a look at the conditions that prevailed then, we can see how these clubs came about.

If you are interested in learning more then, my dear, keep reading! 

How the Gentlemen Clubs Got Started

The gentlemen's clubs were born in England. The first club to operate and pave the way for their expansion was White's, in west London. Initially, it was a shop selling hot chocolate and tea. Not what we have in mind, uh?

The man who founded White's in 1693 was Francesco Bianco, an Italian immigrant. In just a few years White's had become a privately owned club consisting of exclusive members.

White's started out as a traditional English coffeehouse, where customers met and discussed business and current affairs. The noticeable difference from classic pubs was that they did not serve alcohol at the coffeehouse. So customers who would like to stay sober and discuss some business, would go to the White's. Can I have a brandy, please? 

As the years passed, White's reputation spread and it became increasingly difficult to become a member. It gained the reputation that it was the right place to gamble. It had become so famous that his customers were called "White's gamblers."

Brooks's was the second club to open, long after White's, in 1762. It was opened by three former White's members, who were excluded for life from entering the club, and decided to open their own.

In the 18th and especially in the 19th century, most clubs were divided according to the political preferences of the members. In the 19th century, clubs were associated with parties of the time. Few were members of two clubs that supported different parties.

White's was frequented by members and friends of the Tories party (today's Conservative party), while Brook's was more targeted by Whigs’ friends (whose evolution is the Liberal Democratic Party).

However, the more clubs opened, the more specialized their goal became. For example, there were gambling clubs or travel clubs.

The Acme of Gentlemen Clubs 

The popularity of gentlemen's clubs was increasing in England. According to historical records of the time, their number exceeded 400 (!) clubs, the most well known being Almack's, Carlton, and the East India Club.

In the mid-19th century, the British parliament passed a series of legislation (also known as the Reform Acts) that gave more and more men the right to vote. The number of gentlemen was constantly increasing. Their status required them to become members of one club, and this created the need for more clubs.

In the Victorian era, the rules of good behavior controlled the lives of both women and men. The clubs were a place where men could be more relaxed and away from the "politically correct" behavior of the time.

English men of the time were often forced to marry women of the same upper social and economic class. Many times these women were from another country. There have been cases where the couple first met on their wedding day. As was natural, the couple often suffocated and illicit relationships and scandals were flourishing at that time. However, a scandal could lead to financial ruin, social disintegration, and even disengagement from the club, so everyone made sure to keep those relationships as secret as possible.

In their spare time, Englishmen of the time were playing billiards, gambling, reading, discussing theater and music, as well as timeliness. At the clubs, they found everything they wanted for them to be comfortable. Some clubs even had beds, but only for their members to sleep, as women were strictly forbidden. Oh my!

In 19th-century England, gambling was allowed only in certain places, and the clubs served this purpose precisely: to allow the upper classes to play gambling.

Historians of the time say that gambling was the main occupation of the gentlemen's clubs. The most popular game was the whist, the precursor to today's wistful.

In most games the players and those who watched them made bets. The amounts of bets have often been mythical. An example is Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who allegedly wagered £100.00 each night on the whist. White's had become the second home for the wealthy Duke, who had been sleeping in the club for years. 

The situation went beyond the limits in many cases. For some men, the passion for gambling became an obsession. Various bets have been recorded, such as which raindrop on the glass would reach the bottom of the window first, or if the next member coming to the club would enter the club  with his right or left foot…Men, am I right?

Gentlemen Club Today

Over the years the number of clubs began to decline. The socio-economic changes that took place in the 20th century led many clubs to close down.

Nowadays, while the aristocracy in England—with its titles of nobility and vast fortunes—remains, the upper classes have changed form. Technology has also played a role in this, as the internet and virtual reality have come into our lives for good. Places like clubs, small cinemas, and video clubs tend to gradually disappear...

For example, gambling was one of the main ways to entertain club members. With the legalization of gambling in recent decades, there was no longer any need for gentlemen's clubs.

However, the gentlemen's clubs have not completely disappeared; although in most cases there are no longer any restrictions on gender or socio-economic status.

White's is still there, though it has now been moved to St. James street, and continues to be an attraction for the British aristocracy. Prince Charles and his son, Prince William, as well as other members of the British royal family are members of the club, which still retains its old style.

Well, my dear, this is it!

Thank you for reading my article…I hope you found it interesting and that you have learned a lot!

I would love to know your thoughts on today’s topic so please leave a comment below!

You’re fantastic 🙂

Written by Scarlett Osborne

  • Thanks for the info !! Interesting and reminds me why I am glad I did not live during them times !! NOW has its problems but at least women are allowed the freedom to solve theirs rather than depend on a man !!!

  • Thanks for providing this indepth review of that period’s social actions. Your right that most Regency novels do include a club. It was interesting to see the timeline and additional names of clubs. I have only seen the name Brooks club in one or two novels.

  • Very interesting! I often wondered how the clubs evolved. And why men chose one over another. Now I know!! I wish I had known Whites was still in existence. I would have liked to see it when I was in London..

  • Very interesting! Your article also removed a lot of the mystique regarding the clubs we read about so often. Thanks.

  • Very interesting, thank you for the information. Almost every regency or historical romance talks about one or the other club.

  • Very interesting I have heard of gentlemen’s clubs did not know that one was still open in London thank for the information. Norah

  • Glad to know White’s still exists and where it is located. Is the picture of White’s above the location where it is now? Or is it an earlier picture?
    I enjoyed seeing the pictures so when I imagine the scene you may be writing about, my thoughts are more authentic.
    Thank you

  • What an interesting commentary dear Scarlett! Thank you for sharing this information with us. I seem to inhale all information I can find about the Victorian Era. By the way, I think you are fantastic as well!
    ~~kay~~

  • Many families were ruined in those clubs. I wonder when doweries came into being. We all know that a lot of young ladies were married solely on the wealth of their dowery. Scarlett thank you for sharing,

  • I didn’t know the origin of “men’s club” and now I do. I found the article very informative and I thank you for keeping your readers educated on the history of England’s aristocracy.

    • Thank you, Kalona! We’re happy you found this interesting! Research yields such wonderful results sometimes!