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The Patronesses of Almack’s: The Arbiters of London Respectability

The Patronesses of Almack's: The Arbiters of London Respectibility

The Patronesses of Almack’s: The Arbiters of London Respectability

Almack’s Assembly Rooms was governed by a select committee of the most influential and exclusive ladies of the ton, known as the Lady Patronesses of Almacks. These “fair arbiters” created a temple of exclusivism for the balls held on Wednesday nights (the only activity of the club) by allowing only those of whom they approved to buy the non-transferrable annual vouchers, costing ten guineas (a guinea being a bit more than a pound sterling). Holding that voucher became the difference between society and Society. To not have it might mean simply that one had not applied. To lose one’s voucher, though, meant that one had been tried and found wanting, a social disaster for those dedicated to their place in the ton.

At different periods in the club’s long history, there were six or seven Patronesses at a time. In 1814, they were:

Lady Jersey (1786 – 1867)

Lady Sarah Sophia Fane, daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland, married the 5th Earl of Jersey and became a leader of London society as a patroness of Almack’s Assembly Rooms. The young Lady Jersey of Almack’s fame is not to be confused with her mother-in-law, Frances, Lady Jersey, wife of the 4th Earl of Jersey, who was mistress to the Prince of Wales. (Prinny obviously preferred older women.) Sarah, sometimes called Sally, was determined, through a great show of personal virtue, to distance herself from the notorious reputation of her mother-in-law. Captain Gronow described her in his memoirs as “a threatrical tragedy queen; and whilst attempting the sublime, she frequently made herself simply ridiculous, being inconceivably rude, and her manner often ill-bred.” She is reported to have introduced the quadrille to Almack’s in 1815.

Emily Cowper (1787 – 1869)

The daughter of the infamous Lady Melbourne (her son was the future Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne), Emily was married to the 5th Earl Cowper. She was also the long-time mistress of Lord Palmerston and married him in 1839 after Cowper died. During the Regency years, she was one of the patronesses of Almack’s Assembly Rooms and, according to Captain Gronow, the most popular of them.

It should be noted that Lady Cowper and most of the other patronesses at that time were young women in their 20s and not the older dowagers some readers assume them to be. They wielded enormous social influence.

Countess Lieven (1785 – 1857)

Born in Latvia, Dorothea Benckendorff married Count Lieven, who was the Russian ambassador to England from 1812 to 1834. The countess immediately became a leader in London society, and by 1814, if not earlier, was elected one of the patronesses of Almack’s Assembly Rooms, the first foreigner to be so honored. Gronow described as her “haughty and exclusive,” though she is said to have introduced the German Waltz to Almack’s. But she was much more than a social butterfly. The countess was a prominent political hostess and held the confidence of some of the most important statesmen in London and Europe. She was considered to be at least as politically important, if not more so, than her ambassador husband. Hers was an influential voice in diplomatic circles, and she even performed at least one secret diplomatic mission for the Tsar. Some time after leaving England, the count was made a Prince and Dorothea became the Princess Lieven. Though she suffered from ill health in the last decades of her life, she continued to be involved in politics and diplomacy. Her collected letters provide a wickedly gossipy insight into Regency England.

Mrs. Drummond-Burrell (1786 – 1865)

Clementina Drummond-Burrell was the only surviving child of James Drummond, 11th Earl of Perth. She married Peter Robert Burrell, a great dandy of the day, in 1807. On his marriage, at his father-in-law’s insistence, he joined his wife’s family name to his. His father had been created Lord Gwydyr, and in 1820 he succeeded to that title; his mother(shown) was Lady Willoughby de Eresby in her own right, and in 1828 he also succeeded to this title, and Clementina became Lady Willoughby de Eresby. One of the young patroness of Almack’s, she was considered, along with Lady Castlereagh, to be the highest stickler and overly grand. A number of Scottish Reels are named in her honor.

Lady Castlereagh (1772 – 1829)

Amelia Anne Stewart, Viscountess Castlereagh, was another of the lady patronesses of Almack’s. She was the wife of Lord Castlereagh, the unpopular Foreign Minister, and accompanied him to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. A stickler for propriety, she is credited with establishing the rule that closed the doors of Almack’s precisely at 11:00pm, and is reported to have once turned away the Duke of Wellington when he arrived a few minutes late. Though one of the older patronesses, she is unlikely to have been elected to the position prior to 1812 when her husband became Foreign Secretary. Lady Castlereagh is often mentioned in the novels of Georgette Heyer.

Lady Sefton (1769 – 1851)

Born Maria Margaret Craven, she married the William Philip Molyneux, 2nd Earl of Sefton in 1792. Her husband was known as Lord Dashalong because of his fondness for fast driving. He was one of the founding members of the Four-In-Hand Club. Lady Sefton was one of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s. The eldest of the 1814 patronesses as reported by Captain Gronow, she had likely held that position well before the younger set came on board as both she and her husband were socially prominent. She sponsored Mrs. Fitzherbert in London society. Portraits of Lady Sefton are hard to come by. This one portrays her mother, the celebrated writer, Elizabeth Craven, Princess Berkeley.

Princess Esterhazy (1794 – ?)

Princess Esterhazy was born Princess Theresa of Thurn and Taxis and married Prince Paul III Anton Esterhazy, the Austrian Ambassador to England. Princess Lieven described her as “small, round, black, animated, and somewhat spiteful” and “she must at all cost be the focus of interest and general attention.” As the youngest of the 1814 Lady Patronesses of Almack’s, she was called by Gronow a bon enfant. Her husband was made Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1815, but he and the princess must have been in London in some other diplomatic role prior to that if, as Gronow reports, she was already established at Almack’s as a patroness in 1814.

Candice Hern is the author of several Regency Romance novels and an avid collector of period fashion accessories. Her latest story, “From This Moment On” can be found in, It Happened One Night, which features characters from her famous “Merry Widows” series.

Reprinted with permission from Candicehern.com

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Almack’s Assembly Rooms

Assembly Rooms

Almack’s Assembly Rooms

All on the magic list depends
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends;
‘Tis that which gratifies or vexes
All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.
If once to Almack’s you belong,
Like monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove, you can do nothing right.
Henry Luttrell, Irish poet and wit (1766-1851)

Regency Chronicler, Captain Gronow writes, “one can hardly conceive the importance which was attached to getting admission to ‘Almack’s,’ the seventh heaven of the fashionable world. Of the three hundred officers of the Foot Guards, not more than half a dozen were honoured with vouchers of admission to this exclusive temple of the beau monde, the gates of which were guarded by lady patronesses, whose smiles or frowns consigned men and women to happiness or despair as the case might be. These ‘lady patronesses,’ in 1813, were the Ladies Castlereagh, Jersey, Cowper, and Sefton. Mrs. Drummond Burrel, afterwards Lady Willoughby d’Eresby, the Princess Esterhazy, and the Princess Lieven.”

“The most popular amongst these ‘grandes dames,’” he adds, “was Lady Cowper, now Lady Palmerston. Lady Jersey’s bearing, on the contrary, was that of a theatrical tragedy queen; and whilst attempting the sublime, she frequently made herself simply ridiculous, being inconceivably rude, and in her manner often ill-bred. Lady Sefton was kind and amiable, Madame de Lieven haughty and exclusive, Princess Esterhazy was a bon enfant, Lady Castlereagh and Mrs. Burrell de très grandes dames.”

“Many diplomatic arts, much finesse, and a host of intrigues, were set in motion to get an invitation to ‘Almack’s.’ Very often persons whose rank and fortunes entitled them to the entrée anywhere, were excluded by the cliquism of the lady patronesses; for the female government of ‘Almack’s’ was pure despotism, and subject to all the caprices of despotic rule: it is needless to add that, like every other despotism, it was not innocent of abuses. The fair ladies who ruled supreme over this little dancing and gossiping world, issued a solemn proclamation that no gentleman should appear at the assemblies without being dressed in knee-breeches, white cravat, and chapeau bras. On one occasion, the Duke of Wellington was about to ascend the staircase of the ball-room, dressed in black trousers, when the vigilant Mr. Willis, the guardian of the establishment, stepped forward and said, ‘Your Grace cannot be admitted in trousers;’ whereupon the Duke, who had a great respect for orders and regulations, quietly walked away.”

“In 1814, the dances at ‘Almack’s’ were Scotch reels and the old English country dance; and the orchestra, being from Edinburgh, was conducted by the then celebrated Neil Gow. It was not until 1815 that Lady Jersey introduced from Paris the favourite quadrille, which has so long remained popular. I recollect the persons who formed the first quadrille that was ever danced at ‘Almack’s:’ they were Lady Jersey, Lady Harriet Butler, Lady Susan Ryder, and Miss Montgomery; the men being the Count St. Aldegonde, Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Montague, and Charles Standish. The ‘mazy waltz’ was also brought to us about this time; but there were comparatively few who at first ventured to whirl round the salons of ‘Almack’s;’ in course of time Lord Palmerston might, however, have been describing an infinite number of circles with Madame de Lieven. Baron de Neumann was frequently seen perpetually turning with the Princess Esterhazy; and, in course of time, the waltzing mania, having turned the heads of society generally, descended to their feet, and the waltz was practised in the morning in certain noble mansions in London with unparalleled assiduity.” *

Almack’s Assembly Rooms was one of the first clubs in London that welcomed both men and women. It was one of a limited number of upper class mixed-sex public social venues in the British capital in an era when the most important venues for the hectic social season were the grand houses of the aristocracy.

Almack’s opened in King Street, St. James, in London, on 20 February 1765. Traditionally, it is said to have been established by William Macall who, to avoid the onus of a Scottish name, then considered foreign and uncouth, reversed the syllables. (His Almack’s Coffee House, opened at the same time, was bought in 1774 to become the gentlemen’s club, Brooks’s.) However, Chancellor points out that Almack is as legitimate and common a name as Macall, and may easily have been the man’s actual family name.

Some confusion arises from attempting to assign to one time the varying characteristics of almost a century of existence.

Almack’s Assembly Rooms first opened in purposeful rivalry to Mrs. Cornelys’ establishment, whose masqued balls were becoming notorious. At first it was described as a “female Brook’s”–that is, a gambling club to which women were admitted, though it was always unisex. A unique characteristic of this phase of Almack’s was that male members proposed and elected the female members, and women proposed and elected the male members. At this time, like Almack’s other establishments, it was meant to make money as what we would call a casino. It was, like any male club, open any night, and gambling is all that went on, besides a little supper served by Mr. and Mrs. Almack, the latter of whom poured tea in a fashionable sack gown.

As Horace Walpole wrote in 1770, “There is a new Institution that begins to make, and if it proceeds will make, considerable noise. It is a club of both sexes to be erected at Almack’s, on the model of that of the men at White’s. Mrs Fitzroy, Lady Pembroke, Mrs Meynell, Lady Molyneux, Miss Pelham and Miss Lloyd are the foundresses. I am ashamed to say I am of so young and fashionable society; but as they are people I live with, I choose to be idle rather than morose. I can go to a young supper without forgetting how much sand is run out of the hour-glass.”

This first phase of Almack’s suffered from competition from The Pantheon or “Winter Ranelagh” from 1772 until it burned down twenty years later. Play seems to have fallen off, as Almack’s entered its second phase some time after 1800.

Now Almack’s Assembly Rooms became governed by a select committee of the most influential and exclusive ladies of the ton, known as the Lady Patronesses of Almacks. At different periods in the club’s long history, there were six or seven of them.

In 1814, they were:

  • Anne Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, better known as Viscountess of Castlereagh.
  • Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey (not the Regent’s old mistress, but her daughter-in-law)
  • Emily, Lady Cowper (later married Lord Palmerston)
  • Lady Sefton
  • Mrs. Drummond Burrel (whose husband, a notable dandy, became Baron Gwydyr after 1816, and Lord Willoughby de Eresby after 1828)
  • Countess de Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador, raised to princely rank only after leaving England)
  • Countess Esterhazy (wife of the Austrian ambassador; again, raised to a princedom afterward)

These “fair arbiters” created a temple of exclusivism for the balls held on Wednesday nights (the only activity of the club) by allowing only those of whom they approved to buy the non-transferrable annual vouchers, costing ten guineas (a guinea being a bit more than a pound sterling). Holding that voucher became the difference between society and Society. To not have it might mean simply that one had not applied. To lose one’s voucher, though, meant that one had been tried and found wanting, a social disaster for those dedicated to their place in the ton.

The Lady Patronesses met every Monday night during the London social season (approximately April to August) to decide who, if anyone, might need to be removed for recent déclassé behavior, and whom they might wish to add to the august membership. Their reign lasted until 1824 or so when exclusivity and strictness of rules both dropped off.

Money was never a key to being a member of Almack’s. It existed to exclude the nouveau riche, the mushroom “cits” of England. Title was a recommendation, though breeding and behavior were more important. Only about three-quarters of the hereditary nobility passed muster. Yet a penniless Irish poet like Thomas Moore could be adjudged to have the right address, the right style, the right ton, to make him a valued member.

To avoid any suggestion of impropriety, dances were limited to the country dances or contredanses, at that time danced with a good deal of energy. (Think Scotch reel or Virginia reel, as opposed to the now-passé court minuets.) This changed some time after the declaration of the Regency, when first the quadrille and then the lively waltz (rather more what we think of as a polka) were introduced. According to Raikes, these were first danced at Almacks in 1813, to Gronow in 1815, and to Dancing in the Badminton Library, 1816. In any case, the introduction of the quadrille is strongly associated with Lady Jersey, and the waltz definitely linked to Lady de Lieven.[6]

The club took pains not to resemble the expensive private balls by avoiding sumptuous repasts. Refreshments in the supper rooms, described by various authors who were never there as shriveled and stale, in fact consisted of thinly-sliced bread (which has to be a day old to be sliced that thin) with fresh butter, and dry cake (dry meaning unfrosted, without icing, not stale), probably what we know as pound cake. To avoid the drunkenness rampant in society, where many noblemen prided themselves on drinking four or five bottles of port a day, they served only tea and lemonade in the supper rooms.

People came to Almack’s to see and be seen, to assert their claim to being of the highest social rank, and to network with others of the caste. Secondarily, for gentlemen seeking brides of suitable ton, it served as one of the marriage marts of Society. By 1790, being a debutante, one presented at court, carried very little weight, as the King’s court was considered rather fusty. Instead, mothers sought éclat for a daughter newly presented to society by wangling vouchers at Almack’s.

Besides the dancing rooms and the supper rooms, some historians say the later Almack’s also provided gaming rooms for those who preferred cards to dancing. In 1871, the new owner of the Assembly Rooms renamed them in his own honour as Willis’s Rooms. A high-rise office building now bears a brass plaque commemorating the existence of Almack’s on that spot.

Almack’s, in its heyday, might appear or be mentioned in any of the “silver fork novels of the time. These notably included Almack’s by Marianne Spencer Hudson (1827) and Almack’s Revisited by Charles White (1828). Almack’s and its patronesses also appear frequently in the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer (e.g. Friday’s Child) and many other authors of the genre.

*From Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, courtesy of Prints George. Rees Howell Gronow (1794-1865), “Captain Gronow”, was a Welsh Grenadier Guards officer, an unsuccessful parliamentarian, a dandy and a writer of celebrated reminiscences.

Additional information from Wikipedia.com.

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