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.
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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