Almack’s Assembly Rooms, known merely as Almack’s, was a social club that opened in London on King Street in St. James and operated from 20 February 1765 to 1871. It opened to compete against the grand social affairs given by Teresa Cornelys, an opera singer and impresario, who hosted fashionable gatherings at Carlisle House in Soho Square. London’s high society, better known as the ton, a French word that means “taste” or “everything that is fashionable,” soon came to govern Almack’s. They also determined who was “in” and who was “out,” and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who wanted to be in were willing to go to great lengths to achieve it.
Before Almack’s opened Cornelys was worried and this caused one of her friends to note:
“Mrs. Cornelys, apprehending the future assembly at Almack’s, has enlarged her vast room and hung it with blue satin, and another with yellow satin … but … Almack’s room, which is to be 90 feet long, proposes to swallow up both hers, as easily as Mose’s rod gobbled down those of the magicians.”
For all Cornelys’s concern, however, Almack’s did not get off to a good start. Despite the assembly room being described as “very magnificent,” Almack’s was advertised to have been built with “hot bricks and boiling water: the ceilings were dripping with wet.” Opening day it was empty, which elicited one person to declare, “half the town is ill with colds and many [are] afraid to go, as the house is scarcely built yet.” However, a precedence was already set and “a severe contest for supremacy between the rival assembly rooms … carried out,” along with competition from The Pantheon and Ranelagh Gardens.
Almack’s was designed by William Almack to be a gambling club that admitted both sexes, and for this reason it did not take long for Almack’s to flourish attracting a wide variety of people. For instance, “exquisites of the day … formed themselves into a companionship or brother hood, with the queer title of macaronis,” and they began to be seen there night and day. Three years after opening, George Selwyn reported in a letter to Frederick Howard, the 5th Earl of Carlisle:
“Almack’s was last night very full; Lady Anne and Lady Betty were there with Lady Carlisle. The Duke of Cumberland set between Lady Betty and Lady Sarah … and His R(oyal) H(ighness) did nothing but dance cotillons in the new blue damask room, which by the way was intended for cards.”
Almack’s was also one of the few social clubs that catered to the upper class and offered entertainment for men and women during the social season, which ran between late January to early July. Similar to Brooks’s — an all-male gambling club — Almack’s allowed all-night gambling but to avoid drunkenness, it also offered a little supper and served nothing but tea, which was poured by Mrs. Elizabeth Almack in her fashionable sack gown.
The governing body at Almack’s was a select committee of highly influential and exclusive ladies known as the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s. This group usually consisted of six or seven ladies. During the Regency period it was composed of Lady Castlereagh, Lady Cowper, Lady Jersey, Lady Sefton, Countess of Leiven, Countess Esterhazy, and Priscilla Bertie, the 21st Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. With their eloquent tongues, these seven women persuaded, commanded, and ruled. Most importantly, it was the Lady Patronesses that determined who gained entrance to Almack’s assembly rooms and who received a voucher to attend the exclusive balls held every Wednesday nights.
Entrance to Almack’s was not necessarily based on money as the nouveau or newly rich were regularly excluded. A title helped, but, more importantly breeding and behavior were the keys to achieve entrance from those “wield[ing] the scepter of despotism … sufficient to guarantee the general absence of any flagrant act of petty spite or questionable taste.” One person described Almack’s female rule at times to be “overbearing and as despotic [a group] as that of the Roman tyrants of the Venetian Council of Ten.”
During the Regency period, the uncrowned “Queen of London Society” of the Lady Patronesses was Lady Jersey. She was the eldest daughter of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland and Sarah Anne Child. In general, descriptions of Lady Jersey and the Lady Patronesses were favorable, although, “it is needless to add that, like every other despotism, it was not innocent of abuses.” The Lady Patronesses possessed individual partiality and certain tastes that would have made their despotism the perfect “vehicle for personal recriminations; and it says something for the inherent good nature of the patronesses that no flagrant case of petty tyranny seems ever to have been brought home to them.”
It is inconceivable to later generations what it meant to be accepted at Almack’s. Of the 300 plus Guards’ officers, “only a paltry half-dozen … were honoured with vouchers of admission to this exclusive temple … [as another] three-fourths of the nobility knock[ed] in vain for admission.”
Once you gained admission there were rules to be followed. For instance, for unknown reasons members could not enter the assembly rooms after 11:00pm. The Duke of Wellington, known as the Iron Duke, learned it the hard way. He arrived seven minutes after the hour and begged admission. Lady Jersey replied:
“Give Lady Jersey’s compliments to the Duke of Wellington, and say she is very glad that the first enforcement of the rule of exclusion is such that hereafter no one can complain of its application. He cannot be admitted.”
Sometimes people went to great lengths to receive a voucher or invitation to Almack’s and even after they had the stiff paper voucher safe in hand, it did not mean they would be admitted as the rules were unyielding and strict. Another story about the Iron Duke demonstrates this principle and shows how he was refused admission despite his credentials and his voucher. On this particular evening the Duke appeared in black trousers instead of the approved knee-breeches. He was refused entrance and “with a grim smile playing at the corners of his firm mouth … [he acquiesced and] turned away.”
People appreciated Almack’s for a variety of reasons and several authors used Almack’s as a setting to portray London’s upper crust in their “silver-fork novels.” Among these was Almack’s A Novel, written in 1826 that presented Lord Dorville who was described as a “gay young man with a large fortune.” He was also “distinguished for very white teeth and very white hands” and spent much of his free time pursuing Lady Anne at Almack’s. He noted that Almack’s “brings all the people together, and then one sees what’s going on, who’s in love, and who’s out of love, and all that sort of thing.” He also claimed that no better beauties could be seen elsewhere:
“And, where, I pray you, can a better specimen of the sex be seen than at Almack’s? … in any country, in any longitude or latitude they may choose to mention, [there cannot be] a set of finer creatures than ‘our Almack’s belles.'”
Besides fine belles, Almack’s was also well-known for its dancing, which was initially limited to country dances, similar to reels, and, then, later, during the Regency Era, quadrilles and the waltz. However, the dancing did not always go smooth. One issue was the crowded dance floor and the “unfortunate mania for crowded rooms … [made it] vain to expect improvement in the art of dancing.” There were complaints about losing partners, and one women noted “neither can good dancing be … appreciated, nor bad properly detected.”
There were also faux pas, such as the one that happened to Lord Graves, who was an overly large man. After dancing with a woman of “grace and ease” Lord Graves tried to emulate her but instead “his bulk was against him, and he fell heavily to the ground.” He quickly recovered and rose, but when he returned to the sidelines a spectator made a snide remark offending Lord Graves, and if not for a level-headed Almack’s member stepping in and squelched the exchange, a challenge to a duel might have been issued.
By 1835, cracks were beginning to appear in Almack’s reign, and the exclusivity that the Lady Patronesses had worked so hard to ensure, seemed to be in decline. One British Lord asserted that “‘Almack’s was the portal to that select circle of intellect and grace which constituted the charm of society.’ But at the same time laws enforced by a such an iron hand, even if the hand was clothed in a velvet glove, must have become, after the early glamour of the place wore off, somewhat very much akin to tyranny.” Henry Luttrell, a social wit and London poet, wrote a short, snappy verse explaining why.
“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.”
By the mid 1830s, society was also changing. Queen Victoria had assumed the throne, and the once young and vibrant Lady Patronesses were getting old or had left Britain. After William Almack’s death, management of Almack’s was relegated to Almack’s niece. She married a Mr. Willis, at which point Almack’s was renamed Willis’s Room, after its new owner. But Willis’s Room was never as grand nor as exclusive as the Lady Patronesses’ Almack’s.
When Almack’s was at its top, Lady Anne, although a fictional character, perhaps best sums up the difficulty in acquiring tickets for Almack’s Wednesday night balls. She stated:
“the fuss makes the pleasure … The uncertainty attending your success; getting a ticket when you know how many girls have been refused, who have superior pretensions to any you can boast; the consciousness that you owe all your interest to your personal merit, your good looks, your ton, your taste in dress, your graceful dancing, or your lively wit. Oh! there is nothing like Almack’s.”
- Bourke, Hon. Algernon, The History of White’s, Vol. 1, 1892
- Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St James’s Street Together with the Annals of Almack’s, 1922
- Hudson, Marianne Spencer Stanhope, Almack’s: A Novel, Vol. 1, 1826
- Timbs, John, Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis, 1866
- White, Charles, Almacks Revisited, Vol. 2, 1827
- Yates, G., The Ball; or, A Glance at Almack’s in 1829, 1829