Boodle’s: A London Gentlemen’s Club

William Petty, Lord Shelburne, a founder of Boodle's
William Petty, Lord Shelburne. Author’s collection.

Boodle’s was a club for gentlemen founded in London in 1762 by the future Marquess of Lansdowne and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne. It was established for like-minded men to meet, exchange, and discuss political issues and ideas. However, Boodle’s took its name from its head waiter, Edward Boodle, who also began to manage it shortly after it was opened.

The club originally opened at 49-51 Pall Mall, but in 1782, it moved into 28 St. James’s Street, a spot occupied by the Savoir Vivre club. Architect John Cruden designed the building in 1765, and it was soon cited as “the most interesting architectural object [on] St. James’s Street.”[1] Between 1821-1824, architect John Buonarotti Papworth made alterations to Boodle’s ground floor that included a comfortable reading room.

"Beau" Brummell, Courtesy of Wikipedia
“Beau” Brummell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Boodle’s members were country gentlemen, which one person maintained consisted primarily of gentlemen from Shropshire. At the time, English society had little or no political power and a satirical saying soon surfaced:

“Every Sir John belongs to Boodle’s, and … when a waiter comes into the room and says to some aged student of The Morning Herald, Sir John, your servant has come,’ every head is mechanically thrown up in answer to the address.”[2]

One author claimed Boodle’s membership was composed of “good hum-drum gentlemen” and that any chorus concerning them would run thus “Bow, wow, boodle, noodle, doodle, Bow wow, boodle, noodle, pooh!'”[3] William Wilberforce belonged to Boodle’s, along with four other clubs, and he claimed:

“Nothing could be more luxurious than the style of these clubs … you chatted, played at cards, or gambled as you pleased.”[4]

Some of the other illustrious gentlemen who belonged included William Cavendish (known as the 5th Duke of Devonshire), the philosopher David Hume, Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, prominent British Whig Charles James Fox, the outspoken “arbiter of fashion” George “Beau” Bryan Brummell, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who was sometimes called the “Iron Duke”.

Boodle's, Public Domain
Boodle’s. Public domain.

In 1838, Boodle’s membership consisted of slightly under 500 men, and members quickly became attached to their club and thought it the best of all the gentlemen clubs. In fact, they were “positive there [was] no club like it in London — nor out of London either.”[5] Part of the draw was that Boodle’s was small and cozy. It was also known to serve epicurean delights and numerous references existed to the wonderful meat and potato meals served there. One nineteenth century article mentioned how excellent “its steaks and chops, which, with most men, is a very great recommendation.”[6]

Boodle’s also attracted women and drew a “Female Coterie” that was formed by Mrs Fitzroy, Lady Pembroke, Mrs Meynell, Lady Molyneux, Miss Pelham and Miss Lloyd. In fact, it was nicknamed after Miss Lloyd as “Lloyd’s Coffee-room.” That was because Miss Lloyd and the ladies met every morning to “play cards, chat, or do whatever else they please[d].”[7]

Boodle’s was mentioned has having a “constitution” similar to the other first-rate gentleman’s clubs, such as Brooks’s or White’s. New members at these clubs were elected by means of black and white balls. The prevailing regulation in the 1830s was that in order to accept an applicant ten white balls needed to be drawn for every black one.

Although gambling was one of the draws of the clubs in the early days, by the 1830s, Crockford’s replaced Boodle’s as the place to gamble. Boodle’s, similar to Brooks’s and White’s, also operated as a profitable club. All were subscription clubs, which was where a private person engaged someone to furnish members with certain conveniences based on an entrance fee and a specified annual subscription. The difference between the three clubs was that Boodle’s and White’s were conservative Tory clubs, and Brooks’s was liberal with memberships of prominent Whigs.

It didn’t take long for the political and social differences to result in competing events happening between the gentleman’s clubs. Hoping to create the “most expensive masquerades or ridottos,”[8] Boodle’s quickly gained a reputation for elaborate entertainment and “costly gaieties.” One of Boodle’s illustrious members, Edward Gibbon who was also a British historian, mentioned in a letter dated May 4, 1774 about a masquerade he attended that was given by the club. He stated:

“Last night was the triumph of Boodle’s. Our masquerade cost two thousand guineas; a sum that might have fertilized a province … the most splendid and elegant fête that was perhaps ever given.”[9]

Fete at Boodle’s in honor of George III. Courtesy of Harvard.

Boodle’s held one memorable event in celebration of George III in 1802. It was half outdoors at Ranelagh Gardens and involved a dress code with women in white and gentlemen in green frocks, with black collars and gold basket buttons. The event was described by Frances Burney as “uncommonly pretty.” It included temporary rooms — one almost as big as Westminster Hall — and consisted of cotillion dancing in the Temple of Flora and supper in the Rotunda for more than 1600 persons. One newspaper provided a description:

“Entering Ranelagh House, instead of turning on the left to the Rotunda, the company went directly through into the garden, and found themselves among trees indeed, but in a covered saloon … On descending the steps into this saloon, the pillars on each side were covered with lamps, and the four trees formed a beautiful alcove to pass through, lighted up with variegated lamps, scattered among the branches. … The room was formed by a temporary building, covered with canvas, and so lofty that the trees were inclosed, the trunks of them and the chief branches covered with lamps, and the company walked under an illuminated grove. In the left side of the early part of the room was laid a floor of wood for the dancers, with benches and chairs, and at the near end of this sat the band of music. … At the extremity of the platform the saloon formed a spacious walk across the end of the walk of entrance; one end of the cross walk, the left, led into the Rotunda, where supper was laid … In the centre of this walk, and terminating the extremity of the main walk as you entered, two transparencies, as large as life were erected, one representing Britannia … the other a figure emblematical of Peace. “[10]

Joseph Addison, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Joseph Addison. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gentlemen clubs remained popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, and playwright, noted on 10 March 1710 why that was the case:

“Man is said to be a social animal, and as an instance of it we may observe that we take all occasions and pretenses of forming ourselves into those little nocturnal assemblies, which are commonly known by the name of clubs. When a set of men find themselves agree in any particular, though never so trivial, they establish themselves into a kind of fraternity and meet once or twice a week, upon the account of such a fantastic resemblance.”[10]

Over the years, this fraternity of men continued to meet once or twice a week. Boodle’s also continued to thrive, making it today, the second oldest club in the world. Moreover, Boodle’s continues to maintain a private membership, and it is still located in the heart of London at St. James Place where it remains a prestigious and well-regarded club appreciated by Londoners.

References:

  • [1] Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St James’s Street Together with the Annals of Almack’s, 1922, p. 143.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 145.
  • [3] Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 17, 1825, p. 319.
  • [4] Wilberforce, Robert Isaac, etal., The Life of William Wilberforce, Vol. 1, 1838, p. 17.
  • [5] Chamber’s Journal, 1838, p. 21.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St James’s Street Together with the Annals of Almack’s, 1922, p. 145.
  • [8] Timbs, John, Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis, 1866, p. 122.
  • [9] Sheffield, John Lord, Autobiography, Vol. 15-Edward Gibbon, 1827, p. 134.
  • [10] “Boodle’s Fete at Ranelagh,” in Morning Chronicle, 4 June 1802, p. 3. 
  • [10] American Quarterly Review, Vol. 21, 1837, p. 241.

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