Brooks’s Club: A Gentleman’s Club in London

In January of 1762, two men, who had been blackballed for membership at the gentleman’s club White’s, formed a society or club. From it emerged two other gentleman’s clubs, one of which was Brooks’s club. It was founded in 1764 by twenty-seven prominent Whigs and initially the club met in a building owned by William Almack, who himself eventually opened a club named Almack’s that catered to both men and women. When Almack’s opened it was managed by William Brooks, who was also a wine merchant and money-lender.

Although Brooks worked at Almack’s, he had his own ideas, and, in 1777, Brooks commissioned and paid architect Henry Holland to design and construct a new clubhouse built from yellow brick and Portland stone in a Palladian style on St. James Street. It opened in October of 1778 and became known as Brooks’s. Its subscription at its opening was 11 guineas a year and its membership limited to 400 members. Similar to other London gentleman’s clubs, membership at Brooks’s  club was determined between eleven at night and one in the morning, when a single black ball was sufficient to exclude membership.

Brooks's club, Public Domain

Brooks’s club. Public domain.

Everyone wanted to be a member at Brooks’s club, and one of the most interesting attempts at membership belongs to the notorious “Fighting Fitzgerald.” Despite a first-class heritage, George Robert Fitzgerald had been blackballed at all the London clubs because of his eccentric reputation for dueling over the most minor slights. One day, however, he forced a Brooks’s club

member to propose him as a candidate and impatiently waited downstairs as the vote was conducted.

Brooks's club member George Robert Fitzgerald

George Robert Fitzgerald. Author’s collection.

Membership was determined by a vote using black and white balls. White balls meant a vote of yes and black balls indicated no. When the vote was finished there was not one white ball thrown. A discussion ensued and worried members decided it best to tell Fitzgerald that one black ball had been thrown. So, when Fitzgerald heard the news he declared: “I’m chose; but there must be a small matter of mistake in my election,”[1] and he persuaded a second vote.

This time he was told two black balls were thrown. “‘Then,’ exclaimed Fitzgerald, ‘there’s now two mistakes instead of one,'”[2] and he persuaded a third vote, whereupon he was told all the balls thrown were black. He “flew upstairs,” and one by one asked each person eye-to-eye if they had thrown a black ball. Of course, everyone denied they had, and he “addressed the whole body:

“You see, Gentlemen, that as none of ye have black-balled me, I must be chose.“[3]

Then to celebrate his unanimous election he asked for a bottle of champagne and the stricken members drank with him. However, they also agreed:

“[When he departed] half-a-dozen stout constables should be waiting the next evening to bear him off to the watch-house, if he attempted … to intrude. Of this measure, Fitzgerald seemed to be aware; for he never again showed himself at Brookes’s [sic]; though he boasted everywhere … he had been … chosen.”[4]

The popularity of Brooks’s centered on its gaming room. This was noted by Rees Howell Gronow, a Welsh Grenadier Guards officer and author of Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, a book that relayed stories about London clubs in 1814. Gronow, better known as Captain Gronow, noted that Brooks’s club had more of a gambling character than White’s and that in Brooks’s  gaming room, whist (a trick-taking card game) and hazard (a dice game) were played, along with two other popular card games, faro and macao.

Brooks's club gaming room, Public domain

Brooks’s club gaming room. Public domain.

Playing of these games occurred night and day by fashionable gentleman who rarely rose from the tables and who indulged in the sport to such an extent it “enabled a man to win or to lose a considerable fortune in one night.”[5] After a night of great losses, the loser often “found himself at the Israelitish establishment of Howard and Gibbs,”[6] which, at the time, was the most popular of the money-lenders. Supposedly, Howard and Gibbs also “never failed to make hard terms with the borrower, although ample security was invariably demanded.”[7]

Many of the clubs were known as places of “high play” and “high feeding.” The three most prominent of these during the Regency era were White’s, Boodle’s, and Brooks’s. However, among these clubs, it was Brooks’s that was renown for its “luxurious stateliness.” It also offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner, although “no gaming was allowed over the decanters and glasses.”[8] In fact, Brooks’s club meals were said to be outstanding. and there was also a saying that “dining at Brooks’s is like dining at a duke’s house with the duke lying dead upstairs.”[9]

Meals also began and ended at specific times:

“[D]inner [was] …  served at half-past four … Supper began at eleven, and ended at half an hour after midnight. The cost of the dinner was eight shillings a head, and of the supper … everyone present paid his share of the wine.”[10]

Liquor was also freely poured, and it was claimed years later that it “played by far too prominent a part, and sociality too frequently took the form of revelry.”[11] Moreover, when gambling occurred at Brooks’s, those gambling could not “stake on credit, nor borrow from any player or bystander.”[12] The money needed to be on hand. At least that was rule number 40 in the club’s handbook:

“That every person playing at the new quinze table do keep fifty guineas before him.”[13]

There was also rule 41:

“That every person playing at the twenty guinea table do not keep less than twenty guineas before him.”[14]

However, the rule about ready money soon became a dead-letter because whenever someone found themselves in a difficulty, it was claimed:

“[Brooks] was always at hand with the few hundred guineas required to spare any of his patrons the annoyance of leaving a well-laced chair at the faro bank, or a well-matched rubber of whist. Gentlemen were welcome to go on losing as long as the most sanguine of their adversaries was willing to trust them.”[15]

Brooks's club gaming pieces

Brooks’s club gaming piece, front and back. Courtesy of British Museum.

Gambling at Brooks’s club ruined many gentlemen. Among these ruined men was supposedly the prominent British Whig statesman, Charles James Fox, who thought the coup d’état of 1799 that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power “a very bad beginning … [and] the manner of the thing quite odious.”[16] Fox entered the club at age sixteen and “found himself surrounded with every facility for ruining himself with the least delay, and in the best company.”[17] Yet, he was not the only one. Gronow revealed that among Fox’s illustrious companions who lost hundreds of thousands was “[George] Selwyn, Lord Carlisle, Lord Robert Spencer, General Fitzpatrick, and other great Whigs.”[18]

Brooks's club member Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Timbs, John, Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis, 1866, p. 104.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 105.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 106.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 107.
  • [5] Gronow, Rees Howell, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, 1862, p. 77.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 78.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Cunningham, Peter, Handbook of London, Vol. 1, 1849, p. 141.
  • [9] Hare, Augustus John Cuthbert, Walks in London, Vol. 2, 1894, p. 58.
  • [10] Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, Vol. 58, 1892, p. 364.
  • [11] Thornbury, George Walter, Old and New London, Vol. 4, 1891, p. 152.
  • [12] Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, p. 364.
  • [13] Cunningham, Peter, p. 141.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, p. 364.
  • [16] Mitchell, Leslie. Charles James Fox, 1992, p. 166. 
  • [17] Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes, p. 364.
  • [18] Gronow, Rees Howell, p. 77.

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