The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks or the Beefsteak Club

John Rich of Sublime Society of Beef Steak
John Rich. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Sublime Society of Beef Steak, named for British fare, was founded in 1735 in one of three ways. One story involves John Rich, who was the director and theater manager of Covent Garden in 18th-century London. He supposedly shared a steak with Charles Mordaunt (the third Earl of Peterborough and first Earl of Monmouth), and the two men found their steaks so tasty, they repeated their meal the following week and every week thereafter. The second version involves George Lambert, a landscape painter at the Covent Garden theater, who was too busy painting scenery to leave the theater, and, so, he ate meals at the theater with friends. He and his friends, of which Rich was one, so enjoyed the meals, they set up the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks. The third version comes from society’s nineteenth century historian, Walter Arnold. Arnold claims the society was formed because of regularly shared dinners between Rich and Lambert where “from time to time they partook, at two o’clock of the hot steak dressed by Rich himself, accompanied by a ‘bottle of old port from the tavern.'”[1] Whatever the details and by whoever the society was formed, it soon became known as the Beefsteak Club.

William Hogarth's Self Portrait of 1735, Courtesy of Wikipedia
William Hogarth’s self-portrait of 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was an exclusive club, with “club” being an appellation the society’s twenty-four members worked feverishly to avoid. Early members wore a uniform— “blue coat and buff waistcoat with brass buttons impressed with the gridiron and motto, ‘Beef and Liberty'”[2]—and matching rings with the same motto. Membership included actors, artists, musicians, playwrights, and writers. Besides Rich and Lambert, there was also William Hogarth (editorial cartoonist, painter, pictorial satirist, printmaker, and social critic), Anthony Askew (a physician), and Theophilus Cibber (actor, playwright, and author). Later members included John Wilkes (the first elected member of Parliament in 1757), Samuel Johnson (English editor, essayist, moralist, poet, lexicographer, literary critic, and writer), John Philip Kemble (well-known English actor), and George Colman the Elder (an English dramatist and essayist). Membership also became more exclusive as time passed and included noblemen, such as the Earl of Sandwich. In addition, the number of steaks increased to twenty-five in 1785 to admit the Prince of Wales, and later his brothers, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Sussex, became members.

The Gridiron, Public Domain
The gridiron. Public domain.

The beefsteak season started in November and ended in June, and “Saturday was from time immemorial the day of dining.”[3] Members were allowed one guest, except for the first and last Saturdays of the season, as well as the Saturday of Easter, which were “private” dinners with no visitors allowed. Rule number four of the Society’s ten rules was that “Beef Steak shall be the only meat for dinner, and the broiling [will] begin at two … on each day of Meeting, and the table-cloth be removed at half-an-hour after three.”[4]

Broiled steaks were served by the Boots. They acted as both butler and waiter. One side of the room was occupied by an enormous gridiron, through which member could view the cook dressed in a white cap, standing by the fire ready for action. It was a glorious sight to watch. One person wrote:

“[Hissing and piping hot the steaks were] passed from cook to serving man … [on a] hot pewter plate … [with] baked potatoes, Spanish onions cold and fried, beet root, and chopped eschalot … Toasted cheese ended the repast; and so appetising [sic] was the dinner that with many who foreswore suppers, supper was the inevitable result. Porter (in pewter), port wine, punch and whiskey toddy, were the accompaniments of this simple dinner [with] … smoking … permitted after ‘The Song of the Day,’ and ‘The Usual Toast.'”[5]

The Dining Room, Public Domain
The dining room. Public domain.

Dinner also included a ritual that involved the President of the Day, the Vice-President, the Bishop, the Recorder, and the Boots, who invested the President with the Badge of the Society. The President gave the toasts, proposed resolutions, and observed and enforced the society’s customs, but he had no real power, “on the contrary, he was closely watched and sharply pulled … if he betrayed either ignorance or forgetfulness on the smallest matter of routine connected with his office.”[6] Also, on one side of the President’s chair hung a beef-eater’s hat with a plume and on the other side a three-cornered hat.

“When putting a resolution [before the members] the president was bound to place the plumed hat on his head and instantly remove it. If he failed in one or the other acts, he was speedily reminded by being called to order in no silent terms.”[7]

The Vice-President was the oldest member and was responsible to carry out the President’s directions; the Bishop “sang the Grace and the Anthem.”[8] The Recorder’s duty was to “rebuke everybody for offences, real or imaginary … [also] deliver ‘the charge’ to each newly elected member.”[9] In addition, the club also had one special distinction in that supposedly it was the only club that enrolled a lady:

“Peg Woffington, perhaps in tribute to the perfect grace with which she wore the breeches in Sir Harry Wildair, was an honorary member of the Beefsteak Club.”[10]

Ribbon and Badge, Public Domain
Ribbon and badge. Public domain.

In 1808, the Covent Garden Theater was destroyed by fire. The society then moved several times eventually ending up at the Lyceum in 1838, at which time they were allotted a room. They remained there until their demise in 1867, with the club’s last twenty years being one of decline. Things had changed since 1735 — in 1808 dinner time was moved from 2:00pm to 4:00pm, in 1833 to 6:00pm, in 1861 to 7:30pm, and in 1866 to 8:00pm — but the meal changes did not attract new members. In fact, remaining members claimed it inconvenienced them. There was also the introduction of railway travel. This encouraged people to no longer be available on Saturdays, so, by 1867, with eighteen members and an average attendance of a mere two people at dinner, the Beefsteak Club’s assets were auctioned off to considerable interest by connoisseurs for £600. Items sold at Christie’s were numerous and varied. They included oil portraits, various articles of silver, an ivory snuff-box and an oriental punch bowl. Still there were more items that included:

“[T]he ribbon and badge of the President, formed as a silver gridiron, dated 1735 … [which was] regarded as one of the most interesting relics in the collection, and considerable surprise was caused by the fact that an object of such small value intrinsically should excite so large an amount of competition, and occupy so unusual time in the process of selling.”[11]

Despite the auction, one 1869 newspaper reprinted a reminiscent of the club from forty years earlier:

“As everything in this Society breathes a spirit of antiquity, so every thing promised long duration. Its founders, in the provident spirit of wise legislators, infused into it a vitality that has preserved it through the giddy revolutions of taste and the petulant caprices of fashion. Though composed of fleeting materials, its capital fund of humour, wit, and social glee, has been locked up, like property in mortmain. Fashions have passed, but not the fashion of Beef-Steaks, which remains unsoiled and unchanged in the glossy freshness of its primaeval character.”[12]

References:

  • [1] Arnold, Walter, The Life and Death of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, 1871, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid., p. xiv.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 9.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 10.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Theobald, Robert, The National Review, Vol. 4, 1857, p. 313.
  • [11] “The Beef-steak Club,” in The Era, 11 April 1869, p. 10.
  • [12] Ibid.

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