White's Gentlemen's Club
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
White’s was the first established ‘gentleman’s club’ in London, with a prestige unequalled by any of the others that have sprung up since. The reputation of White’s owes as much to its careful selection of who is ‘in’ and who is not, as it does for the infamous behaviour of some of its more well-known members over the past three hundred years.
Originally founded in 1693, this staple of Regency romance novels wasn’t always the gambling den it became in the Regency era. The club began life as Mrs White’s Chocolate House, when it once did business with the fine ladies and gentlemen attending the nearby theatres. In this guise, it was known as a tea house and so far as I can tell, was open as a business to both men and women in 17th century London, regardless of social class.
By the time of the Regency however, White’s was not only notorious as a gambling den, and a locale for disreputable goings-on among the aristocracy, it had also become exclusive as to its membership. One required a title, money and / or connections to gain membership of White’s – and one also required a member. That is to say, women were excluded from the premises from the early 18th century onwards.
Despite the membership of White’s determination to remain a male-only haven, I discovered that Rosa Lewis, celebrated chef-cook and favourite of King Edward VII, once ran the kitchens at White’s. One wonders how she managed to do this without setting foot in the place. She was known as the 'Queen of Cooks' and is the inspiration behind the 'Duchess of Duke Street TV series.
White’s changed location in 1778, from Chesterfield street to the more prestigious St James’s address. The St James’s street club house is well-remembered in historical accounts, for its famous bay window. The table placed before this window was the most coveted seat in society. The men who frequented this position were known to have favour at court and to set the trends, styles, and topics of the day.
During the Regency period, it was occupied by the Regent’s friend Beau Brummel until 1816. when he fell from favour, Lord Alvanley was noticed in this seat. Alvanley gained the reputation for ‘betting on anything’, including the infamous incident of wagering on which raindrop might reach the bottom of the glass pane first – the bet was three thousand pounds. Eventually, this seat was occupied by the 1st Duke of Wellington, who retained this position until his death.
The Betting Book:
This tome is precisely as it sounds: a ledger recording every wager made since the club’s inception. There were no restrictions as to the stakes, the terms, or the nature of the wagers, and these gamesters of White’s were often scandalous in this respect. While some members wagered on sport, such as race meets, there were also plenty of bets made regarding politics and the passage of various bills through parliament. As many members of White’s also sat in the House of Lords, this is not surprising.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), a good many bets were made on the outcome of various military engagements. Members also took leave to wager on whether another member might marry, when, and to whom. They even wagered on whom among the aristocracy might outlive whom. This level of ‘sensitivity’ added to the infamy surrounding White’s as a den for rakes and gamesters.
The club does not offer rooms for members, but there is a billiards room, a library, and the cards room (where so many wagers were made, won and lost). The members’ dining room is the place for private business dealings, and there are several other rooms where one might socialise with other members.
Tory Party HQ:
By 1783, White’s also became the unofficial headquarters for the Tory party (the modern equivalent of this would be the Conservatives). The Whig party (akin to the British Liberals today), frequented Brooks’s, another club located in St James’s street.
I’ll take a look at this one in my next post.