Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Early Political Clubs


Our Clubs, or social gatherings, which date from the Restoration, were exclusively political. The first we hear of was the noted Rota, or Coffee Club, as Pepys calls it, which was founded in 1659, as a kind of debating society for the dissemination of republican opinions, which Harrington had painted in their fairest colours in his Oceana. It met in New Palace Yard, "where they take water at one Miles's, the next house to the staires, where was made purposely a large ovall table, with a passage in the middle for Miles to deliver his coffee." Here Harrington gave nightly lectures on the advantage of a commonwealth and of the ballot. The Club derived its name from a plan, which it was its design to promote, for changing a certain number of Members of Parliament annually by rotation. Sir William Petty was one of its members. Round the table, "in a room every evening as full as it could be crammed," says Aubrey, sat Milton and Marvell, Cyriac Skinner, Harrington, Nevill, and their friends, discussing abstract political questions. Aubrey calls them "disciples and virtuosi." The place had its dissensions and brawls: "one time Mr. Stafford and his friends came in drunk from the tavern, and affronted the Junto; the soldiers offered to kick them down stayres, but Mr. Harrington's moderation and persuasion hindered it."

To the Rota, in January, 1660, came Pepys, and "heard very good discourse in answer to Mr. Harrington's answer, who said that the state of the Roman government was not a settled government; and so it was no wonder the balance of prosperity was in one hand, and the command in another, it being therefore always in a posture of war: but it was carried by ballot that it was a steady government; though, it is true, by the voices it had been carried before that, that it was an unsteady government. So to-morrow it is to be proved by the opponents that the balance lay in one hand and the government in another." The Club was broken up after the Restoration; but its members had become marked men. Harrington's Oceana is an imaginary account of the construction of a commonwealth in a country, of which Oceana is the imaginary name. "Rota-men" occurs by way of comparison in Hudibras, part ii. canto 3:

"But Sidrophel, as full of tricks

As Rota-men of politics."

Besides the Rota, there was the old Royalist Club, "The Sealed Knot," which, the year before the Restoration, had organized a general insurrection in favour of the King. Unluckily, they had a spy amongst them—Sir Richard Willis,—who had long fingered Cromwell's money, as one of his private "intelligencers;" the leaders, on his information, were arrested, and committed to prison.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866