Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Royal Society Club


In Sir R. Kaye's Collection, in the British Museum, we find the following account of the institution of a Society, which at one time numbered among its members some of the most eminent men in London, in a communication to the Rev. Sir R. Kaye by Sir Joseph Ayloffe, an original member:—"Dr. Halley used to come on a Tuesday from Greenwich, the Royal Observatory, to Child's Coffeehouse, where literary people met for conversation: and he dined with his sister, but sometimes they stayed so long that he was too late for dinner, and they likewise, at their own home. They then agree to go to a house in Dean's-court, between an alehouse and a tavern, now a stationer's shop, where there was a great draft of porter, but not drank in the house. It was kept by one Reynell. It was agreed that one of the company should go to Knight's and buy fish in Newgate-street, having first informed himself how many meant to stay and dine. The ordinary and liquor usually came to half-a-crown, and the dinner only consisted of fish and pudding. Dr. Halley never eat anything but fish, for he had no teeth. The number seldom exceeded five or six. It began to take place about 1731; soon afterwards Reynell took the King's Arms, in St. Paul's Churchyard, and desired Dr. Halley to go with him there. He and others consented, and they began to have a little meat. On Dr. Halley's death, Martin Foulkes took the chair. They afterwards removed to the Mitre (Fleet-street), for the convenience of the situation with respect to the Royal Society, and as it was near Crane-court, and numbers wished to become members. It was necessary to give it a form. The number was fixed at forty members; one of whom was to be Treasurer and Secretary of the Royal Society."

Out of these meetings is said to have grown the Royal Society Club, or, as it was styled during the first half century of its existence, the Club of Royal Philosophers. "It was established for the convenience of certain members who lived in various parts, that they might assemble and dine together on the days when the Society held its evening meetings; and from its almost free admission of members of the Council detained by business, its liberality to visitors, and its hospitable reception of scientific foreigners, it has been of obvious utility to the scientific body at large." (Rise and Progress of the Club, privately printed.)

The foundation of the Club is stated to have been in the year 1743, and in the Minutes of this date are the following:—

"Rules and Orders to be observed by the Thursday's Club, called the Royal Philosophers.—A Dinner to be ordered every Thursday for six, at one shilling and sixpence a head for eating. As many more as come to pay one shilling and sixpence per head each. If fewer than six come, the deficiency to be paid out of the fund subscribed. Each Subscriber to pay down six shillings, viz. for four dinners, to make a fund. A pint of wine to be paid for by every one that comes, be the number what it will, and no more, unless more wine is brought in than that amounts to."

In addition to Sir R. Kaye's testimony to the existence of a club of an earlier date than 1743, there are in the Minutes certain references to "antient Members of the Club;" and a tradition of the ill omen of thirteen persons dining at the table said to be on record in the Club papers: "that one of the Royal Philosophers entering the Mitre Tavern, and finding twelve others about to discuss the fare, retreated, and dined by himself in another apartment, in order to avert the prognostic." Still, no such statement is now to be found entered, and if ever it were recorded, it must have been anterior to 1743; curiously enough, thirteen is a very usual number at these dinners.

The original Members were soon increased by various Fellows of the Society; and at first the club did not consist exclusively of Royals; but this arrangement, not having been found to work well, the membership was confined to the Fellows, and latterly to the number of forty. Every Member was allowed to introduce one friend; but the President of the Royal Society was not limited in this respect.

We must now say a few words as to the several places at which the Club has dined. The Society had their Anniversary Dinner at Pontack's celebrated French eating-house, in Abchurch-lane, City, until 1746. Evelyn notes: "30 Nov. 1694. Much importuned to take the office of President of the Royal Society, but I again declined it. Sir Robert Southwell was continued. We all dined at Pontac's, as usual." Here, in 1699, Dr. Bentley wrote to Evelyn, asking him to meet Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Robert Southwell, and other friends, at dinner, to consider the propriety of purchasing Bishop Stillingfleet's library for the Royal Society.

From Pontack's, which was found to be inconveniently situated for the majority of the Fellows, the Society removed to the Devil Tavern, near Temple Bar.

The Minutes record that the Club met at the Mitre Tavern, in Fleet-street, "over against Fetter-lane," from the date of their institution; this house being chosen from its being handy to Crane-court, where the Society then met. This, be it remembered, was not the Mitre Tavern now standing in Mitre-court, but "the Mitre Tavern, in Fleet-street," mentioned by Lilly, in his Life, as the place where he met old Will. Poole, the astrologer, then living in Ram-alley. The Mitre, in Fleet-street, Mr. J. H. Burn, in his excellent Account of the Beaufoy Tokens, states to have been originally established by a William Paget, of the Mitre in Cheapside, who removed westward after his house had been destroyed in the Great Fire of September, 1666. The house in Fleet-street was lastly Saunders's Auction-room, No. 39, and was demolished by Messrs. Hoare, to enlarge the site for their new banking-house, the western portion of which now occupies the tavern site. The now Mitre Tavern, in Mitre court, formerly Joe's, is but a recent assumption of name.[7]

In 1780, the Club removed to the Crown and Anchor Tavern, in the Strand, where they continued to dine for sixty-eight years, until that tavern was converted, in 1848, into a Club-house. Then they removed to the Freemasons' Tavern, in Great Queen Street; but, in 1857, on the removal of the Royal Society to Burlington House, Piccadilly, it was considered advisable to keep the Club meetings at the Thatched House, in St. James's Street, where they continued until that tavern was taken down.

During the early times, the docketings of the Club accounts show that the brotherhood retained the title of Royal Philosophers to the year 1786, when it seems they were only designated the Royals; but they have now settled into the "Royal Society Club." The elections are always an exciting matter of interest, and the fate of candidates is occasionally severe, for there are various instances of rejections on two successive annual ballots, and some have been black-balled even on a third venture: some of the defeated might be esteemed for talent, yet were considered unclubbable.

Some of the entries in the earliest minute-book are very curious, and show that the Philosophers did not restrict themselves to "the fish and pudding dinner." Here is the bill of fare for sixteen persons, a few years after the Club was established: "Turkey, boiled, and oysters; Calves' head, hashed; Chine of Mutton; Apple pye; 2 dishes of herrings; Tongue and udder; Leg of pork and pease; Srloin of beef; Plum pudding; butter and cheese." Black puddings are stated to have figured for many years at every dinner of the Club.

The presents made to the Club were very numerous, and called for special regulations. Thus, under the date of May 3, 1750, it is recorded: "Resolved, nem. con., That any nobleman or gentleman complimenting this company annually with venison, not less than a haunch, shall, during the continuance of such annuity, be deemed an Honorary Member, and admitted as often as he comes, without paying the fine, which those Members do who are elected by ballot." At another Meeting, in the same year, a resolution was passed, "That any gentleman complimenting this Society annually with a Turtle shall be considered as an Honorary Member;" and that the Treasurer do pay Keeper's fees and carriage for all venison sent to the Society, and charge it in his account. Thus, besides gratuities to cooks, there are numerous chronicled entries of the following tenour:—"Keeper's fees and carriage of a buck from the Hon. P. Yorke, 14s.; Fees, etc., for Venison and Salmon, £1. 15s.; Do., half a Buck from the Earl of Hardwick, £1. 5s.; Fees and carriage for a Buck from H. Read, Esq., £1.3s. 6d.; Fees for Venison and Game from Mr. Banks, £1. 9s. 6d.; ... August 15, 1751. The Society being this day entertained with halfe a Bucke by the Most Honble the Marquis of Rockingham, it was agreed, nem. con., to drink his health in claret. Sept. 5th, 1751.—The Company being entertained with a whole Bucke (halfe of which was dressed to-day) by Henry Read, Esq., his health was drunk in claret, as usual; and Mr. Cole (the landlord) was desired to dispose of the halfe, and give the Company Venisons instead of it next Thursday." The following week the largess is again gravely noticed: "The Company being this day regaled with the other halfe of Mr. Read's buck (which Mr. Cole had preserved sweet), his health was again drank in claret."

Turtle has already been mentioned among the presents. In 1784, the circumnavigator Lord Anson honoured the Club by presenting the members with a magnificent Turtle, when the Club drank his Lordship's and other turtle donors' healths in claret. On one occasion, it is stated that the usual dining-room could not be occupied on account of a turtle being dressed which weighed 400 lb.; and another minute records that a turtle, intended to be presented to the Club, died on its way home from the West Indies.

James Watt has left the following record of one of the Philosophers' turtle feasts, at which he was present:—"When I was in London in 1785, I was received very kindly by Mr. Cavendish and Dr. Blagden, and my old friend Smeaton, who has recovered his health, and seems hearty. I dined at a turtle feast with them, and the select Club of the Royal Society; and never was turtle eaten with greater sobriety and temperance, or more good fellowship."

The gift of good old English roast-beef also occurs among the presents, as in the subjoined minute, under the date of June 27, 1751, when Martin Folkes presided: "William Hanbury, Esq., having this day entertained the company with a chine of Beef which was 34 inches in length, and weighed upwards of 140 pounds, it was agreed, nem. con., that two such chines were equal to half a Bucke or a Turtle, and entitled the Donor to be an Honorary Member of this Society."

Then we have another record of Mr. Hanbury's munificence, as well his conscientious regard for minuteness in these matters, as in this entry: "Mr. Hanbury sent this day another mighty chine of beef, and, having been a little deficient with regard to annual payments of chines of beef, added three brace of very large carp by way of interest." Shortly after, we find Lord Morton contributing "two pigs of the China breed."

In addition to the venison, game, and other viands, there was no end of presents of fruits for dessert. In 1752, Mr. Cole (the landlord) presented the company with a ripe water-melon from Malaga. In 1753, there is an entry showing that some tusks, a rare and savoury fish, were sent by the Earl of Morton; and Egyptian Cos-lettuces were supplied by Philip Miller, who, in his Gardener's Dictionary, describes this as the best and most valuable lettuce known; next he presented "four Cantaloupe melons, equal—if not superior—in flavour to pine-apples." In July, 1763, it is chronicled that Lord Morton sent two pine-apples, cherries of two sorts, melons, gooseberries of two sorts, apricots, and currants of two sorts.

However, this practice of making presents got to be unpopular with the Fellows at large, who conceived it to be undignified to receive such gifts; and, in 1779, it was "resolved that no person in future be admitted into the Club in consequence of any present he shall make to it." This singular custom had been in force for thirty years. The latest formal thanks for "a very fine haunch of venison" were voted to Lord Darnley on the 17th of June, 1824.

The Club Minutes show the progressive rise in the charges for dinner. From 1743 to 1756 the cost was 1s. 6d. a head. In the latter year it was resolved to give 3s. per head for dinner and wine, the commons for absentees to remain at 1s. 6d., as before. In 1775, the price was increased to 4s. a head, including wine, and 2d. to the waiter; in 1801, to 5s. a head, exclusive of wine, the increased duties upon which made it necessary for the members to contribute an annual sum for the expense of wine, over and above the charge of the tavern bills.

In 1775, the wine was ordered to be laid in at a price not exceeding £45 a pipe, or 1s. 6d. a bottle; to have a particular seal upon the cork, and to be charged by the landlord at 2s. 6d. a bottle. The Club always dined on the Society's meeting-day. Wray, writing of a Club-meeting in 1776, says that, "after a capital dinner of venison, which was absolutely perfect, we went to another sumptuous entertainment, at the Society, where five electrical eels, all alive, from Surinam, were exhibited; most of the company received the electrical stroke; and then we were treated with the sight of a sucking alligator, very lively."

It has been more than once remarked that a public dinner of a large party of philosophers and men of science and letters generally turns out to be rather a dull affair; perhaps, through the embarras of talent at table. Not so, however, the private social Clubs, the offshoots of Public Societies, like the Royal Society Club, and others we could mention. The Royals do not appear to have been at all indifferent to these post-prandial wit-combats. "Here, my jokes I crack with high-born Peers," writes a Philosopher, alluding to the Club dinners; and Admiral Smyth, in his unpublished Rise and Progress, tells us, that to this day "it unites hilarity, and the macrones verborum of smart repartee, with strictures on science, literature, the fine arts—and, indeed, every branch of human knowledge."

The administration of the affairs of the Club was minutely attended to: when, in 1776, it was considered necessary to revise "the commons," a committee was appointed for the purpose, consisting of Messrs. Aubert, Cuthburt, Maskelyne, Russell, and Solander, who decided that "should the number of the company exceed the number provided for, the dinner should be made up with the beefstakes, mutton-chops, lamb-chops, veal-cutlets, or pork-stakes, instead of made dishes, or any dearer provisions." And "that twopence per head be allowed for the waiter" (which seems to have been the regular gratuity for many years). Then, the General Committee had to report that the landlord was to charge for gentlemen's servants, "one shilling each for dinner and a pot of porter;" and "that when toasted cheese was called for, he was to make a charge for it."

In 1784, the celebrated geologist, Faujas de Saint-Fond (Barthélemy,) with four other distinguished foreigners, partook of the hospitality of the Club, of which, in 1797, M. Faujas published an account. "He mentions the short prayer or grace with which Dr. Maskelyne blessed the company and the food—the solid meats and unseasoned vegetables—the quantities of strong beer called porter, drank out of cylindrical pewter pots d'un seul trait—the cheese to provoke the thirst of drinkers—the hob-a-nobbing of healths—and the detestable coffee. On the whole, however, this honest Frenchman seems to have been delighted with the entertainment, or, as he styles it, 'the convivial and unassuming banquet,'" and M. Faujas had to pay 'seven livres four sols' for his commons. Among the lighter incidents is the record of M. Aubert having received a present from the King of Poland, begged to have an opportunity of drinking His Majesty's health, and permission to order a bottle of Hermitage, which being granted, the health was drank by the company present; and upon one of the Club-slips of 1798, after a dinner of twenty-two, is written, "Seven shillings found under the table."

The dinner-charges appear to have gradually progressed from 1s. 6d. to 10s. per head. In 1858-9 the Club-dinners had been 25, and the number of dinners 309, so that the mean was equal to 12·36 for each meeting, the visitors amounting to 49; and it is further computed, that the average wine per head of late, waste included, is a considerable fraction less than a pint, imperial standard measure, in the year's consumption.

Among the distinguished guests of the Club are many celebrities. Here the chivalrous Sir Sidney Smith described the atrocities of Djezza Pasha; and here that cheerful baronet—Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin—by relating the result of his going in a jolly-boat to attack a whale, and in narrating the advantages specified in his proposed patent for fattening fowls, kept "the table in a roar." At this board, also, our famous circumnavigators and oriental voyagers met with countenance and fellowship—as Cook, Furneaux, Clerke, King, Bounty Bligh, Vancouver, Guardian Riou, Flinders, Broughton, Lestock, Wilson, Huddart, Bass, Tuckey, Horsburgh, &c.; while the Polar explorers, from the Hon. Constantine Phipps in 1773, down to Sir Leopold M'Clintock, in 1860, were severally and individually welcomed as guests. But, besides our sterling sea-worthies, we find in ranging through the documents that some rather outlandish visitors were introduced through their means, as Chet Quang and Wanga Tong, Chinese; Ejutak and Tuklivina, Esquimaux; Thayen-danega, the Mohawk chief; while Omai, of Ularetea, the celebrated and popular savage, of Cook's Voyages, was so frequently invited, that he is latterly entered on the Club papers simply as Mr. Omai.

The redoubtable Sir John Hill dined at the Club in company with Lord Baltimore on the 30th of June, 1748. Hill was consecutively an apothecary, actor, playwright, novelist, botanist, journalist, and physician; and he published upon trees and flowers, Betty Canning, gems, naval history, religion, cookery, and what not. Having made an attempt to enter the Royal Society, and finding the door closed against him,—perhaps a pert vivacity at the very dinner in question sealed the rejection,—he revenged himself by publishing an impudent quarto volume, vindictively satirizing the Society.

Ned Ward, in his humorous Account of the Clubs of London, published in 1709, describes "the Virtuoso's Club as first established by some of the principal members of the Royal Society, and held every Thursday, at a certain Tavern in Cornhill, where the Vintner that kept it has, according to his merit, made a fortunate step from his Bar to his Coach. The chief design of the aforementioned Club was to propagate new whims, advance mechanical exercises, and to promote useless as well as useful experiments." There is humour in this, as well as in his ridicule of the Barometer: "by this notable invention," he says, "our gentlemen and ladies of the middle quality are infallibly told when it's a right season to put on their best clothes, and when they ought not to venture an intrigue in the fields without their cloaks and umbrellas." His ridicule of turning salt water into fresh, finding a new star, assigning reasons for a spot in the moon, and a "wry step" in the sun's progress, were Ward's points, laughed at in his time, but afterwards established as facts. There have been greater mistakes made since Ward's time; but this does not cleanse him of filth and foulness.

Ward's record is evidence of the existence of the Royal Society Club, in 1709, before the date of the Minutes. Dr. Hutton, too, records the designation of Halley's Club—undoubted testimony; about 1737, he, Halley, though seized with paralysis, once a week, within a very short time of his death, met his friends in town, on Thursdays, the day of the Royal Society's meeting, at "Dr. Halley's Club." Upon this evidence Admiral Smyth establishes the claim that the Royal Society Club was actually established by a zealous philosopher, "who was at once proudly eminent as an astronomer, a mathematician, a physiologist, a naturalist, a scholar, an antiquary, a poet, a meteorologist, a geographer, a navigator, a nautical surveyor, and a truly social member of the community—in a word, our founder was the illustrious Halley—the Admirable Crichton of science."

A memorable dinner-party took place on August the 11th, 1859, when among the visitors was Mr. Thomas Maclear (now Sir Thomas), the Astronomer-Royal at the Cape of Good Hope, who had just arrived in England from the southern hemisphere, after an absence of a quarter of a century. "On this day, were present, so to speak, the representatives of the three great applications by which the present age is distinguished, namely, of Railways, Mr. Stephenson; of the Electric Telegraph, Mr. Wheatstone; and of the Penny Post, Mr. Rowland Hill—an assemblage never again to occur." (Admiral Smyth's History of the Club.)

Among the anecdotes which float about, it is related that the eccentric Hon. Henry Cavendish, "the Club-Crœsus", attended the meetings with only money enough in his pocket to pay for his dinner, and that he may have declined taking tavern-soup, may have picked his teeth with a fork, may invariably have hung his hat on the same peg, and may have always stuck his cane in his right boot; but more apocryphal is the anecdote that one evening Cavendish observed a very pretty girl looking out from an upper window on the opposite side of the street, watching the philosophers at dinner. She attracted notice, and one by one they got up and mustered round the window to admire the fair one. Cavendish, who thought they were looking at the moon, bustled up to them in his odd way, and when he saw the real object of their study, turned away with intense disgust, and grunted out "Pshaw;" the amorous conduct of his brother Philosophers having horrified the woman-hating Cavendish.

Another assertion is that he, Cavendish, left a thumping legacy to Lord Bessborough, in gratitude for his Lordship's piquant conversation at the Club; but no such reason can be found in the Will lodged at Doctors' Commons. The Testator named therein three of his Club-mates, namely, Alexander Dalrymple, to receive 5000l., Dr. Hunter 5000l., and Sir Charles Blagden (coadjutor in the Water question), 15,000l. After certain other bequests, the will proceeds,—"The remainder of the funds (nearly 700,000l.) to be divided, one-sixth to the Earl of Bessborough, while the cousin, Lord George Henry Cavendish, had two-sixths, instead of one;" "it is therefore," says Admiral Smyth, "patent that the money thus passed over from uncle to nephew, was a mere consequence of relationship, and not at all owing to any flowers or powers of conversation at the Royal Society Club."

Admiral Smyth, to whose admirable précis of the History of the Club we have to make acknowledgment, remarks that the hospitality of the Royal Society has been "of material utility to the well-working of the whole machine which wisdom called up, at a time when knowledge was quitting scholastic niceties for the truths of experimental philosophy. This is proved by the number of men of note—both in ability and station—who have there congregated previously to repairing to the evening meeting of the body at large; and many a qualified person who went thither a guest has returned a candidate. Besides inviting our own princes, dukes, marquises, earls, ministers of state, and nobles of all grades to the table, numerous foreign grandees, prelates, ambassadors, and persons of distinction—from the King of Poland and Baron Munchausen, down to the smart little abbé and a 'gentleman unknown'—are found upon the Club records. Not that the amenities of the fraternity were confined to these classes, or that, in the Clubbian sense, they form the most important order; for bishops, deans, archdeacons, and clergymen in general—astronomers—mathematicians—sailors—soldiers—engineers—medical practitioners—poets—artists—travellers—musicians—opticians—men of repute in every acquirement, were, and ever will be, welcome guests. In a word, the names and callings of the visitors offer a type of the philosophical discordia concors; and among those guests possessed of that knowledge without which genius is almost useless, we find in goodly array such choice names as Benjamin Franklin, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gibbon, Costard, Bryant, Dalton, Watt, Bolton, Tennant, Wedgwood, Abyssinian Bruce, Attwood, Boswell, Brinkley, Rigaud, Brydone, Ivory, Jenner, John Hunter, Brunel, Lysons, Weston, Cramer, Kippis, Westmacott, Corbould, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Turner, De La Beche, et hoc genus omne."

The President of the Royal Society is elected President of the Club. There were always more candidates for admission than vacancies, a circumstance which had some influence in leading to the formation of a new Club, in 1847, composed of eminent Fellows of the Society. The name of this new Association is "the Philosophical Club," and its object is "to promote, as much as possible, the scientific objects of the Royal Society, to facilitate intercourse between those Fellows who are actively engaged in cultivating the various branches of Natural Science, and who have contributed to its progress; to increase the attendance at the Evening Meetings, and to encourage the contribution and the discussion of papers." Nor are the dinners forgotten; the price of each not to exceed ten shillings.

The statistical portion of the Annual Statement of 1860, shows that the number of dinners for the past year amounted to 25, at which the attendance was 312 persons, 62 of whom were visitors, the average being = 12·48 each time: and the Treasurer called attention to the fact that out of the Club funds in the last twelvemonth, they had paid not less than £9. 6s. for soda and seltzer water; £8. 2s. 6d. for cards of invitation and postage; and £25 for visitors, that is, 8s.d. per head.

[7] See Walks and Talks about London, p. 246. The Mitre in Fleet-street was also the house frequented by Dr. Johnson.

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