Friday, September 23, 2011

Beef and Liberty --
The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks

Regency gentlemen belonged to all kinds of clubs. Heroes of Regency novels frequent the best known of these: White's, Watier's, Boodle's, etc. Some, like Lord Worth in Heyer's "Regency Buck" belong to the Four-in-Hand Club, a driving club with a uniform club outfit, and a limit of twenty-five members.

But we never hear of a Regency hero belonging to the Beef Steak Club. I wonder why? It had a long lineage, was renowned for the wit of its members, and counted the cream of London gentlemen among its members. Perhaps it isn't heroic to appreciate a good meal?

If the Beef Steak Club does not appear in fiction, it certainly did exist in Regency London. There were several clubs by that name over the years, one recorded as early as 1705.

But we are speaking here of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks begun in the early 1700s. There are a number of stories about its origins, but it seems that John Rich, manager of Covent Garden Theatre, enjoyed some excellent meals with his scenic artist, George Lambert. Other men joined them from time to time--actors, writers and musicians, and a club or 'society' as they preferred to be known, was born. William Hogarth was a founder member, and such luminaries at Samuel Johnson, and several royal dukes joined up.

Dinner was taken at 4:00 pm on Saturdays from November to June. The meal consisted originally of a beefsteak cooked on a gridiron (it appears on their medallion above and the period kitchen utensil is shown right) and a glass of port. Later, onions and baked potatoes were included in the meal. Wearing of the Society's 'uniform' was required--a blue coat and a buff waistcoat with brass buttons bearing a motif like the medallion above.

In 1785 the Prince of Wales, later to be Prince Regent, was admitted to the Society, which then, like the Four-in-Hand Club had a limited membership. In Volume XXVII of the Annual Register for 1785 this entry appeared:
On Saturday, the 14th of May, the Prince of Wales was admitted a member of the Beef-Steak Club. His Royal Highness having signified his wish of belonging to that Society, and there not being a vacancy, it was proposed to make him an honorary member; but that being declined by HRH, it was agree to increase the number from twenty-four to twenty-five, in consequence of which His Royal Highness was unanimously elected. The Beef-Steak Club has been instituted just fifty years, and consists of some of the most classical and sprightly wits in the kingdom.
And wit was among the reasons gentlemen joined; the after-dinner conversation was apparently some of the wittiest and most entertaining at any gathering of the time. There were also songs, poetry, and even skits for entertainment, as well as a fine collection of wines.

In 1793 the following item appeared in a newspaper:
Mr. Harris' room was within the Covent Garden Theatre; previously a scene painting room had been used.

In 1808, of course, the Covent Garden Theatre burned to the ground, and the following appeared with an article, in the Universal Magazine, about the fire:

Among other losses, the Beef Steak Club, which held their meetings at the top of the theatre, and has existed for many years, have lost all their stock of old wines, which cannot be replaced, and worth at least fifteen hundred pounds, beside their sideboard and table implements.

The Society went on despite the loss--they met at the Bedford Coffee House and then the Old Lyceum Theatre. By 1838 the popularity of the club was waning and it ceased to exist in 1867. Its assets, auctioned in that year, raised over 600 pounds.

There was a successor to the Sublime Society and it still exists, located at 9 Irving Street, London. There are other 'Beef Steak Clubs' around the world, but I think the most interesting was that of the extended Regency era, when gentlemen gathered to enjoy a good meal and a lively conversation.

Next week, author Farida Mestek will be guest-blogging with me about the wonderful Fanny Burney.

Farida lives in Ukraine, but she adores Regency England, where she spends a great deal of her time. Having been writing all of her life, she decided to write Regency-set stories herself. At present she has a long queue of characters who wait most impatiently to have their stories told. Her dream is to build a Regency village, the aim of which would be to provide Regency-lovers from around the world with a veritable Regency lifestyle experience. Visit her at her blog "Regency Sketches".

'Til next time,


Sublime Society of Beef Steaks
Wikipedia 'Beefsteak Club'


Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks again for another fascinating look at Regency life.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Anne! I just love the idea of this club. One of my heroes is going to have to be a member!