St James’s Street was the heart of fashionable masculine London during the late Georgian and Regency period. Here gentlemen had their lodgings, kept their mistresses, bought their clothes and gambled in hells and clubs. It was not an exclusively male preserve, for modistes had their shops there and ladies could even buy ready-made corsets from Mrs Clark, whose shop was at no.56, and who advertised in 1807 ‘…a large assortment of corsets of every size, and superior make, so that ladies may immediately suit themselves without the inconvenience of being measured.’
However, it for the clubs that St James’s Street is famous and you can still view the exterior of many of them – getting inside is another matter! Membership has always been exclusive: who you knew mattered, breeding mattered – but money mattered less. Politics might influence which clubs a gentleman felt most at home in, although White’s, the most exclusive of them all, was non-political.
Boodles attracted the country set and hunting squires, the Four in Hand, sporting gentlemen. The Travellers’ Club was favoured by diplomats, Watier’s, in Piccadilly, by lovers of fine food and the Roxburghe was the haunt of bibliophiles. If you wanted high-stakes gaming, then Brookes’s and, after 1827, Crockford’s were the clubs for you.
Today, if you walk down St James’s Street from the top of the hill at Piccadilly you almost immediately come to Crockfords on your right and White’s on your left. White’s possessed the famous Beau (or Bow) Window where the elite would sit to view, and pass judgment on, the passing scene. It still has a bow, but, given that there have been some changes to the exterior during the 19th century, it may not be the famous one.
Henry Austen, Jane’s banker brother, had some very respectable connections, but he was not a club man. However, he must have had connection with those who were. In 1814, after the first defeat of Napoleon, threw a great ball that cost £10,000. Guests included King George III, the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia – and Henry Austen. ‘Henry at Whites! Oh! What a Henry.’ Jane could hardly contain herself at the news.
A little further down on the same side of the road is Boodles club. It moved here to no.28 in 1783 to premises originally occupied by the Savoir Vivre, a notorious hell.
To reach Brooks’s, you need to cross the road. Do take advantage of one of the traffic islands in this busy, very wide, street – they were originally introduced in the early nineteenth century to make life safer for the slightly inebriated clubmen making their way from one establishment to another. Brook’s is on the corner of Park Place and was one of Byron’s clubs. A stronghold of the Whigs, it moved here in 1778. this is the one London club I have been inside and the Great Subscription Room, illustrated here, looks just as it did then (although there were no Regency bucks engaged in gambling, much to my disappointment!).
Just a little further down was Arthur’s (not a great success) and the Cocoa Tree coffee house. The Cocoa Tree was not a formal club, but provided another sanctuary for like-minded gentlemen, such as Byron, who frequently visited.
Finally, to see the location of one of the gaming ‘hells’ where almost anyone who had the money to bet was admitted, cross the road again and walk down to the narrow entrance just before Berry Bros. & Rudd. This leads to Pickering Place, now a charming little courtyard, but once the home of some notorious hells, the reputed location of the last duel in London and, later in the 19th century, the home of the Texas legation.
Top: a club interior. The young man in breeches and carrying a riding whip and hat is being reproved for being improperly dressed.
Second: the bow window outside White’s Club (looking up towards Piccadilly)
Third: The handsome frontage of Boodles’s Club
Bottom: one corner of the Great Subscription Room at Brooks’s Club (1808). A high-stakes game is underway with a large pot of money to be won in the hollowed-out table centre.