Two hundred years ago, this coming Sunday, the Travellers Club was founded. This was the only one of the fashionable and exclusive London gentlemen’s clubs to be founded during our favorite decade. However, the purpose of this club differed from the previously founded gentlemen’s clubs in several notable ways. It will be important for Regency authors to be aware of the purpose and principles of this club, should they choose to allow any of their fictional male characters to become a member of the "new" gentlemen’s club which opened its doors in the last months of the Regency.
The origins and early months of the Travellers Club . . .
The origin of the Travellers Club is rooted in the Napoleonic Wars, and more importantly, the peace negotiations which then followed the defeat of the Bonaparte and the French. All of the European countries in the great alliance which defeated Bonaparte sent representatives to the Congress of Vienna. The main point of this great congress was to allow the Allied powers to have a hand in the setting of the national boundaries which would then have the effect of fine tuning the balance of power in Europe for decades to come. To serve as their principal diplomat at the Congress of Vienna, the British government sent Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Though Lord Castlereagh was equal to the challenge of representing the Crown at this important congress, so far from home, he also felt the lack of one of the principal supports and comforts he had enjoyed in London, the home-like atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club.
Lord Castlereagh persevered in his duties in Vienna until he was recalled by the British government. This was actually done as a ruse to get the Duke of Wellington, his very good friend, out of Paris. There had been more than one attempt on Wellington’s life while he was in Paris, but as a man of honor, he felt obliged to carry out his mission there. Unwilling to risk the life of their greatest general, the British government ordered him to the relative safety of Vienna, ostensibly as the replacement for the departing Lord Castlereagh. In the end, the work of the Congress of Vienna was interrupted by Bonaparte’s escape from his exile on Elba and his efforts to once again take control of the empire he had created on the Continent.
For the next few years, Lord Castlereagh, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Britain, was busy dealing with the aftermath of the defeat of Bonaparte and the French at Waterloo. In 1818, he was again the principal diplomat for Britain, this time at the Congress of Aix-la-Chappelle, in Germany. At that congress, he was accompanied by his great friend, the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the Allied army which occupied France after Waterloo. This congress had been convened to formally bring that Allied occupation of France to an end. As had been the case in Vienna, in Germany, Lord Castlereagh felt the lack of a gentlemen’s club, like White’s, of which he was a member, to provide him with a place to socialize and relax when he was not engaged in his diplomatic duties. He discussed the issue with his friend, Wellington, who shared his view that gentlemen’s clubs in London were a great convenience for their members, but were becoming too politically polarized.
One his way home from Germany, Lord Castlereagh broke his long journey in Paris. There, he spent some time visiting with an old friend, General Sir William Keppel. The conversation turned to a problem both men, like Wellington, had found increasingly distressing. The existing clubs in London for upper-class gentlemen tended to be strongholds for one political party or another, leaving those involved in government with little respite from the issues of the day when they wished to take their leisure. The members of White’s club, the oldest gentlemen’s club, founded in 1693, and Boodle’s, founded in 1762, were both affiliated primarily with the Tory party. Brooks’s Club, founded in 1764, was primarily affiliated with the Whig party. Seldom did a member of one political party cross the threshold of a club frequented by members of the opposing party. Thus, there was no common meeting ground upon which highly charged issues could be discussed calmly and without bias by members of both parties.
All three of those early gentlemen’s clubs had been established to provide their members with an elegant and sophisticated place in London where they could meet friends, conduct business, get a drink and/or meal, or even occassionally have a room in which to sleep, if needed. These clubs had also been founded in order to provide their members with a clean and comfortable environment in which they could gamble, legally. At that time, it was illegal to gamble anywhere except in an establishment which was demonstrably members-only. For that reason, at least some members of those early gentlemen’s clubs engaged in deep gambling, of all types. So much so that it could be detrimental to their financial security and might even threaten the political influence they would be able to wield on behalf of their party.
In the course of their conversation, both Lord Castlereagh and General Keppel found they both admired a dining club in London which had been founded by a diplomat, in 1812, Grillion’s. To avoid political strife, the dining club accepted most members, but it was required that they behave with strict political impartiality during club meetings. This dining club had no permanent premises of its own. Instead, the club originally met at Grillion’s Hotel in London, from which it got its name. During each parliamentary session, Grillion’s dining club met once a week, where men of all political affiliations sat down to dinner together in good will and harmony. Though there was often lively discussion, there is no record that any of those meals were disrupted by harsh political invective.
Castlereagh, in particular, was eager to see a similar club established in London, where its members could meet socially, without political contention. He entertained the hope that if gentlemen from all political persuasions could interact with one another calmly, without friction, it might be possible to develop a network of gentlemen who were willing to work together on political issues for the good of the country, over that of their party. In addition, as a man who had widely traveled in the service of his country, Castlereagh was also acutely aware of the need for a neutral meeting place for diplomats and other travellers in a foreign city where they could relax and socialize in their free time. Keppel applauded Castlereagh’s idea and urged him to pursue the foundation of such a club when he returned to London.
Fortunately, Lord Castlereagh had been a member of White’s club in London for several years. During that time, he had become involved with the management of the club, so he had a very clear idea of what was needed to set up and run a successful London gentlemen’s club. He was an able administrator, as well as a cultured, cosmopolitan man of fine manners who had a wide acquaintanceship among the gentlemen of Britain and of several European capitals. Men who might be interested in the new type of gentlemen’s club which he hoped to establish. When he returned to Britain, Castlereagh began to formulate a set of guidelines for the new club he envisioned.
This new club would have no official political affiliation. Therefore, gentlemen from all parties would be welcome, with the understanding that they respect the views of other members with different political affiliations. In addition, political affiliation was never to be considered a criteria when voting on prospective new members. Membership in this club was to be limited to 700 members. Pure games of chance, such as those played with dice, would be forbidden at this new club. Impromptu, high-stakes wagers of any kind between members would be strongly discouraged, and the club would not maintain an official betting book as was done at White’s and Brooks’s. Though the game of whist could be played in the card room, it was understood that those were to be friendly games and the points in any game were to be kept fairly low. And no card games of any kind were to be introduced in the club card room each day until after dinner.
Due to his experience as an ambassador and diplomat, Lord Castlereagh added another, very unique rule. Membership in this new club would only be open to those who had traveled at least five hundred miles, "in a direct line," from Trafalgar Square. Travelling such a distance would be quite an accomplishment well into the nineteenth century. (Today, members must have visited at least four different countries to be eligible). It was Castlereagh’s intention that this new club would become a place where diplomats and other distinguished foreign visitors would be able to enjoy the hospitality of a refined London gentlemen’s club. In this way, he hoped to broaden the outlook of all the club’s members beyond London, and even beyond Britain, as well as to give foreign visitors a better picture of British society, by allowing them all to relax and socialize together. Foreign visitors were typically invited to become members for the duration of their stay in Britain.
A group of like-minded gentlemen, invited by Lord Castlereagh to become founders of this new club, attended the very first committee meeting, on Wednesday, 12 May 1819. This founding group included the Marquess of Lansdowne, the Earl of Aberdeen, Earl Beauchamp, Viscount Palmerston, Lord Auckland, and Sir Archibald MacDonald, among others. At this first committee meeting, the founders voted to approve the rules which Lord Castlereagh had drawn up for the club. They also voted to name this new venture. It would be called the Traveller’s Club. At another committee meeting, held on Monday, 19 July 1819, the founders voted to adopt the head of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s great epic poem, The Odyssey, as the official emblem of the club. The circular emblem was composed of a drawing of the head of Odysseus, or Ulysses, in profile, facing to the right. Above the head, at the upper border of the circle, the name, "The Travellers Club," appeared with date of founding, 1819, below the head.
The Travellers Club was originally located at 12 Waterloo Place, just off Pall Mall. That area would soon become a popular and fashionable locale for other London gentlemen’s clubs. Within a few years, the Travellers Club outgrew its original rooms and, in 1822, moved to 49 Pall Mall. The new premises were larger and situated along fashionable Pall Mall, but they were not as sophisticated as most members would have preferred. Five years later, as the Travellers Club once again began to outgrow its premises, the demolition of Carlton House provided an opportunity by which to to keep the clubhouse on Pall Mall. In 1829, two years after Carlton House was razed and the land cleared, the Travellers Club management was able to acquire part of the property for their new club house. They set up a design competition by which to select an architect for their new building. The noted architect, Charles Barry, who went on to design the new Houses of Parliament, won the competition and set to work. The new building was completed in 1832, at a cost of £64,190, and stood at 106 Pall Mall, where that same Travellers Club building still stands to this day.
On Wednesday, 18 August 1819, the Travellers Club founders placed notices in the major London newspapers to announce the opening of this new gentlemen’s club. In addition to the founding members, some of the earliest members of the Travellers Club included the Duke of Wellington, General William Keppel, who had urged Castlereagh to bring it into being, Lord Eldon, Judge of the High Court of the Admiralty, the Duke of Devonshire, the French diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, and Prime Minister George Canning. Because of the requirement that members must have traveled at least five hundred miles "in a direct line" from London, the Travellers Club soon became popular with explorers, artists and even travel writers. A fine terrestrial globe and all of the latest maps of places around the world were to be found at the Travellers Club. Soon after its opening, the club’s library began to acquire travel books and other publications related to travel and exploration, for the use of its members.
No deep gambling over games of chance took place inside the Travellers Club. Rather, the occasional game of whist might be played in the card room of an evening, usually between older gentlemen who had long enjoyed the game. In order to foster the sophisticated and elegant environment of the Travellers Club, the founders made sure that a talented French chef was employed and the wine cellar was kept stocked with a wide selection of fine wines. An excellent meal, along with a superior bottle of wine was a generally reliable means by which to avoid arguments. Much to the relief of the majority of its members, there were also no bitter or contentious political arguments within the walls of the Travellers Club. However, as Lord Castlereagh had hoped, in an informal, comfortable and relaxed environment, a great many political problems could be broached and discussed calmly and rationally. In quite a few cases, those discussions eventually led to the resolution of some of those problems.
Dear Regency Authors, if you have a tale of romance set late in the Regency, might you provide one or more of your characters with membership in the Travellers Club? If so, will your characters be interested in travel, or will they be rational men seeking the relaxing environment of a sophisticated, but politically neutral, gentlemen’s club? Perhaps the villain is so desperate to become a member of the Travellers Club that he bribes people and/or forges documents in order to verify that he has travelled at least five hundred miles, in a direct line, from Trafalgar Square. How will his deception be found out? Mayhap the hero is planning an important journey of exploration. Will he plan it, and maybe even find like-minded explorers to accompany him on his expedition, at the Travellers Club? Then again, perhaps the hero’s imperious mother tries to forbid him from applying for membership in the Travellers Club, in the hope of keeping him tied to her apron strings. How will her plans to control the young man be foiled, and by who? Are there other ways in which the Travellers Club and its special rules might add additional dimension to a late Regency romance?