|A ball at Almack's 1815|
During the Regency period, Almack’s Assembly Rooms were at the heart of the London season. Their importance cannot be overstated. Possessing a voucher to enter the sacred portals of the Rooms could make or break a young lady’s entrance into the ton and her chances of finding a suitable husband.
Captain Gronow declares in his reminiscences of 1814 that:
“At the present time one can hardly conceive the importance which was attached to getting admission to Almack's, the seventh heaven of the fashionable world.”
According to Lord Lamington: "Almack's was the portal to that select circle of intellect and grace which constituted the charm of Society.”
As the English poet and wit, Henry Luttrell wrote:
“All on that magic List depends;
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends;
'Tis that which gratifies or vexes
All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.
If once to Almack's you belong,
Like monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove, you can do nothing right.”
The early days
Almack’s Assembly Rooms opened on 12 February 17651 in King Street, St. James, in the heart of fashionable London. They were situated immediately to the east of Pall Mall Place and, according to Horace Walpole, when they were opened, there were three very elegant rooms, one of which was planned to be 90 feet long.
|Almack's Assembly Rooms|
The Rooms were named after their founder, who is thought to have been a Scotsman. No one seems quite sure whether his name was Almack or whether this was a pseudonym to disguise his Scottish origins, as anything Scottish was out of favour at this time. He also founded a coffee house in 1763 which was later to become Brooks' club for gentlemen.
During the first phase of the life of Almack’s, the Rooms were home to a ladies’ club, where both sexes met to gamble, whilst dancing went on in the great room. It rivalled Carlisle House, whose entertainments, run by the redoubtable Madame Cornely, were becoming increasingly scandalous. Almack’s combated the mixed nature of the Carlisle assemblies by developing an exclusiveness that set it apart. Almack’s suffered a loss of popularity when the Pantheon opened in 1772; however, the latter was burnt down twenty years later and although rebuilt, it never rivalled Almack’s again.
The exclusive club of the ton
From the 1790s onwards, Almack’s entered a new phase. The ladies’ club dwindled and the excessive gambling disappeared and the Rooms became entirely given over to dances and assemblies. Almack’s became the place for a young lady to be seen to demonstrate her position in the ton and for a gentleman to go in search of a wife of good social standing. Hence, it became known as “The Marriage Mart”.
Almack’s exclusivity stemmed from the way that it restricted its membership. To attend the weekly balls, held on Wednesday evenings in the season, it was necessary to procure an annual voucher. According to Jesse, the subscription was ten guineas “for which you have a ball and supper once a week for twelve weeks”.
However, in order to obtain a voucher, one needed to be approved by the committee of six or seven high ranking ladies who governed Almack’s. Subscribers were allowed to bring a guest on a “Stranger’s Ticket”, but this guest still had to be approved by the patronesses before admittance.
To be offered a voucher meant acceptance into the ton; to lose one’s voucher indicated social ostracism.
|Excerpt from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)|
|Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey © Rachel Knowles|
The committee changed over time, but in the middle of the Regency period, Gronow records that they were: Lady Castlereagh, Lady Jersey, Lady Cowper, Mrs. Drummond Burrel, the Countess Esterhazy and the Countess Lieven. According to Ticknor’s diaries, only one lady acted as patroness at a time on a rotation basis, but the members of the committee are usually referred to collectively as the patronesses of Almack’s.
The patronesses met every Monday night during the season to decide who to drop from their membership and who to extend a voucher to. Vouchers were granted to those who met the criteria of the patronesses. This depended more on position in society, address and behaviour than on wealth. If granted a voucher, a young lady would be introduced to suitable partners by the patronesses.
The rules of Almack’s
During the height of the Regency, supper was served at 11pm, after which time no further admittance to the rooms was allowed. According to Gronow, the Duke of Wellington was famously turned away by Lady Jersey for arriving after the cut-off time of 11pm when the doors were closed.
The refreshments on offer were meagre; supper consisted of bread and butter and fairly plain cake, with tea and lemonade to drink. The correct garb for gentlemen at Almack’s at this time was knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras.
Only country dances – both Scotch reels and English country dances - were performed until about 1815 when Lady Jersey introduced the quadrille and the Countess Lieven introduced the waltz.
(1) Gronow states the opening of Almack’s as 12th February; other sources say 13th or 20th. However, they all seem agreed that it opened in February 1765.
Sources used include:
Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles of Almack’s (1922)
Creevey, Thomas, The Creevey Papers, A selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, MP, edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell (John Murray, 1904, London)
Gronow, Captain, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1900)
|Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (London, 1827)|