White’s: A Gentleman’s World of Exclusivity
Updated: May 4, 2022
By L.M. Romano, author of Forgotten Betrothal
“Of all the modern schemes of Man
That time has brought to bear,
A plague upon the wicked plan,
That parts the wedded pair!
My wedded friends they all allow
They meet with slights and snubs,
And say, “They have no husbands now, -
They’re married to the Clubs!”
In Regency London, one of the most distinguishing features of the gentleman’s world was the club—an exclusively male space for the upper classes to meet, mingle, eat, drink, and gamble away from the influence of their wives and family. While the impact of club life was sometimes exaggerated to comedic effect (as displayed in the above poem by humorist Tom Hood in his Comic Annual of 1838), it cannot be denied that membership in one of the exclusive gentleman’s clubs of White’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s, Waiter’s, and others marked one’s status in society. For Chapter 6 in Forgotten Betrothal, I decided to use one of these historic clubs—White’s—as the location for a meeting between Lord Grey, Elizabeth’s biological brother, and Lord Lisle, the eldest son of the Earl of Matlock. Though the actual setting for their little tête à tête matters little to the storyline, I set out to do some research to make sure that I didn’t commit any serious faux pas when creating my little scene.
So why White’s? There was a veritable cornucopia of gentlemen’s clubs in London in the early nineteenth century, and many men possessed multiple memberships. Since I wanted Darcy and his cousins to share the same club membership as Lord Grey and his father, Lord Tamworth, White’s seemed the perfect choice as it was perhaps the oldest and most select of the three main Regency clubs (Brooks’s was the most overtly political, and Boodle’s catered to country squires). White’s was first established in 1698 as “White’s Chocolate-house” on St. James’s Street, though the original location was destroyed by a fire in 1733. This event allegedly became the inspiration for William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, plate 6, created in 1735, which depicts a gambling den in which the occupants are so engrossed by their card games that they fail to notice the ceiling has caught fire.
After the fire, the club was moved to different apartments on St. James’s Street and eventually became a private clubhouse with strict rules for membership starting in 1736. During the Regency era, White’s was owned by George Raggett, who served as a money lender and financial manager for the establishment. Within its walls there existed a complicated set of rules and guidelines that not only protected Raggett from bankruptcy (card games sometimes resulted in outrageous debts—in 1772, Charles Fox reportedly lost 11,000 pounds in one night), but also codified interactions between social classes, as servants were kept out of sight as much as was possible.
Both White’s and Brooks’s followed strictly observed policies of fair play and it was part of the role of the club manager to enforce gentlemanly behavior as defined by the club’s “code of honor”— a contrast to the more debauched gaming hells that admitted a wider array of society. Club life also followed a set routine of eating, socializing, and gaming in the “upper rooms” which were not open to visitors. In Forgotten Betrothal, Grey and Lisle meet for a drink in the mid-afternoon, which was a quieter time of the day to gather for most clubs (a breakfast was typically served at eleven, followed later in the day by a dinner at four, with dessert at seven, and gaming from midnight until 2 o’clock), thus Grey notes the lack of occupants in White’s most distinguishing feature—the Bow Window.
In 1811, the front façade of White’s received a significant makeover. The old front door was replaced with a new bow window that served the unique purpose of displaying the exclusivity that White’s members enjoyed—a place to not only observe and pass judgment on passersby, but also a place to be seen. Set on the ground floor, the bow window became famous for the dandies who sat behind the glass, and in 1812 (when Forgotten Betrothal takes place), the most illustrious of these gentlemen was George Bryan “Beau” Brummell. A favorite of the
Prince Regent until his fall from grace in 1814, Brummell was an unlikely candidate to lead the social scene of the haute ton considering his father came from royal service, and yet his ability to set fashion trends combined with his staggering self-confidence made him the leader of the Regency beaux. Grey’s distaste for Brummell and his associates was not uncommon amongst certain sets of the aristocracy, many of whom derided the extravagance of the dandies and the habits of those who held company with the Prince Regent.
One habit in particular that I chose to highlight was the use of snuff. When I thought about setting the scene for Grey and Lisle’s conversation, one aspect I wanted to consider was the environment inside the club itself—most particularly, would there be cigar smoke in the air? I was unsure whether Grey would spot his friend approaching through a hazy vapor of tobacco (since I suppose that picture in my mind seemed to scream “man’s domain”), so I hit the books to see what I could find. As it turns out, snuff was the only form of tobacco allowed in White’s until 1845, as cigar smoking during the Regency was considered “vulgar” and decidedly lower-class.
Ornate snuff boxes (accessories which became status symbols due to their elaborate decorations) carried a wide variety of tobacco blends, many of which were patterned after the favorite flavors of society leaders. The Prince Regent’s blend was scented with attar of roses, the Queen’s with violets, and even Beau Brummell himself had his own varietal that could be purchased by those who wished to copy the popular trendsetter. As I personally find the practice rather disgusting and could not picture Darcy or his companions partaking of this particular pastime, I chose to leave the snuff-taking to the other members of White’s.
There is so much to explore in the high society world of Regency London, and even though gentleman’s clubs do not occupy a major point of focus in the world of Pride & Prejudice, just researching these somewhat mysterious and exclusive locales helped to immerse my characters into the social scene of the day and lend greater authenticity to their fictional world.
 John Timbs, Club Life of London, Vol. 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1866), 251.  Venetia Murray, An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 160.  Timbs, Club Life of London, Vol. 1, 109.  Ibid, 115.  Jane Rendell, The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space & Architecture in Regency London (London: Athlone Press, 2002), 67-69.  Robert Morrison, The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern (London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), 90-91.  Jane Rendell, The Pursuit of Pleasure, 70.  Venetia Murray, An Elegant Madness, 30.  Ibid., 252.