My new book on the Regency, available November 30th. All new material, with lots of chapters about the misbehaving rich! Details here
Almack’s, a set of assembly rooms in King Street, St James, was the very centre of the fashionable and beautiful Regency world. It consisted of two large and two smaller rooms for dancing and facilities for music and a place for some rather unprepossessing food. During the summer season, finishing in mid July, there would be balls with music, with the occasional concert and masque.
Almack’s could hold about 800 people when completely and intolerably full, but most balls would attract about 400 people. This was a similar number to the other balls organised by the aristocracy, but there were none more important than Almack’s. To gain admittance to Almack’s was to have made it to the very top of Regency society. The Morning Post would publish a weekly list of the upcoming social occasions dancing, music, tea and cards, conversazione and routs ( drinks receptions). There would be many each day, but people mostly avoided Wednesday as that when Almack’s would be open during the season. The top 400 people would be there, no matter what sumptuous brilliance was on offer at your James Street address.
Almack’s membership was mostly by annual subscription. You asked to join; or to be more precise, you asked for a licence, priced around £10 a year and waited. You would not be contacted by the aristocratic women who ran it. You would send your servant around to see if there was a ticket for you or a curt refusal and no reason given or correspondence entered into. Most people would not even bother to apply; those who gained a licence would live in fear of it being withdrawn. The £10 licence was designed to be so low to prove that this was not about the money .
Merely being rich and famous was not enough to guarantee you entry. Despite being the target audience being those who made the laws, nobody could gain entrance after 11pm. This was a time when parties started late, opening at ten with supper and one in the morning and calling your carriage to go home at 6am was normal.
In March 1819, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh and the victor of Waterloo, Wellington failed to gain entry into the establishment at 11.05 pm, despite Castlereagh’s own wife Emily being one of the phalanx of society ladies who decided who got in and who didn’t. The aristocratic ladies in charge would meet every Wednesday afternoon to revise the list of who was going in this week.
What did this elite establishment provide? There were two large rooms roped off for dancing and before 1812, rustic Scottish country dances and reels were most common. In 1813 the waltz was introduced, causing some moral consternation at first and later there was an emphasis on the quadrille. Rooms would be very brightly illuminated to allow people to see each other carefully in the place that was almost the bon ton tindr of its day. There would be artificial flowers in great number and perhaps an exotic foreign theme depending on the fashion of the time. Other balls were just as lavish, and the food was often better, but they were not Almacks. Dancing would start at 11.30 with supper at 1.30 and home time would be a relatively early 3.30 am.
The Duke of Wellington was refused entry on another occasional when he arrived in trousers rather than knee breeches, even though he was wearing the required white cravat and three pointed silk chapeau bras. He walked away without protest; he did not hold a grudge against the club as her later suggested that the hold a ball in fancy dress without masks of any time. In June 1817, 800 people turned up to a fancy dress with the themes of the “costumes of all nations”. Wellington may have invented the English fancy dress ball.
It was a marriage market to some extent, although less so than other gatherings as the bar was so high. Nobody was allowed to bring a friend everybody had to be vetted. This mock serious poem of the time describes a woman trying to break into society.
One major beneficiary of Almack’s was the orchestra leader James Paine. He capitalised on the fame of Almack’s by publishing the music for the quadrilles, but also producing fans that were illustrated with the moves needed to perform the quadrille for those whose dancing skills did not match their social ambitions. Whether you could look at your fan and dance at the same time is a moot point. Mr Paine’’ Band ( “Paine’s of Almacks”) also rented themselves out to add lustre to less prestigious events. Paine advertised in London but also in Taunton and Worcester so it seems clear that you were meant to buy the music and the fans and produce your own Almack’s- style entertainment in your own more modest residence.