What was Almack’s?
Almack’s was founded in 1765 by a Mr. McCall. The building was located on King Street just off St. James Street* and included a large ballroom, as well as supper rooms and card rooms.
Almack’s was ruled by a select committee of society matrons known as the Lady Patronesses. These ladies ruled the club with an iron hand; only the crème de la crème (about 25%) of London society were authorized to cross the threshold of this exclusive circle. Each application for membership was carefully scrutinized by the high-handed patronesses, who were not above using their power for retribution against their rivals or other personal reasons.
The food served was not of the best quality. Alcohol was not served—only tea and lemonade.The floor of the ballroom was said to be dreadful, and the rigid rules set by the patronesses could not be broken by anyone. It is said that the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Peninsular War, was refused admission because he did not sport the proper dress—knee breeches, white neckcloth, and a long-tailed coat. The doors were locked precisely at eleven o’clock and no one was allowed in after that for any reason. There was a long list of”do’s” and “don’ts” (mostly don’ts) for the young debutantes, and any infraction could result in expulsion from the club and social censure. When the waltz was finally given the seal of approval—it was condemned for years as being scandalous due to the close proximity of the dancers’ bodies—the young ladies had to be individually approved to dance it by one of the patronesses.
Almack’s balls were decidedly not anywhere near the grandest balls of the London Season, so why did the matchmaking mothers of the haut ton scramble to get their hands on those square cardboard vouchers that would gain them admittance?
One word—marriage. Almack’s was the exclusive “marriage mart” of the ton. While potential spouses for your sons and daughters could be found elsewhere, the “best” ones could ideally be found at Almack’s, where the average, everyday riffraff need not apply. Who wouldn’t want their daughter to find a wealthy, well-connected—perhaps titled—spouse to enrich the family fortunes? Matchmaking mothers everywhere yearned to have their marriageable offspring included among the exclusive company of Almack’s.
Who were the Patronesses?
The Lady Patronesses—six or seven at any one time—were:
Lady Castlereagh (Emily Anne) was a wealthy earl’s daughter who married the Viscount Castlereagh (later the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry), who held many political posts (Secretary of States for War, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and leader of the House of Commons) during the period. Lady Castlereagh was the one who insisted that the door to Almack’s be closed promptly at eleven. She and Mrs. Drummond Burrell were both known for their disdainful arrogance.
Lady Jersey, “Queen Sarah,” “Silence,” or “Sally” to her close friends was the wealthy daughter of the 10th Earl of Westmoreland who married the 5th Earl of Jersey. Lady Jersey’s mother-in-law, Lady Frances Jersey, was at one time the mistress of the Prince of Wales (it was she who recommended he choose Princess Caroline for his wife), and her parents eloped to Gretna Green (quite the scandal). Lady Jersey’s younger sister married the brother of the scandalous Lady Caroline Lamb, but when the latter ridiculed her in her vengeful novel Glenarvon, Lady Jersey barred her from Almack’s forever.
Lady Sefton (Maria) assisted many a green girl to negotiate the hazards of the marriage mart. Her husband was an enthusiastic sporting man, and a member of the Four-in-Hand Club (an elite club for only the best drivers).
Lady Cowper (Emily) was the daughter of the great political hostess, Lady Melbourne, and due to her mother’s numerous affairs, her paternity was never verified. She disapproved of her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, but was otherwise known as one of the kindest of the patronesses.
Princess Esterhazy (Thérèse) was the grand niece of Queen Charlotte and never let anyone forget it. Her husband Prince Paul Esterhazy served as the Austrian ambassador to England 1815-1842. She and the Countess Lieven demonstrated the utmost in continental sophistication.
Countess Lieven (Dorothea) was the first foreigner to serve as a patroness of Almack’s. Her husband the Count was the Russian ambassador to England from 1812 to 1834. Besides being a leader of London society, she was a significant political force in Great Britain, France and Russia.
Mrs. Drummond Burrell (Clementina) was a great heiress and daughter of an earl who later became a baroness when her husband succeeded to his father’s title. Although one of the younger patronesses, she was considered the most arrogant and haughty of them all.
Appearance was everything.
It’s interesting to note that while London society, as demonstrated by the Lady Patronesses, demanded a high degree of moral perfection, it was really the façade that counted. As long as you behaved with discretion—i.e., didn’t get caught—you could have adulterous affairs with impunity. While it was expected that wives would remain faithful to their husbands until the birth of an heir or two, after that, it was quite common for both husband and wife to indulge in affairs. It was widely known that Lady Melbourne had affairs with politically powerful men who fathered many of her children, but her the importance of her position precluded any open censure.
Most of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s had notorious affairs. Emily Cowper, taking the advice of her mother, the above-mentioned Lady Melbourne, to be true to her lover rather than her husband, had a long affair with Lord Palmerston, who later became Prime Minister, and after her husband died, they married and lived happily ever after.
As long as it was behind closed doors—and you were wealthy and important enough—you could get away with a considerably lower standard of behavior. Of course, marriages tended to be more about property, wealth and family connections than any sort of love or affection, so perhaps such scenarios were a natural result of cold-blooded unions.
The King Street location of Almack’s is an office building now; when I was there two weeks ago, it was covered with scaffolding. Christie’s Auction House is across the street.