Saturday, November 29, 2008

Almack's Assembly Rooms

Apart from the reviews, we will be posting some bits and pieces of information about the Regency period, and since Almack's was quite famous and after all we named the blog after it, the first such post is about Almack’s.

Readers of Regency Romances will know that if a book takes place in London during the season, then Almack’s will likely feature quite prominently in the story. It is after all the place for gently bred young ladies to meet highly eligible gentlemen, and regardless of the specifics of the plot of a Regency Romance, we do know that the heroine will be married by the end of the book.

The information below was taken mostly from Wikipedia.

Almack's Assembly Rooms was a famous club in King Street, London where social gatherings of the upper class took place, at a time where most other social functions of the season took place in the houses of the aristocracy.

It was established by William Almack, who it was claimed reversed the syllables of his Scottish name ‘Macall', because he found that in England a Scots name prejudiced his business. However, this theory does not seem to be true, and Almack was in fact almost certainly of Yorkshire origin.

Almack’s first opened on 12 February 1765. In the first decades of its existence it functioned mostly as a gaming club, one where ladies were allowed, in contrast with the traditional gentlemen’s clubs.

Sometime after 1800 Almack’s Assembly Rooms changed from a gaming club to an exclusive venue where balls were held once a week on Wednesday’s. Almack’s was now governed by a select committee of the most influential ladies of the ton, known as The Patronesses of Almack’s. At different periods in the club's long history, there were six or seven of them.

By 1814, Almack’s was ruled by the familiar to Regency readers leading ladies of the ton, who so often terrify and fascinate heroines of Regency Romances:

  • Anne Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry (better known as Viscountess of Castlereagh)

  • Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey

  • Emily, Lady Cowper (later Lady Palmerston)

  • Lady Sefton

  • Mrs. Drummond Burrel

  • Countess de Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador)

  • Countess Esterhazy (wife of the Austrian ambassador)

The Patronesses allowed entrance to the rooms only to those they considered good ton. Those lucky enough to pass muster would be able to purchase non-transferable vouchers, which would allow them entrance into Almack’s. Provided they were properly attired and arrived before 11pm that is. The voucher cost 10 guineas and it was valid for a Season (April to August) unless once behaviour caused the Patronesses to recall their voucher. Money would not automatically entitle one to be granted the coveted voucher. On the contrary rich ‘cits’ would not be admitted to Almack’s, where what mattered was breeding, manners and ‘ton’. A title would be a recommendation of course, but not enough on its own. Only about three-quarters of the hereditary nobility passed muster with the Lady Patronesses.

To avoid any suggestion of impropriety, dances were initially limited to the country dances or contredanses, at that time danced with a good deal of energy. This changed around 1813, when first the quadrille and then the waltz were introduced. The introduction of the quadrille is strongly associated with Lady Jersey, and the waltz with Lady de Lieven.

No sumptuous repasts were served at Almack’s since it did not aim to compete with the luxury of private balls. The refreshments served in the supper rooms were plain and consisted of thinly-sliced bread (which has to be a day old to be sliced that thin) with fresh butter, and dry cake (dry meaning unfrosted, without icing, not stale). To avoid the drunkenness rampant in society, where many noblemen prided themselves on drinking four or five bottles of port a day, they served only tea and lemonade in the supper rooms.

People came to Almack's to see and be seen, to assert their claim to being of the highest social rank, and to network with others of the caste. It also served as one of the marriage marts of Society where gentlemen could find brides of suitable ton. And mothers would give much to obtain the coveted vouchers when they had marriageable daughters to present to society.

The Patronesses reign lasted until around 1824, when exclusivity and strictness of rules started to be relaxed and at around 1835 Almack’s started to decline as a centre of fashion. The assemblies are said to have come to an end in 1863, and for the next thirty years the rooms were used for dinners, concerts, balls and public meetings. In 1886-7 the site was purchased by a company and renamed Willis's Rooms.The building was destroyed by enemy action in the war of 1939–45. The site is now occupied by a block of offices called Almack House, erected in 1950. It bears a brass plaque commemorating the existence of Almack's on that spot.

Sources & Further Info:

Almack's - Wikipedia

Almack's Assembly Rooms - RomanceWiki

King's Street - British History Online

Pall Mall, North Side - British History Online

Almack's Assembly Rooms - The Shady Old Lady's Guide to London


Anonymous December 3, 2012 at 1:51 AM  

You need to get a more informed source about the historical Almack's Assembly Rooms than Wikipedia. The organization is not noted for empirical research.



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