Pick up a Regency Era novel by any author and there is a high probability that before reaching the end Almack’s Assembly in London will be mentioned at least once. While this may appear to be gratuitous name tossing, the truth is that in the early decades of 1800 Almack’s was THE society locale. How this came to be is an interesting bit of history.
The origins are so modest as to be mysteriously unclear. Doors to the establishment on King’s Street in London opened on February 20, 1765. That much seems certain. The owner, a man named William Almack or William Macall, depending on the source, also opened a coffee house on Pall Mall which would eventually become Brook’s Gentlemen’s Club (Another story for another day!) Designed as a social and gambling club for women primarily, with men allowed, it was an unusual endeavor although not unique. Other both-gender casinos, such as The Pantheon on Oxford Street, already existed so competition was stiff.
By the time fire destroyed The Pantheon in 1792 (it was rebuilt), Almack’s had risen gradually in financial success and prestige. The gambling/casino aspects dwindled and were gone by 1800. Dancing and socializing amongst the elite of London Society became the normal activity. Yet what truly set Almack’s apart was its membership exclusivity.
No one could simply walk into Almack’s. NO ONE! Vouchers for admission were granted on a yearly basis, and only those who passed the stringent assessment of the Lady Patronesses were honored with a voucher. There were no set rules, at least as far as anyone knows, the whims of the five to seven judging ladies deciding the fate of each applicant. Membership was limited so as to maintain the specialness, and the standards were strict. A hint of scandal, one tiny false move, questionable finances or breeding, a less-than perfect appearance … anything could prevent inclusion, or have a member stripped of their privileges.
For this reason Almack’s balls held each Wednesday night during the London Season were the prime event in town, and the best place to meet those of the opposite sex with quality. A pristine reputation was vital to the success of Almack’s Assembly, thus the entertainments were controlled and the conduct of those admitted closely observed. Beverages were non-alcoholic or watered, highly sweetened spirits with over imbibing not allowed. Dances were of the sedate, country style, at least until somewhere between 1813 and 1816 when the quadrille and then the Viennese waltz were introduced. Yet even then, decorum and propriety were key virtues at an Almack’s Assembly. As a result, it was a relatively safe place for a young woman or gentleman to be as they searched for the perfect mate.
How the various patronesses were selected, and how their reign evolved in also unclear. Changes occurred over the years, and since the patronesses were not elected or answerable to any sort of governing body, who was on the Almack’s committee from Season to Season is not firmly recorded. Those who did document the ladies at the helm often contradict each other. What we can be fairly sure of is that the following women of the Regency were patronesses for the bulk of the first two decades.
- Amelia Stewart, Viscountess Castlereagh
- Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, who should not be confused with her mother-in-law, Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, one of the more notorious mistresses of George IV when he was Prince of Wales.
- Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper, sister of the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, and later married to another Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.
- Maria Molyneux, Countess of Sefton, wife of William Molyneux, 2nd Earl of Sefton.
- The Hon. Sarah Clementina Drummond-Burrell, later Lady Willoughby de Eresby. Clementina was the only surviving child of James Drummond, 1st Baron Perth. On marriage, her husband Peter Burrell, a noted dandy, assumed the Drummond family name. He succeeded his father as 2ndBaron Gwydyr and subsequently his mother as 22nd Baron Willoughby de Eresby.
- Dorothea Lieven, Countess de Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador and a political force in her own right; Princess Lieven after 1826.
- Countess Esterházy, wife of the Austrian ambassador Prince Paul Anton Esterházy; Princess Esterházy after 1833.
The power of the patronesses, and importance of Almack’s to English society would continue for decades. Writers up to and during the Victorian Era speak of the establishment with reverential awe, although the later years did not compare to the height of the Regency. In 1871 new owners renamed the assembly Willis’s Rooms, ending the one-hundred year run. During the bombing of World War II the building was destroyed. Not a trace remains beyond drawings and written articles from the past. Almack House, an office building erected on the site, commemorates the history with the name but nothing else.