The Kit-Cat club. Clubs and club life in London

King, George IV, Hydepark, England, Regency, Ralph Nevill
King George IV in Hydepark.

Clubs and club life in London



This famous Club was a threefold celebrity—political, literary, and artistic. It was the great Society of Whig leaders, formed about the year 1700, temp. William III., consisting of thirty-nine noblemen and gentlemen zealously attached to the House of Hanover; among whom the Dukes of Somerset, Richmond, Grafton, Devonshire, and Marlborough, and (after the accession of George I.) the Duke of Newcastle; the Earls of Dorset, Sunderland, Manchester, Wharton, and Kingston; Lords Halifax and Somers; Sir Robert Walpole, Vanbrugh, Congreve, Granville, Addison, Garth, Maynwaring, Stepney, and Walsh. They are said to have first met at an obscure house in Shire-lane, by Temple Bar, at the house of a noted mutton-pieman, one Christopher Katt; from whom the Club, and the pies that formed a standing dish at the Club suppers, both took their name of Kit-Cat.

 George Cruikshank, Dandie's, Coat, Arms, England, Regency,
The Dandie’s Coat of Arms. By George Cruikshank.

In the Spectator, No. 9, however, they are said to have derived their title not from the maker of the pie, but from the pie itself, which was called a Kit-Cat, as we now say a Sandwich; thus, in a prologue to a comedy of 1700:
“A Kit-Cat is a supper for a lord”
but Dr. King, in his Art of Cookery, is for the pieman:
“Immortal made, as Kit-Cat by his pies.”

The origin and early history of the Kit-Cat Club is obscure. Elkanah Settle addressed, in 1699, a manuscript poem “To the most renowned the President and the rest of the Knights of the most noble Order of the Toast,” in which verses is asserted the dignity of the Society; and Malone supposes the Order of the Toast to have been identical with the Kit-Cat Club: this was in 1699. The toasting-glasses, which we shall presently mention, may have something to do with this presumed identity.

Ned Ward, in his Secret History of Clubs, at once connects the Kit-Cat Club with Jacob Tonson, “an amphibious mortal, chief merchant to the Muses.” Yet this is evidently a caricature. The maker of the mutton-pies, Ward maintains to be a person named Christopher, who lived at the sign of the Cat and Fiddle, in Gray’s Inn-lane, whence he removed to keep a pudding-pye shop, near the Fountain Tavern, in the Strand.

Banquet, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, Joseph Nash, Regency,
Banquet at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton c. 1827. By Joseph Nash.

Ward commends his mutton-pies, cheese-cakes, and custards, and the pieman’s interest in the sons of Parnassus; and his inviting “a new set of Authors to a collation of oven trumpery at his friend’s house, where they were nobly entertained with as curious a batch of pastry delicacies as ever were seen at the winding-up of a Lord Mayor’s feast;” adding that “there was not a mathematical figure in all Euclid’s Elements but what was presented to the table in baked wares, whose cavities were filled with fine eatable varieties fit for the gods or poets.”

Mr. Charles Knight, in the Shilling Magazine, No. 2, maintains that by the above is meant, that Jacob Tonson, the bookseller, was the pieman’s “friend,” and that to the customary “whet” to his authors he added the pastry entertainment. Ward adds, that this grew into a weekly meeting, provided his, the bookseller’s friends would give him the refusal of their juvenile productions. This “generous proposal was very readily agreed to by the whole poetic class, and the cook’s name being Christopher, for brevity called Kit, and his sign being the Cat and Fiddle, they very merrily derived a quaint denomination from puss and her master, and from thence called themselves of the Kit-Cat Club.”

Regency, Dandy, Clubs, Dandysme. Kit-Cat, Club
Well known Bond Street Loungers in 1820.

A writer in the Book of Days, however, states, that Christopher Cat, the pastry-cook, of King-street, Westminster, was the keeper of the tavern, where the Club met; but Shire-lane was, upon more direct authority, the pieman’s abode.

We agree with the National Review, that “it is hard to believe, as we pick our way along the narrow and filthy pathway of Shire-lane, that in this blind alley [?], some hundred and fifty years ago, used to meet many of the finest gentlemen and choicest wits of the days of Queen Anne and the first George. Inside one of those frowsy and low-ceiled rooms, now tenanted by abandoned women or devoted to the sale of greengroceries and small coal, — Halifax has conversed and Somers unbent, Addison mellowed over a bottle, Congreve flashed his wit, Vanbrugh let loose his easy humour, Garth talked and rhymed.”

The Club was literary and gallant as well as political. The members subscribed 400 guineas for the encouragement of good comedies in 1709. The Club had its toasting-glasses, inscribed with a verse, or toast, to some reigning beauty; among whom were the four shining daughters of the Duke of Marlborough — Lady Godolphin, Lady Sunderland, Lady Bridgewater, and Lady Monthermer; Swift’s friends, Mrs. Long and Mrs. Barton, the latter the lovely and witty niece of Sir Isaac Newton; the Duchess of Bolton, Mrs. Brudenell, and Lady Carlisle, Mrs. Di. Kirk, and Lady Wharton.

Dr. Arbutlmot, in the following epigram, seems to derive the name of the Club from this custom of toasting ladies after dinner, rather than from the renowned maker of mutton-pies:

Whence deathless Kit-Cat took his name,
Few critics can unriddle:
Some say from pastrycook it came,
And some from Cat and Fiddle.
From no trim beaus its name it boasts,
Grey statesmen or green wits,
But from this pell-mell pack of toasts
Of old Cats and young Kits.

Lord Halifax wrote for the toasting-glasses the following verses in 1703:

The Duchess of St. Albans.
The line of Vere, so long renown’d in arms,
Concludes with lustre in St. Albans’ charms.
Her conquering eyes have made their race complete:
They rose in valour, and in beauty set.

The Duchess of Beaufort.
Offspring of a tuneful sire,
Blest with more than mortal fire;
Likeness of a Mother’s face,
Blest with more than mortal grace:
You with double charms surprise,
With his wit, and with her eyes.

The Lady Mary Churchill.
Fairest and latest of the beauteous race,
Blest with your parent’s wit, and her first blooming face;
Born with our liberties in William’s reign,
Your eyes alone that liberty restrain.

The Lady Sunderland.
All Nature’s charms in Sunderland appear,
Bright as her eyes, and as her reason clear;
Yet still their force to man not safely known,
Seems undiscover’d to herself alone.

The Mademoiselle Sjoanheim.
Admir’d in Germany, ador’d in France,
Your charms to brighten glory here advance:
The stubborn Britons own your beauty’s claim,
And with their native toasts enrol your name.

To Mrs. Barton.
Beauty and wit strove, each in vain,
To vanquish Bacchus and his train;
But Barton with successful charms,
From both their quivers drew her arms.
The roving God his sway resigns,
And awfully submits his vines.

In Spence’s Anecdotes (note) is the following additional account of the Club: “You have heard of the Kit-Cat Club,” says Pope to Spence. “The master of the house where the club met was Christopher Katt; Tonson was secretary. The day Lord Mohun and the Earl of Berkeley were entered of it, Jacob said he saw they were just going to be ruined.

When Lord Mohun broke down the gilded emblem on the top of his chair, Jacob complained to his friends, and said a man who would do that, would cut a man’s throat. So that he had the good and the forms of the society much at heart. The paper was all in Lord Halifax’s handwriting of a subscription of four hundred guineas for the encouragement of good comedies, and was dated 1709, soon after they broke up. Steele, Addison, Congreve, Garth, Vanbrugh, Manwaring, Stepney, Walpole, and Pulteney, were of it; so was Lord Dorset and the present Duke. Manwaring, whom we hear nothing of now, was the ruling man in all conversations; indeed, what he wrote had very little merit in it. Lord Stanhope and the Earl of Essex were also members. Jacob has his own, and all their pictures, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Each member gave his, and he is going to build a room for them at Barn Elms.”

Regency, Georgian, fashion history, costume,Heideloff,
Riding dress, June 1795

It is from the size at which these portraits were taken (a three-quarter length), 36 by 28 inches, that the word Kit-Cat came to be applied to pictures. Tonson had the room built at Barn Elms; but the apartment not being sufficiently large to receive half-length pictures, a shorter canvas was adopted. In 1817, the Club-room was standing, but the pictures had long been removed; soon after, the room was united to a barn, to form a riding-house.

In summer the Club met at the Upper Flask, Hampstead Heath, then a gay resort, with its races, ruffles, and private marriages.

The pictures passed to Richard Tonson, the descendant of the old bookseller, who resided at Water-Oakley, on the banks of the Thames: he added a room to his villa, and here the portraits were hung. On his death the pictures were bequeathed to Mr. Baker of Bayfordbury, the representative of the Tonson family: all of them were included in the Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester and some in the International Exhibition of 1862.

The political significance of the Club was such that Walpole records that though the Club was generally mentioned as “a set of wits” they were in reality the patriots that saved Britain. According to Pope and Tonson, Garth, Vanbrugh, and Congreve were the three most honest-hearted, real good men of the poetical members of the Club.

There were odd scenes and incidents occasionally at the club meetings. Sir Samuel Garth, physician to George I., was a witty member, and wrote some of the inscriptions for the toasting-glasses. Coming one night to the club, Garth declared he must soon be gone, hav- ing many patients to attend ; but some good wine being produced, he forgot them. Sir Richard Steele was of the party, and reminding him of the visits he had to pay, Garth immediately pulled out his list, which numbered fifteen, and said, “It’s no great matter whether I see them to-night, or not, for nine of them have such bad constitutions that all the physicians in the world can’t save them; and the other six have such good constitutions that all the physicians in the world can’t kill them.”

Dr. Hoadley, Bishop of Bangor, accompanied Steele and Addison to one of the Whig celebrations by the Club of King William’s anniversary; when Steele had the double duty of celebrating the day and drinking his friend Addison up to conversation pitch, he being hardly warmed by that time. Steele was not fit for it. So, John Sly, the hatter of facetious memory, being in the house, took it into his head to come into the company on his knees, with a tankard of ale in his hand, to drink off to the immortal memory, and to return in the same manner.

Steele,sitting next Bishop Hoadley, whispered him, “Do laugh: it is humanity to laugh.” By-and-by, Steele being too much in the same condition as the hatter, was put into a chair, and sent home. Nothing would satisfy him but being carried to the Bishop of Bangor’s, late as it was. However, the chairmen carried him home, and got him upstairs, when his great complaisance would wait on them downstairs, which he did, and then was got quietly to bed.

Next morning Steele sent the indulgent bishop this couplet:
“Virtue with so much ease on Bangor sits,
All faults he pardons, though he none commits.”

Mr. Knight successfully defends Tonson from Ward’s satire, and nobly stands forth for the bookseller who identified himself with Milton, by first making Paradise Lost popular, and being the first bookseller who threw open Shakespeare to a reading public. “The statesmen of the Kit-Cat Club,” he adds, “lived in social union with the Whig writers who were devoted to the charge of the poetry that opened their road to preferment; the band of orators and wits were naturally hateful to the Tory authors that Harley and Bolingbroke were nursing into the bitter satirists of the weekly sheets. Jacob Tonson naturally came in for a due share of invective.

In a poem entitled ‘Factions Displayed’ he is ironically introduced as “the Touchstone of all modern wit;” and he is made to vilify the great ones of Barn Elms:
“‘I am the founder of your loved Kit-Cat,
A club that gave direction to the State:
‘Twas there we first instructed all our youth
To talk profane, and laugh at sacred truth:
We taught them how to boast, and rhyme, and bite,
To sleep away the day, and drink away the night.

Tonson deserved better of posterity.


  • Club life of London: with anecdotes of the clubs, coffee-houses and taverns of the metropolis during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by John Timbs (1801-1875). London: Richard Bentley, Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty, 1866.
  • The man of pleasure by Ralph Nevill (1865-1930). London: Chatto & Windus, 1912.
  • A history of everyday things in England, written and illustrated by Marjorie, Courtney Quennell, Charles Henry Bourne, (1872-1935). London: Batsford 1918-34.

Club Life of London: With Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-houses and Taverns of the Metropolis During the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries by John Timbs.

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