Today (April 28) in London History – “where young noblemen were fleeced and corrupted”

London’s oldest and grandest Gentlemen’s Club – White’s – caught fire and burned down on April 28, 1733. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


The fire started in Hell. So that was as it should be.

It raged out of control. Burned the building to the ground.

The date was this day, April 28th. The year was 1733.

The building was White’s, the oldest and grandest of St James’s Gentlemen’s Clubs.

Hell, where the fire started, was a gaming room at the club. 

The blaze drew a crowd. Including the King and the Prince of Wales. They were there giving their every encouragement to the firemen and their assistants.

A face in the crowd who wasn’t cheering the firemen on – he had other fish to fry – was William Hogarth, the great artist. Hogarth had his sketch pad and sure enough he gives us a visual record of the fire that started in Hell. Nor was it just a casual sketch. The fire has a cameo role in one of Hogarth’s masterpieces, his Rake’s Progress series. The gamblers are shown in disarray as smoke penetrates the gaming room. 

We’ve also got written accounts of the fire from Hell. They tell us it started in the early hours of the morning. We learn that the owner’s wife leapt out of a window onto a feather mattress that had been positioned on the stairs outside the club. And that, happily, she wasn’t much hurt. 

Bears repeating, though, the property was much hurt. It was destroyed. From these shores – nearly 300 years later – the most grievous loss was the club’s early records. 

Now, for the uninitiated, White’s, it bears repeating, is the oldest and grandest of the St James’ gentlemen’s clubs. Its list of members over the past three centuries is a roll call of the richest and most distinguished male members of society. By way of example, every prime minister – 32 in all – from the time of the very first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, to that of Robert Peel – he was prime minister over a hundred years later. Edward Gibbon, the great historian was a member. Ditto the famous dandy Beau Brummell.  Ditto Clive of India and the Duke of Wellington. The list goes on and on, right down to the present day. It almost goes without saying that the Prince of Wales is a member. Stand by, because I’ll be returning to His Royal Highness.

What else? Well, it’s perhaps of some interest that White’s had a fairly humble beginning. It began life in 1693 as a chocolate house on the site of what is today another distinguished old St James’ gentlemen’s club: Boodles. You go on the Old Palace Quarter walk the guide will pay a call at several of these grand old clubs. And they get to Boodles before they get to Whites, so if the guide doesn’t mention it, when you’re looking over the way at Boodle’s with that stunning Venetian window, which is surely, along with St James palace, the finest sight in the street, you can entertain the thought, “ah ha, so that’s where White’s got started.”

Couldn’t be more English – upper-class English – White’s but, in the way of these things, its origins were anything but English. The chap who started it – started the chocolate house – was an Italian. One Francesco Bianco. Sure enough, he anglicised his name to Francis White. And Whites it is to this day. 

It was aspirational, though, virtually from the get-go. They charged more – double in fact – for entry. A tuppence to enter. Whereas other similar establishments in the street were known as “penny universities.” Only a penny to get in. And “universities” because there were newspapers to read, high flown conversation to learn from, some books and the like. 

It certainly made an impression. 

And by no means always a favourable impression. Richard Steele, in the very first edition of Tatler, informed his readers that “all accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate House.” Alexander Pope in his famous poem the Dunciad described it as an establishment where one may teach “oaths to youngsters and to nobles wit.” Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, loathed it. He shook his fist at it every time he passed it. In the words of one of Swift’s correspondents, “Whites in St James’s Street was the bane of the English nobility”, “a place where young noblemen were fleeced and corrupted by fashionable gamblers and profligates.”

Well, many a good tale to tell about Whites. But I’ll leave the richest pickings to the Old Palace Quarter guides who go there on that walk. Maybe just put out one, pretty tasty advancer.

As I said, Prince Charles is a member of Whites. Indeed, it was there that he held his stag night party. This was the stag night party that preceded his first wedding, the one to a certain Lady Diana Spencer. Now as it happens Colonel Arthur Parker Bowles is also a member of Whites. And Parker Bowles was of course the first husband of Camilla Shand, who went on to become Prince Charles’ second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. Now – and this almost goes without saying – the fact the future of King of England was having an affair with Colonel Parker Bowles’ wife was common knowledge at Whites long before the rest of us – the great unwashed – the public – got wind of it.

Apparently the word round the club in those days – all those years ago – and you have to imagine this said in one of those fruity, clipped, upper-class English accents rather than my chewy dipthongs – anyway, the word round the club was, “Parker Bowles is a man who would lay down his wife for his country,”

And on that note – well, you’ll have guessed the Today in London recommendation for this podcast. Yes, that’s right – it’s our Old Palace Quarter Walk. Go and see Whites in the company of a great guide. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And don’t just take it from us.

Take it from that American convention of walking tour guides a few years ago. As they put it:

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. In the words of that American filmmaker, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, historians, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that note, see ya tomorrow. 

Nothing else to add, except Good Londoning, one and all. And so glad you’re back. You were sorely missed.

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