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Literary Cranks of London– The Whitefriars Club

This was established in 1868 in three rooms at Radley’s Hotel, in New Bridge Street, Blackfriars. The authors don’t mention the fact, but  in the 1820s Radley’s was known as Walker’s Hotel and was infamous as the HQ of the generally despised Constitutional Association, the reactionary group dubbed by William Hone, the ‘Bridge Street Gang’, which harassed radical booksellers  it accused of circulating seditious libels--- usually the pirated works of Thomas Paine.

By the time it had come to house the Whitefriars ( incidentally, a humorous reference to the nearby Blackfriars) Radley’s was a respectable family business with ‘ an old-fashioned cuisine and an excellent cellar of wines ‘. Of the three rooms occupied by the Club, the one used as a dining room had ‘three windows looking out on Ludgate Hill Station, filled with heavy furniture and black horse-hair sofas of a late Georgian period’. Behind this was a smaller room dedicated to ‘smoking and writing’, which  commanded a view behind the Bridewell gaol ‘of a neglected bit of ground, on which flourished rank grass, oyster shells , and dead cats…and a row of picturesque and irregular backs of ancient houses, delightful for their finely-toned red brick, their old red tiles and their quaint chimney pots ‘. By 1900, when the history of the Club was privately published, Radley’s Hotel had been pulled down ‘for improvements’.

Among the forty founding members who sat down to the inaugural dinner in February 1868 only a few could be said to have been well known figures. These included Tom Hood, son of the famous caricaturist and versifier and W. B. Tegetmeier (1816 – 1912). The last named was certainly one of the more interesting of these. Well known for being an expert on pigeons and poultry, he corresponded with Charles Darwin on evolution, and as a respected researcher on bees, discovered why their cells were hexagonal in shape. In the 1840s he had lived a bohemian life, but finally settled down, took a wife and became a dedicated clubman. Certainly, at that time, he seems to have been the closest the Whitefriars had to a genuine intellectual.

Little, if anything, is known about the others. And although, within two years the roll had been increased to sixty-three, the new intake was still rather short of celebrities, although doubtless, as with many of these sorts of clubs, many would have regarded themselves as people worth knowing. In this regard it is significant that although  the toasts included one in honour of ‘ Literature, Journalism, Art, Music and Science ‘, at this stage in its history, few of its members could be said to have been distinguished in any of these fields of endeavour, most of them being minor authors,  hacks from nearby Fleet Street, or second-rank actors. Perhaps conscious of this lack of gravitas, the Friars in 1874 invited Mark Twain, to become an honorary Friar.

This situation was to change .Within the next two decades, the newly inducted Friars included many more distinguished figures, especially from journalism and literature. Of these, Archibald McNeill, a well known journalist from the Sportsman, was the only member to have been murdered. His violent death occurred around Christmas 1887 at Boulogne, while returning from Paris where he had covered a boxing match. Having missed the ferry home, he seems to have got into bad company and was beaten up, robbed and afterwards flung into the Channel by a notorious local hoodlum who subsequently took flight. Although bizarrely the authorities received an envelope containing some money taken from McNeill, the culprit was never traced and the case remains unsolved.

Among the names in the list for 1900 one can find: Hall Caine, Edward Clodd (also a member of the Omar Khayyam Club), Joseph Hocking, Gilbert Parker, Max Pemberton, Clement Shorter, Harold Spender ( father of Stephen), Richard Whiteing and Arthur Spurgeon, whose signed copy of The Whitefriars’ Chronicles (1900) is the source for most of the information. Of this particular celebrity list Max Pemberton stands out. Another Friar who was also a denizen of the Savage, Pemberton was a prolific novelist and a dandy who sported a serious moustache. With Conan Doyle he became a member of ‘Our Society ‘, a criminological literary society and went on to write a controversial novel about anarchism. Among the artist members we find the names of Joseph Pennell (1900), the brilliant book illustrator, and the gifted caricaturist F. Carruthers Gould(1899.)

The Whitefriars’ Club flourished until at least 1921, when Lady Bonham Carter was invited to speak. By then, the Club still had no female members. [RMH]

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