Since The Ladies of Almack’s stories are now coming out, I thought it behooved me to talk a bit about just what Almack’s was.
And what it was, was “the seventh heaven of the fashionable world”, the “exclusive temple of the beau monde”, the “marriage mart” of exclusive London society. Regency wit Henry Luttell said of it:
“If once to Almack’s you belong,
Like Monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove, you can do nothing right.”
On the other hand, it served “wretched refreshments”, had a “bad floor”, and was viewed as shockingly dull by most young men.
So just what was Almack’s, that place that has appeared in almost every Regency-set novel since Georgette Heyer (and before that, in many of the silver fork novels of the 19th century?)
Originally, it was an assembly room built on King Street (behind St. James’s Square) in 1764 by a Yorkshireman of Scottish ancestry named William Almack who began life as a gentleman’s valet. Before long, he was moving up in the world: after establishing the club that would become Brooks’s, Mr. Almack went on to open his assembly rooms in 1765, charging 10 guineas for a series of twelve weekly balls and suppers over the course of the season. Anxious to make his assemblies appear exclusive and select, Almack enlisted the aid of a group of blue-blooded society ladies to help decide who merited admission and who did not, and thus was the famous voucher system born. If the lady patronesses did not approve of you, no matter how large your estate or noble your birth, you didn’t get in to Almack’s.
Almack’s system worked. By the Regency era, Almack’s was THE place to be if one had any pretensions to being a member of the haute ton. And as a result, the lady patronesses wielded an almost ridiculous amount of power over society; the cartoon above comments on just how sought-after those vouchers to purchase tickets were. According to one story, a man challenged the husband of one of these august ladies to a duel because his wife had been refused a voucher. Others worked out elaborate schemes to sneak in. No one who had any connection to trade was admitted, and even otherwise socially acceptable army officers and members of the aristocracy might find themselves refused admission.
Within the hallowed halls, the rules were just as rigid. There was a strict dress code for men, and even those who had proper tickets might be turned away if not properly attired (even, it was rumored, the Duke of Wellington on one occasion!) Until around 1814, dances like the quadrille and the waltz were not permitted. Even after they were, young ladies had to demonstrate that they were of modest demeanor and attitude before they could get the permission of one of the lady patronesses to engage in waltzing (which was still considered a rather improper dance). And no one was permitted to enter the rooms after 11 pm, even those with tickets. Liquid refreshment was limited to lemonade, tea, orgeat (a non-alcoholic drink flavored with almonds and orange-flower water) and ratafia (a light liqueur, also fruit and nut based); bread and butter and cake were the only munchies served.
So with all these rules and the less-than-exciting atmosphere, why was it so sought-after?
Because admission to Almack’s meant that you counted. It meant that you were the crème de la crème of English society…one of the 19th century version of the beautiful people. If you were on the prowl for a “good” marriage, it was the prime hunting ground. It meant that, as Henry Luttrell said, “you can do no wrong.”