The Kit-Cat club brought together the cream of 18th century London society. Originally, they harboured a treasonous intent against the reigning monarch and had to meet behind closed shutters. But over time, they simply morphed into a dining club.
Over the centuries, London has seen many secret societies – right down to our own time. Normally made up of aristocratic gentlemen or wannabes and engaging in bizarre and sometimes profane or lewd rituals.
The Kit-Cat Club originally met at the house of a pastry cook called Christopher Cat on Shire Lane, near Temple Bar. The name of the club came from the mutton pie that was his speciality. Or at least that’s one theory (most likely from Daniel Defoe).
Another was that the members toasted “old cats and young kits”. When Christopher moved out of his house, the club followed him to the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.
The members of the Kit-Cat Club had been gentlemen who had come together to plot a revolution against King James II. This monarch had tried to bring back the Catholic religion and introduce a more authoritarian form of monarchy normally associated with King Louis XIV in France.
The so-called “Whigs” – Protestant nobility – were having none of this and they successfully conspired to overthrow James and drive him into exile.
Every year, the Kit-Cat Club would toast a woman chosen by a ballot of the members. Her name would be carved on to the glasses with a diamond. The men involved in voting for Kit-Cat woman of the year included such 18th century grandees as Sir Robert Walpole, the Earls of Halifax and Dorset and the Duke of Somerset.
The exact membership of the Kit-Cat Club remains a mystery but there were 48 portraits commissioned that hung in a room at Barn Elms House, the rural HQ of the club. Many of them are now at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
They include those mentioned above plus John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough and the dramatist Sir John Vanbrugh.