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.
Somerset House today is an 18th century hulk of a building used for art exhibitions and offices. Previous it housed civil servants working for the Inland Revenue. And before that, it began as a Tudor palace built by an arrogant and unpopular aristocrat.
Edward Seymour wasn’t famous for being humble or tactful. He was very much a creature of his turbulent age. He was the first Earl of Hertford and his sister became the third wife of Henry VIII. Unlike the previous beheaded wife, Anne Boleyn, Edward’s sister Jane gave Henry the son he craved but then died shortly after childbirth.
That son ascended to the throne when Henry VIII died – at the age of only nine. So, Edward Seymour became the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. With his new found power – effectively ruling England – he decided it was a time to have a palace that befitted his new status.
Somerset House would spring up in the area between the city of Westminster and the city of London. This strip along the river – now a road called the Strand – had always been home to the palaces of bishops and princes. But Edward wanted a particularly huge palace.
So he started tearing down other people’s palaces!
In order to build Somerset House, he bulldozed (or the Tudor equivalent) the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. And incorporated their masonry into his fabulous new home. But that wasn’t going to suffice.
He then knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.
Still, Edward Seymour cast his greedy eye around and wondered what else he could demolish. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.
They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.
This is the story of a terrible accident that occurred because of shoddy building work on a church that still stands in central London to this day. But first we must go back three hundred years to the tragic day in question.
St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne.
The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!
Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.
Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.
The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.
Hard to believe now but the Strand was once dominated by a vast and luxurious hotel called the Hotel Cecil.
With 800 rooms and riverside views, it became a centre of the “flapper” scene in the 1920s or the Jazz Age if you prefer. But the hotel had been built by a fraudulent company called the Liberator Society, led by Liberal Party politician Jabez Balfour (MP for Tamworth and later Burnley).
Balfour was a wheeler-dealer in the property market who played fast and loose with investors’ money. He eventually did a prison stretch having been arrested in Argentina, where he’d done a bunk.
Hotel Cecil in the 1890s
Thousands of investors detested the very sight of the Hotel Cecil as it had been built with their savings frittered away illegally. so I doubt any survivors wept when the huge complex was swept away by the oil giant Shell in 1930.
It replaced the great Victorian edifice with Shell Mex house, a great hulk of an art deco statement that still graces the riverside today.
An 1890s guide to London I own describes the building in very scornful terms:
It was one of the outcomes of the notorious Liberator Society, whose shameful transactions led to the ruin of thousands of poor investors and for which the promotors have been justly punished.
Far from being impressed by Balfour’s sprawling hotel, the guide angrily notes that two venerable streets were swallowed up by the Hotel Cecil: Cecil Street and Salisbury Street. The name “Cecil” refers to the great aristocratic family who advised Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
Most famously, Sir William Cecil (Lord Burleigh) who had a house on the Strand – on the other side of the road from the hotel. There is still a Burleigh Street that roughly marks the spot, a pretty inconspicuous thoroughfare with a Barclays bank and the back end of the Lyceum Theatre on it.
As The Strand is renovated and is starting to recover its past glories – I can’t help feeling a renovated Hotel Cecil would have been hugely popular today. Ah well.
Flappers at the Hotel Cecil in the 1920s
Luxury in the Jazz Age – but it wouldn’t last
Shell-Mex House with its big clock is where Hotel Cecil once stood