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An Exclusive Club
Each spring, from the mid-nineteenth century through to the beginning of the Second World War, as the blossom on the trees in London’s exclusive squares unfurled, the well bred and well-heeled left their country estates and headed for the capital. Ahead of them travelled servants to prepare houses in readiness for their family’s arrival. Across Mayfair, dustsheets were removed from heirloom furniture and windows were flung open to air fusty rooms. This flurry of activity prompted hotels, florists, hairdressers and caterers to place advertisements in society magazines, and to wait for their order books to fill up as invitations and RSVPs to endless balls, parties, evening receptions and events criss-crossed the city. This seasonal migration, these fevered preparations, heralded the start of what was known as the London Season; an intensive three-month social whirl participated in by those whose breeding, wealth and status marked them out as the so-called cream of British society.
‘Society’ once described the country’s uppermost social ranks, a handful of ducal families sometimes described as the ‘ton’. But an expanding population in the early nineteenth century led to an expansion of Society itself. Marital links were forged further down the chain, between the aristocracy and the landed gentry, and, in turn, the middle class, as younger sons of larger families cast their net wider in order to find a wife. In addition, increasing industrialisation created a growing contingent whose fortunes were made rather than inherited. These were ‘new money’ families; those who had the wealth but not, necessarily, the connections to gain admittance to Society.
H. V. Horton, writing a history of Mayfair in 1927 claimed that the origins of the Season lay in Mayfair’s gentrification in the early eighteenth century, with the Season then lasting from December to the end of May. It did not follow the same rigid pattern as later centuries; Society followed the court and gravitated towards the great houses of political leaders but found entertainment at public spaces such as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens or in Covent Garden theatres. A commentator in 1871 wrote of a previous generation ‘that they (the very great) should partake of these pleasures in company that was always mixed and sometimes more than dubious as to its quality, supping, dancing, and playing at cards and hazard … and yet to the best of our knowledge no special harm or annoyance appears to have resulted from this singular comingling of the classes.’ Advertising one’s rank and station through segregation did not seem to occur to the eighteenth-century nobleman.
In the following century, socialising began increasingly to take on a more private form, centred on parties in grand houses, meaning only those wealthy enough to own such residences, and only those who knew them, or knew someone who could introduce them, could take part. The grandest house of all, Buckingham Palace, operated the same system and only those who were introduced by someone who already had the ‘entrée’ could gain admittance. In many ways, the Season represented networking at the highest level, sub-consciously developed to filter out any undesirables and, in time, to bring together, under supervision, Society’s unmarried daughters with potential husbands from the same elite stock.
The Season’s timing shifted around before finally settling in spring and early summer. Roughly coinciding with the Parliamentary year, at first, when Parliament sat in February, gentlemen would bring their families with them to London, and in time, it occupied the more concentrated period during the Parliamentary recess, which ran from spring to August. The timing provided a convenient period for this annual pilgrimage when a temporary easing of political obligation happily converged with social expediency. For the 120 years that followed Queen Victoria’s accession, it became the way that Britain’s upper classes spent May, June and July each year. In May 1886, an anonymous writer in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine ran a feature on ‘The London Season’, introducing its readers to the giddy world of a high society summer. It began with the conundrum of finding a satisfactory definition for what was a vague and changeable phenomenon:
To give a definition of the London season that would satisfy a West End lady and inform an inquiring Oriental is not an easy task. The difficulty arises from the fact that the ‘season’ is not, like other seasons, limited by fixed dates, nor is it the season of any one thing in particular… It is not especially the dancing season, the riding-in-the-Row season, the Parliamentary season, the drum season, the bazaar season, or the garden-party season, but the season of all combined.
The Season was basically a series of events forming the backbone of a society summer allowing members of the aristocracy to mix, mingle, reinforce connections, keep out the riff raff and show off, sometimes a little, often a lot. For the wealthy newcomers to Victorian Society – the industrialists, financiers and manufacturers – the Season’s activities helped them to adhere to a set of rules of behaviour which in time would assimilate them with aristocracy of old. Laborious rituals such as ‘card-calling’ and other forms of etiquette ensured that those not necessarily born into Society, at least were accepted into it on prescribed terms.
In time, the qualifications for belonging to Society were eroded. As entry into politics and the diplomatic service became elective and civil service appointments subject to competitive examination, both originally preserves of the upper classes, the fundamental power base on which Society rested was weakened. Instead, the Season took on a glamorous, almost theatrical mantle, with the wealthy and well-born welcoming artists, writers, sporting figures and actors into its ranks to form a cosmopolitan milieu in the years following the First World War. By the 1920s, the pages of society magazines such as The Tatler and The Bystander show theatrical types or Hollywood stars rubbing shoulders at nightclubs and balls with titled peers and members of the royal family. In the late 1930s, the American ambassador Joseph Kennedy brought some transatlantic allure to the Season with his unstuffy, charming family including Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, who married William Cavendish, heir to the Devonshire dukedom. At a ball in 1932, the Prince of Wales danced with the aviator Amelia Earhart.
Many events that made up the old London season are still celebrated today, but many once-integral activities of the Season have come and gone. The Ranelagh Club, Society’s playground and polo venue in Barnes, south-west London closed its gates in 1939 and was finally demolished after a fire in 1954. Riders may still be occasionally seen today in Hyde Park’s Rotten Row but back in the nineteenth century, smartly turned out horsemen and women would nod and bow to acquaintances from their steeds in front of gawping crowds. The weekly church parade, where members of society would promenade around the Stanhope Gate at Hyde Park, might be likened to a red-carpet film premiere today. Glittering parties were thrown by aristocratic hostesses in some of the great mansions of London but most of the houses were either pulled down decades ago and built over, or else are no longer private residences. These places and pastimes are now part of the history of the Season. Most significantly, the Royal Courts, or Court Presentations, once the pinnacle of the London Season and the most exclusive invite in town, were finally dispensed with by Buckingham Palace in 1958.
The right of entry to the Sovereign was a very ancient privilege which had gradually become more restricted over the centuries. Queen Elizabeth I allowed the public access to the long Galleries of Greenwich Palace when she progressed to church and King Charles II ate his dinner in public. In 1673, Dryden refers to a ‘Levee held in a Drawing Room’ (the term ‘levee’ deriving from when the King would arise and dress in front of his advisors) and Queen Anne refers to ladies being presented at Drawing Rooms in her letters. At first, presentations did not necessarily focus on young girls, but instead on both men and women, usually after marriage or some form of social or professional advancement. The first record of a number of young girls at Court is during the reign of George III (1760–1820) at Queen Charlotte’s birthday ball, held every year at St James’s Palace.
By the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), young and newly married women from noble or diplomatic families were expected to be ‘presented’ to the monarch before making their debut in Society. The ritual came to be seen as the official passport into society, a Certificate of Presentation, first issued in 1854, proof of a well-born young lady’s credentials. Following their curtsey in front of the Queen, at the age of 17 or 18, these ‘debutantes’, as they came to be known, would, quite literally, graduate from the schoolroom to the ballroom in a matter of weeks. Margaret Haig Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958), described in her autobiography, This Was My World how, ‘I had left school at the end of the April term. In London in May I Came Out.’
This first taste of adulthood was an exhausting round of afternoon teas, receptions, cocktail parties and balls in some of London’s most luxurious venues, shoe-horned in and around the main events of the season. Not only was this ritual, known as ‘coming out’, intended to introduce girls into a sophisticated grown-up world (albeit a tightly controlled and chaperoned one), it also covertly signalled her availability on the marriage market. Lord Byron was famously to call the Regency Season, ‘The Marriage Mart’ and so it remained for the next century and a half.
Even as late as the 1950s, girls from a certain background were not expected to be academic, or career-driven. Marriage and family were, unsurprisingly, the end goal for many a debutante. The Season was in fact, an enjoyable way for the upper classes to continue to forge dynastic unions.
But marriage was by no means the sole point of the Season for a debutante. It was, more than anything, a rite of passage and for many it was a memorable and magical period between childhood and adulthood when pleasure and fun were a passport to acceptance. Not everyone enjoyed it, nor saw the point of it, but like many traditions, it was done because it simply always had been. As Lady Pamela Smith, a debutante of 1931 put it in an interview in The Queen the following year:
I certainly think a girl ought to be presented, not for any snobbish reason, but because it is one of the few old-time traditions that are left that seem worthwhile. In a sense it is a kind of hall-mark, and, after all, if you are going to be presented you might just as well have all the fun at least of one season. If a girl has the opportunity she is silly to miss it.
In twenty-first century terms, the Season, as it once was, means very little – a series of sporting events perhaps but otherwise, a nebulous, hazy concept wrapped in tradition, nostalgia and romance. Vestiges of the elitism that was once an integral part of the Season remain of course, but these events no longer constitute a strict calendar of social belonging. At the very worst, the Season was based on a snobbish, elitist premise, played to the rules of rigid etiquette and existed to uphold class divisions. But it was also a glamorous, quintessentially British concept, meticulously recorded by contemporary writers, and participants. It is a fascinating record of how the British upper classes operated and an irresistible opportunity to glimpse a lifestyle of luxury, privilege and quaintly archaic tradition.
The London Season
Doing the Season required the stamina of youth. ‘I’m so d_____d tired,’ confessed a distinguished but exhausted dowager to The Tatler’s correspondent at the end of May 1937, only a third of the way through the busy Coronation Year Season. Though hardly the sort of fatigue experienced by her working-class contemporaries in fields, mines or factories, the Season was nevertheless a gruelling marathon. William Makepeace Thackeray, writing to a friend from Switzerland one July during the mid-nineteenth century remarked, ‘Three weeks of London were more than enough for me, and I feel as if I had had enough of it and of pleasure.’
Scores of high-profile events were sandwiched between the Private View at Burlington House in the first week of May and the Season’s finale marked by the races at Goodwood at the end of July. The Season of 1913 got off to a good start when, according to The Tatler, ‘the usual medley of society and Bohemia were present at the private view on Friday last, busy seeing each other and sparing occasional glances for the crowded pictures whose colours were killing each other all over the walls.’ For Lady Mary Clive, formerly Mary Pakenham, a debutante in the mid-1920s, it paid to take note of what was hanging on the walls. In her lively memoirs, Brought Up and Brought Out, she admitted that for the sheltered debutante with no life experience, the Royal Academy Show was practically the only subject anybody could conjure up at the tedious luncheon parties she was invited to. It would no doubt have preoccupied conversation during the 1930 Season as portraits of four recent debutantes – Miss Rosemary Hope-Vere, Lady Mary Lygon, the Honourable Phyllis Astor and Miss Nancy Beaton – were among the pictures exhibited.
The private view was closely followed by the opening of the season at the Royal Opera House and when Glyndebourne Opera Festival in Sussex was launched in the summer of 1934, it was quickly adopted as another fixture of the Season, albeit one away from the capital. Glamorous evenings at the theatre may have been a year-round pleasure, but during the Season in particular it was a rather more egalitarian opportunity to mingle with the smart set. In the 1890 edition of London of To-Day, a handbook to the capital and the Season published annually, its chapter on the theatres estimated that on any given night between seventy and eighty thousand people would visit the theatre. It also observed that ‘theatre-parties are becoming a fashion of modern London society … a row of stalls is booked for host and guests; and all drive off to the theatre, after the house-festivities are concluded.’ Twenty-three years later, its eighteenth edition commented that, ‘Boxes on the grand tier at the Opera House may be bought by any one who will tender a sufficient cheque early enough in advance. To be recognised in a prominent position at Covent Garden Theatre at least once a week in May and June is an object of ambition for many…’ adding that, ‘Among the functions of the Season may be included the obligation to appear some few times at the theatre in the fullest style of dress you can command.’ In other words, the theatre was the ideal backdrop against which to flaunt one’s wealth and status.
Proportionally, arts and culture played a small role in the entertainments of the Season in comparison to sporting and social events. Flower shows were popular and during the late nineteenth century a number were held at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. The Chelsea Flower show, originally the Great Spring Fair based in Kensington, evolved into the Royal Horticultural Show and moved to Temple Gardens by Embankment station. Becoming unpleasantly crowded in the Edwardian period, it found a new home at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in 1912. At various times, other fashionable sources of amusements during the Season included listening to the military bands in Hyde Park or St James’s Park on Sunday evenings, recitals and concerts, fetes and charity bazaars, a May morning in Kew Gardens or at Hampton Court and meetings of the four-in-hand and coaching clubs in Hyde Park, a spectacle that attracted thousands each year.
Hyde Park in particular was a magnet for Society during the Season; Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1886 commenting that, ‘by the state of the Park an experienced person would at once know the period of the year.’ It described ‘The Park’ as a piece of ground about three hundred yards long and fifty wide, between Hyde Park Corner and Albert Gate, containing a carriage drive, three walking paths and the celebrated riding path called Rotten Row, once known as Route de Roi. It was here at proscribed times that riders would meet, usually between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. and then later, in the evening when, ‘people wear their smartest clothes and ride their smartest hacks’. Such was the densely packed throng that most riders ended up walking, which made the whole process of salutation and conversation easier anyway. For debutantes, or, ‘young ladies not regularly in society,’ it was an opportunity to meet potential suitors and, ‘consequently, a good deal of matrimony is hatched among walkers and sitters.’ The quality of Hyde Park’s patrons was clear. In May 1913, The Tatler spotted Lady Airlie in Rotten Row, Lord Stanley, the eldest son of Lady Derby watching the horse brigade and Princess Victoria riding in the Row with her niece Princess Mary.
There was polo at Hurlingham, Roehampton or Ranelagh. Ranelagh in particular, which had the novel distinction of holding a polo match lit by electric light in 1880, offered far more to its visitors, including tea on the lawns, amusements for children, gymkhanas and golf. The club was once such an integral part of the Season that magazines regularly ran fashion features suggesting ‘Outfits for Ranelagh’.
In any given year, those who frequented Ranelagh were likely to mingle with the same acquaintances at the Eton–Harrow and Oxford–Cambridge cricket matches, the all England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon and the picturesque Henley Royal Regatta. Families with sons at Eton would enjoy the Fourth of June, instituted to commemorate a visit of George III to the school. After speeches – given in Greek and Latin, there would be a luncheon (‘excellent’, remarked a correspondent of The Lady in 1930, ‘consisting of cold salmon, galantine, quails in aspic, strawberry ice and hock cup’) and the day would always be rounded off by the Procession of Boats on the river and a firework display.
Another highlight of the Season was the Royal Tournament, first staged at the Agricultural Hall, Islington in 1880 and announced in The Times as ‘a military tournament and Assault-at-Arms’. It was held in aid of the Royal Cambridge Asylum for Soldiers’ Widows and brought together volunteers from across the Army in a series of competitions from swordsmanship to tug ‘o’ war. In 1903, London of To-Day declared it ‘one of the most interesting of all London’s annual shows… It would be a mistake to miss it when in Town.’ The show moved to Olympia after the First World War, where it continued to enjoy popularity. Usually attended by the royal family, the young Princess Elizabeth visited the Tournament in the 1930s and delighted in the riding displays.
Equestrianism of one sort or another was usually a guaranteed draw for royalty, particularly horseracing, a sport that found an enthusiastic supporter in Edward VII. Of the Season’s major racing fixtures, the Derby, was the festival of the people. Ascot, conversely, was the festival of the aristocracy and Society’s prime opportunity to shine. To gain access to the hallowed Royal Enclosure, a lady would apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office in the same way she would be required to do so for presentation at Court. ‘A pass to the Royal enclosure is eagerly sought after and not readily obtained; still, the enterprise might be attempted by ladies of influence,’ advised London of To-Day in 1903, adding that it ‘is filled with elegantly dressed ladies, whose chief object would seem to be to rival each other in the richness and splendour of their costumes.’
Studying form was a fairly low priority for ladies at Ascot. During the Season, Ascot dresses were given as much priority as debutante dance frocks and Court gowns in women’s magazines. Only the best would do for Ascot and over the years, names such as Molyneux, Digby Morton, Isobel, Rahvis, Victor Stiebel, Ella James and Dior were called on for show-stopping attire. Beside Court functions (and perhaps the Fourth of June celebrations at Eton), Ascot emphasised class divisions more than anywhere. ‘Being in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot is being on the inside looking out,’ explained Vogue in 1935, ‘every one wears his badge conspicuously pinned to his coat lapel or wrap. Impressive-looking attendants in green plush liveries stand at the various entrances to the Royal Enclosure to watch with hawk-like eyes and prevent anyone without a badge from passing the iron railings.’ This safe haven of exclusivity had the added cache of the annual attendance of royalty and its own small display of pageantry, the traditional carriage drive down the course, is still carried out today.
The royal presence at functions through the Season was what set it apart from those in other countries. The Tatler in 1913 admitted that ‘Royalty still “makes a difference” even in these democratic days, and charity shows, social functions, the Opera, scintillate with a distinctly brighter brilliance when to their other attractions the chance of the presence of the King or Queen is added.’ Forty-five years later, the same magazine proudly declared, ‘nowhere else offers a combination of attractions so varied as those of the London Season and nowhere else can provide that essential ingredient – the British monarchy. For it is the Queen – and the spectacle and ceremony that go with her presence – who lifts the London Season above all competition.’
It was perhaps, with a sense of relief that the Season drew to close at the end of July. Livelier supporters of the Season would go on to Cowes on the Isle of Wight for the regatta, but after that, there was one direction in which Society headed, and that was North, to the moors of Berwick and beyond for the start of the shooting season. Whereas it was essential to be seen in London during May, June and July, suddenly, it was just as important not to be seen there in August. Christopher Petherick, joint managing director of Searcy’s, caterers to Society claimed that people would get in a month’s supply of food, close the windows and shutters and fake their own disappearance from the capital.
August brought discernible changes to the capital. Cabmen and waiters underwent a transformation from haughty to humble once their bountiful sources of income had departed and it was, for the ordinary mortal, ‘delightful … to dress as he likes, walk where he likes (even within the sacred boundaries of the “Row”), eat and drink what, and at the time, and how he likes … without loss of caste, or danger of being outlawed.’ For the author of London of To-Day, the exodus of the capital’s ‘quality’ guests meant a welcome return to normality.
Society of course still followed its own timetable. Country-house weekends, particularly in the Edwardian era, lasted from Saturday to Monday and the shooting season overlapped with the hunting season, which in itself generated a series of balls and parties ensuring a continuous supply of photographs to the society columns. There was, in certain eras, a ‘mini Season’ from September to November – a sort of warm-up for the real thing – but by the 1920s and 30s, the smartest began to seek out warmer climes during the winter months.