The Kit-Cat Club
The Kit-Cat Club was eighteenth-century England's most notable political, literary, and social club. Active in London from around 1700 to 1720, the club included among its forty-some members leading Whig politicians, artists, and writers. Among them were the statesman Sir Robert Walpole; the writers William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, Joseph Addison, and Sir Richard Steele; and the artist Sir Godfrey Kneller, who painted portraits of the members. The Kit-Cat Club was the unofficial center of Whig opposition during Queen Anne's Tory administration from 1710 to 1714.
The origins and activities of the Kit-Cat Club remain obscure. It is speculated that it was founded around 1700 by the publisher and bookseller Jacob Tonson—who was also the club's secretary—as a loose association of Whig intellectuals. Another account proposes that it was formed as a club with no political interest as early as 1688 under the name of the “Order of the Toast” by some “men of wit and pleasure about town.” It seems clear, however, that from early on the club was one of London's most formidable networks of Whig supporters. It is likely that in the early days of the club, members met at the coffeehouse of a pastry-cook, Christopher Cat (also spelled Kat), in Shire Lane. Cat's famous mutton-pies were called kit-cats, from which the name of the club was supposedly taken. Another story has it that the name Kit-Cat was derived from the club members' habit of toasting some beautiful young society woman, or “kit,” during their meetings. Other accounts seem to indicate that the club simply adopted as their own Christopher (“Kit”) Cat's name from the time they met at his establishment, the Cat and Fiddle. After 1703 the club met at Tonson's residence at Barn Elms.
The driving force of the club was most certainly Tonson, whose most important acquisitions as a publisher included John Milton's Paradise Lost. Tonson was also the publisher of other notable writers, including John Dryden (who was possibly a member of the club before his death in 1700; the club is known to have paid for his funeral), Congreve, Addison, and Steele. Literary figures comprised a minority of the membership, however; the majority were political figures—including Walpole, James Stanhope, and William Pulteney—who would become the most prominent statesmen of eighteenth-century Britain. Very little is known about what went on behind closed doors at the club, and the association was the subject of much speculation and the object of frequent attacks, particularly from Tory quarters. A number of satirical poems and essays appeared which assailed the club and its members. Tory propagandists routinely accused the members of various forms of treachery. During the Tory administration of 1710 to 1714 the club clearly came to represent the leaders of the opposition, and Walpole acknowledged that behind the appearance of conviviality at the club, they had a very serious purpose: to organize a central place for the leaders of the Hanoverian opposition party. Tonson was satirized by William Shippen in the anonymously published poem Faction Display'd (1704) as a disseminator of Whig propaganda, and Richard Blackmore's poem The Kit-Cats (1708) claimed that Tonson used the club as a means of acquiring publications for his business. Other writers charged that the club was becoming an arbiter of literary tastes, and it is true that the members' views did find their way into public discourse through Addison's position as editor of the Spectator. Kit-Cat members were also patrons of the arts and raised a substantial amount of money for the building of the Haymarket Theatre in 1705, an activity that is disparaged in the poem A Kit-Cat c——b Described (1705).
As with its early history, the later history of the Kit-Cat Club is the subject of some dispute. Most historical accounts of the club are based on speculation, as those who were involved in the club did not reveal what went on at their secret meetings. Some historians claim that the club was on the wane by 1709, while others suggest that the members were meeting regularly as late as 1718. After the Hanoverian King George I's succession in 1714, many members firmly established themselves in the new court and Whig administration, and it may have been that the need for the club was less urgent. Certainly by 1725 the club was no longer in existence. Perhaps the most significant surviving record of the club is visual rather than verbal. The artist Kneller was commissioned by the club to paint the portrait of each member, using a three-quarter-length format that has come to be known as the “kit-cat.” Paintings of forty-one of the club members now hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
A Description of Mr. D———n's Funeral (poem) 1700
Jacob's Revenge. Being a Comical Account of the Grounds and Reasons of the Bookseller quitting the K;—t-C;—t Club (poem) 1704
A Kit-Cat c——b Describ'd (pamphlet) 1705
Epigram of the Toasts of the Kit-Cat Club, Anno 1716 (poem) 1716
Dedication to Bart'lemy Fair; or, An Enquiry after Wit (essay) 1709
The Kit-Cats (poem) 1708
An Essay to Restore the KITCAT Members to their lost abilities (essay) 1718
The Kit-Cat Club Done from the Original Paintings of Sir Godfrey Kneller (engravings) 1735
Faction Display'd (poem) 1704
Satyrical Reflections on Clubs (essay) 1710
SOURCE: Timbs, John. “The Kit-Kat Club.” In Clubs and Club Life in London: With Anecdotes of Its Famous Coffee-Houses, Hostelries, and Taverns, from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Time, pp. 47-53. 1872. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1967.
[In the following excerpt from a work that was originally published in 1872, Timbs summarizes what is known of the Kit-Cat Club's origins and membership.]
This famous Club was a threefold celebrity—political, literary, and artistic. It was the great Society of Whig leaders, formed about the year 1700, temp. William III., consisting of thirty-nine noblemen and gentlemen zealously attached to the House of...
(The entire section is 2139 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Robert J. “The Kit-Cat Club and the Theatre.” Review of English Studies 7, No. 25 (January 1931): 56-61.
[In the following excerpt, Allen traces the Kit-Cat Club's interest in and patronage of the theater, which included raising £3,000 for the building of London's famous Haymarket Theatre in 1705.]
No select social group was more on the tongues of the Town during the early years of the eighteenth century than the Kit-Cat Club. There were among its number such gallants as Somerset and Manchester, such statesmen as Godolphin and Halifax, such warriors as Marlborough and Sir Richard Temple, and such poets as Walsh, Garth, Vanbrugh, Congreve, Steele,...
(The entire section is 2049 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Robert J. “The Club and the Town: The Kit-Cats and the Toasters.” In The Clubs of Augustan London, pp. 35-54. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933.
[In the excerpt below, Allen provides a detailed history of the Kit-Cat Club, with particular emphasis on the members' engagement in political skirmishes.]
The greatest political society of the day was the Kit-Cat Club. The name of this august assembly has been of enough curiosity to call forth a number of explanations. That most frequently quoted is in the famous “Epigram on the Toasts of the Kit-Cat Club, Anno 1716,” generally attributed to Dr. John Arbuthnot.
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SOURCE: Geduld, Harry M. “The Kit-Kat Club.” In Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson, pp. 151-71. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.
[In the following essay, Geduld discusses the origins and history of the Kit-Cat Club, paying special attention to the role of publisher Jacob Tonson as founder and secretary.]
The social aspect of Jacob Tonson's career is well represented in his role as chairman-secretary to the celebrated Kit-Cat Club, which he helped to inaugurate towards the end of the seventeenth century.1
During Dryden's lifetime the evolution of the English club was accelerated primarily...
(The entire section is 8109 words.)
SOURCE: Papali, G. F. “The Kit-Cat Club.” In Jacob Tonson, Publisher: His Life and Work (1656-1736), pp. 86-109. Onehunga, Aukland: Tonson Publishing House, 1968.
[In the following excerpt from a work written in 1933, Papali examines the central role of Jacob Tonson in the Kit-Cat Club.]
Even if Jacob Tonson did not achieve anything great as a publisher, his claim to posterity's remembrane was established when he became the Secretary of the Kit-Cat Club, a distinguished assembly of some of the leading literary and social figures of the early eighteenth century. Such an honour in the company of eminent Whigs necessarily exposed Tonson, for a whole generation, to the...
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SOURCE: Hodges, John C. “Among the Kit-Kats.” In William Congreve, the Man: A Biography from New Sources, pp. 93-108. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1941.
[In the following excerpt, Hodges discusses the importance of the Kit-Cat Club to William Congreve, noting that many of the playwright's close relationships with other members endured throughout his life.]
When Congreve was not at home in the Strand, he was frequently to be found at the country seat of a fellow Kit-Cat.
“The Kit-cat Club, generally mentioned as a set of wits, [were] in reality the patriots that saved Britain.”1 When...
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SOURCE: Astell, Mary. “To the Most Illustrious Society of the Kit-Cats.” In Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry after Wit in which due Respect is had to a Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. To my Lord ***. By Mr. Wotton, pp. 3-16. London: R. Wilkin, 1709.
[The following essay formed the dedication to Astell's pseudonymously published pamphlet Bart'lemy Fair. In it, Astell parodies the standard form of a dedication and condemns the Kit-Cat Club by means of a sarcastic encomium of the members.]
My Lords, & c.
The Reputation of being the avow'd Patrons of Wit and good Humour, and the properest Subjects of it, which you have so justly acquir'd,...
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SOURCE: Ward, Edward. “Of the Kit-Cat Club.” In The Secret History of Clubs, pp. 363-77. London: n.p., 1709.
[In the following essay, Ward provides a satirical history of the Kit-Cat Club.]
This Ingenious Society of Apollo's Sons, who, for many Years, have been the Grand Monopolizers of those scandalous Commodities in this Fighting Age, viz. Wit and Poetry, had first the honour to be founded by an Amphibeous Mortal, Chief Merchant to the Muses; and in these Times of Piracy both Bookseller and Printer, who having, many Years since, conceived a wonderful Kindness for one of the greasie Fraternity, then Living at the end of Bell-Court in...
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Barrett, C. J. A History of Barn Elms, and the Kit-Cat Club. London: T. W. Tarbet, 1884, 65 p.
A history of the Kit-Cat Club and the building in which it was housed, which later became the home of other important social clubs, including the Ranelagh club.
Caulfield, James. Memoirs of the Celebrated Persons Composing the Kit-Cat Club. London: Hurst, Robinson, 1821, 261 p.
Includes an account of the origins of the club and reproductions of forty-eight of Sir Godfrey Kneller's portraits of its members.
(The entire section is 82 words.)