The great gentlemen's clubs of London, such as Boodle's, Brooks's, and White's, are well-known even in the days of their long decline. They were created to assume the function previously performed by coffee houses, that of a haven for upper-class men fleeing from domesticity; they became much more, centres for political discussion, genteel gambling of all sorts, and simple male companionship. Some institutions, such as Almack's Assembly Rooms, admitted both men and women, but the atmosphere was necessarily very different, with the main focus being on dancing, seeing and being seen, and social climbing.
An establishment of a somewhat different kind opened just at the end of the eighteenth century, not in the prosperous and fashionable “clubland” of the West End, but south of the river, not far from Kennington Common. In the same year, 1799, a fraudster from Camberwell by the name of Badger was the last person to be publicly hanged on the Common.
Damian Elt, archaeologist and divine from Avevale in the west country, owned a modest dwelling in the area, which he was wont to use when his affairs forced him to brave the crowds and smells of the city. To it he returned from an expedition to Palestine in the late 1780s, and in it he remained in seclusion for several weeks while he pondered over the things he had found, before returning to the country to deliberate further..
He surfaced, quite unexpectedly, in 1793 as the founder of the new schism known as Apaulism, and spent some time trying to acquire appropriate premises to convert into a place of worship. Lack of funds presented an immediate problem; the Elt estates had been confiscated by Charles II, and the family's fortunes had been gently but steadily declining ever since. Help soon presented itself, though, in the form of an offer from a group of fellow explorers and academics, headed by Elt's old neighbour from Avevale, Sir Louis Grievance. They wanted a place to foregather, unhampered by the repressive atmosphere of the West End clubs but otherwise broadly similar, and Elt's house in Kennington seemed ideal. They would lease the place from him at generous rates: he would remain the owner during his lifetime, and after his death they would abide by whatever testamentary disposition he elected to make.
The house was, in fact, by no means the only option available to the group, but there may have been other motives at work. Sir Louis was known to be uncomfortable about the Charles II incident, by which his family had benefited considerably, and this might have seemed to him like a way to redress the balance a little without causing undue embarrassment. At all events, the unworldly Elt took the offer at face value and was much relieved to accept, on one condition: there was a certain artifact in the house, a thing of great value, and he feared for its safety in the rough and ready neighbourhoods into which he was planning to venture. Would the group be happy to take responsibility for its safety? Sir Louis agreed, and late one night, in the drawing room of the house in Kennington, Elt carefully unlocked his safe, withdrew a cloth-wrapped object and presented it to Sir Louis with much ceremony. Sir Louis unfolded the cloth and stared at the artifact in wonderment.
“Sir, it is a nail,” he said.
Elt explained the circumstances under which he had unearthed the treasure, and his own private convictions as to its nature. Sir Louis, who was an atheist, suppressed (for once in his life) his combative spirit, and promised that the thing should be well guarded for as long as the club should exist.
“And I tell you what, sir,” he said, “to make assurance doubly sure, we shall not hide it in no safe, from whence it might be taken at any moment and not a man the wiser. Nay, we shall put it in plain sight and make a great show of it, so that should it not appear in its accustomed place, all of us shall know something is amiss. Each man of us shall be responsible for its safety. You may rest assured, sir.”
Elt was dubious, but at length Sir Louis' persuasions won him over, and he agreed. And thus was the Club With A Nail In It born.
There was much work to be done. The house in Kennington was not nearly as ideal as Sir Louis had claimed; for one thing, it needed extending to allow for members to have rooms in the building. Work began immediately, and in June of 1796, Sir Louis himself mounted a stool and affixed the black lacquered display case containing the Nail to the roof beam above the bar.
Subscriptions were set high, but not prohibitively so: the aim was not to recruit exclusively from the wealthy, but one of the qualifications for membership was a certain adventurousness of spirit, and in those days such adventurousness could only be indulged by those with a certain amount of money. Membership was limited to twenty-nine, for the simple reason that there was space for only thirty sets of rooms in the building, one being permanently set aside for Elt's use should he require it. (He never did, but the rooms are still kept empty in his memory.) There was no gender discrimination, though again, the manners of the time necessarily limited the number of female members. Gambling was sporadic at first and in time died out almost completely, since the majority of the members regarded it as tame sport at best: they would rather risk life and limb than wilfully throw money away. Academic pursuits were highly prized, though, and many members of the Club With A Nail In It became eminent in various scientific fields.
The Nail was a great talking point, and various stories grew up about it. One was that as long as the Nail remained over the bar, the Club would never run out of wine. A variant form stated that as long as the Nail remained over the bar, no member of the Club would ever run out of time, though the precise significance of this is uncertain.
The Club hosted ceremonial gatherings on various occasions, such as Christmas, Midsummer and various members' birthdays. Storytelling was a popular diversion at such gatherings, and non-members were allowed to join the company (by invitation only) and even to volunteer to recount a tale. The food and drink were kept to a high standard by Sir Louis' exacting supervision, and no-one ever had cause to complain of the hospitality of the establishment. After Damian Elt's death, his birthday was added to the list of feast days (he sturdily refused to countenance it during his lifetime). By the terms of his will, the building and grounds of the Club, along with what remained of his estate, passed into the hands of a trust, administered by the three senior members, and funded by members' subscriptions. Elt directed that the Club should remain “in perpetuity, or as long as the money shall last, whichever shall be the greater.” (He was often subject to such verbal infelicities.)
Fortunately, the trust prospered, and indeed, the Club did so well that by the mid-1800s it was perfectly able to survive on the interest of its assets, and monetary subscriptions were waived. Industry was booming, prosperity was on the rise, and the trustees' collective hand was firm on the tiller.
A prominent member at this time was Lady Violata Convulsion, last of the line of Sir Louis' other neighbour in Avevale. A lady of strikingly handsome features and determined mien, she took after her aunt Claracynth in many ways, and spent a great deal of time voyaging into this or that unfrequented corner of the world. Charles Keene of the new magazine Punch developed a devastating caricature of her and used it in his comic cartoons whenever the butt of the joke was a “bluestocking” or mannish woman. Lady Violata, so far from taking offence, would laugh the loudest of all the company at each new appearance of her engraved doppelgänger; though she was occasionally heard to observe wistfully that the gentleman had thus far managed to stay out of reach of her pen (she was herself an artist of some talent and skill). She loved the society of the Club, but could not tolerate the inexorable advance of the city: between the new stations at London and Waterloo Bridges, she and the others noted well the mushroom growth of speculative building, and there was a move afoot to enclose the Common. The Club's premises were safe: an architect member, Edmund Frantick, had got there first and erected on the house's own grounds a square of sturdy and aesthetically pleasing buildings enclosing a rectangle of garden, with access to the main road via an alley from the southern side: but this little enclave of quiet would soon be penned in by houses and shops and roads crammed with traffic. It was more than Lady Violata was willing to endure, and she returned to Convulsion Hall, only leaving it for her frequent and lengthy expeditions to the interior of the Sudan, or the steppes of Kamchatka. In time she stopped going back altogether, simply moving, nomad-like, from one interesting site to another.
It had not been lost upon the members of the Club, meanwhile, that a great wealth of knowledge was contained within their number, and being augmented daily. This seemed to be a resource worth utilising; but where? The educational institutions of London were intended to educate the sons of the “middling rich” and seemed to be coping with that brief fairly well, University College on a secular and King's on a firmly Anglican basis. There was some talk, firmly quelled by the trustees, of converting the Club itself into a college, seeking students from among the “middling poor”. Sir Louis and his fellows applauded the ambition but refused to allow any change of use for the Club building, and there the matter rested for some time.
Lady Violata, meanwhile, had been surveying the Bolivian Altiplano, following some curious leads she had found in an old Spanish book in the library of the Club, and had got embroiled in the War of the Pacific, then nearing its end. Wounded by a stray bullet when she injudiciously tried to get to the coast at Pisco to send a message to Britain, she somehow made her way back to La Paz; but she was now in her late seventies and even her iron will could not hold back the onset of infection indefinitely. The decline, when it came, was swift. Nine days later, Lady Violata died without regaining consciousness.
It came as something of a shock to the trustees of the Club to discover, when her will was read, that she had left her own estate to the trust, with the direction that the Hall be converted into a College for the education of “the sons and daughters of anyone at all,” with the teaching and administrative staff to be selected from (or, if that proved impossible, by) the membership of the Club. One further stipulation: there was to be no money accepted from church or state, and no iota of control was to be yielded to either. “They will come for you,” the old lady had written, “but Avevale should look after you all right.”
The story of the founding of the College should be told elsewhere. Enough to say that not only did the Hall prove ideally suited for its new purpose, but the famous Convulsion emeralds, which were found on the premises, financed the endowment of several scholarship funds which enabled boys and girls from low-income families to obtain the kind of education that had, not too long before, only been available to the sons of dukes. True, Oxford had its Newnham, and Cambridge had its Girton, but neither was yet fully accepted by the old guard of the Oxbridge establishment. Avevale College was unique.
As for the Club, it continued, and continues to this day. The entrance hall now features two small plaques commemorating those members who fell in two world wars—five in one, three in the other—but the Nail still hangs over the bar, the food and drink are still held to a high standard by the current Sir Louis Grievance, and stories are still told around the fireplace as the darkness gathers in the corners of the room, and the thick velvet curtains at the ancient windows keep the modern world and its distractions firmly outside.
“A Club With A Nail In It,” those blank windows seem to say, “is all the defence we need.”