Here is the succulent story of the Sublime Society gleaned from the
account by Walter
Arnold published in 1871.
Back in 1735, Henry Rich was the celebrated harlequin and machinist of Covent Garden Theatre - what today we might call, with some loss of colour, the general manager of the theatre. There he entertained many of the eminent men of his time in the painting room. Second only in popularity to his witty repartee and erudition, were the hot steaks dressed by Rich himself and served punctually at 2 o'clock, accompanied by bottles of old port from a tavern hard by. Thus was born what grew to be the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks. With great determination it was limited to a constitution that admitted no more than 24 brethren, even if this meant putting the future King George IV onto the waiting list, although doubtless topping it. Dining on Saturdays, from November to June, each brother was allowed to bring but one guest, although a second could be risked in the hope of obtaining a vacant seat or spare name. Brethren were uniformed in blue coats and buff waistcoats with brass buttons impressed with the Society's gridiron badge and motto, "BEEF AND LIBERTY", and wore rings bearing the same device.
A member's ring.
Suspicious inflammatory vicissitudes afflicted the Society's venue.
Just seventy years after its founding, the ancient customs of the Society
were rudely interrupted by Covent Garden Theatre burning to the ground.
Thus, in 1808, the Society had to migrate a short step to the Bedford Coffee
House (on the corner of what used to be the convent garden), and then to
the newly built Old Lyceum Theatre in 1809. Twenty one years later, just
after settling in at the new location, that theatre too was engulfed in
flames. From here the Sublime Society went to the Lyceum Tavern in the
Strand, then back to the Bedford Coffee House until, in 1838,
the Sublime Society acquired its own suite under the new roof of the Lyceum.
The entire dining room and ceiling were in Gothic architecture, with the walls hung with paintings and engravings of past and present brethren by some of the greatest British painters and engravers of all time (some of whom were brethren). Folding doors, the entire width of the room, connected the dining room to an anteroom from which could be seen an enormous new gridiron in the kitchen. Over the gridiron was inscribed:-
If it were done, when 'tis done, then
It were done quickly-
Embedded as the centre ornament in the ceiling was a culinary phoenix - the Sublime Society's original gridiron, exhumed from the burnt out ruins of the Covent Garden Theatre.
Under the original gridiron, the brethren of the Sublime Society lived and died on beefsteaks. And died they did, sometimes as young as 93, struck down without languor or gout, before they could pay the penalties exacted by time for the mournful privilege of vegetarian living. White-clad cooks turned the steaks with tongs and served them hissing on hot pewter plates. Accompaniments included baked potatoes, Spanish onions, cold and fried beet root and chopped eschalot. Shallotting was regarded by the brethren as a great aid in the strife for the possession of the final morsel on a plate. The meal was washed down with porter in pewter, port wine and whisky toddy, and terminated with toasted cheese. Although, apparently, so appetizing was the result that, for many who foreswore supper, supper was the inevitable result. Smoking was permitted after THE SONG OF THE DAY which was as follows. Whether or not he could sing, the President of the day had to lead the singing: -
No more shall Fame expand her wings
To sound of heroes, states and kings;
A nobler flight the Goddess takes,
To praise our British Beef in steaks,-
A joyful theme for Britons free, (chorus )
Happy in Beef and Liberty.
Oh! charming Beef, of thee possest,
Completely carved in steaks, and dressed,
We taste the dear variety,
Produced in earth, in air, in sea,-
Their flavour's all combined in thee,
Fit for the sons of liberty.
Throughout the realms where despots reign,
What tracks of glory now remain!
Their people, slaves of power and pride,
Fat Beef and Freedom are denied!
What realm, what state, can happy be,
Wanting our Beef and Liberty?
O'er sea-coal fire and steel machine,
We broil the beauteous fat and lean;
Our drink Oporto's grapes afford,
Whilst India's nectar crowns the board,-
A right repast for such as we,
Friends to good cheer and Liberty!
Brethren clasped hands for the last verse, then read the USUAL TOAST
from the Horatian motto above mantle-piece,
"Let none beyond this threshold bear away
What friend to friend in confidence may say."
Finally, after extensive singing and versification, the cook in white cap and apron came around, pewter plate in hand, to collect 5 shillings from each brother and 10 shillings and sixpence from each guest. The original entrance fee of 26 pounds 5 shillings. was reduced to 10 pounds 10 shillings in 1849, but then there were two annual whips of 5 shillings each. The whip was dealt with at one of the three private meals without guests, held on the first and last Saturdays of the season and Easter weekend Saturday. Anxious candidates for vacancies also were considered at these private meetings, although not until each aspirant had twice been a guest to be judged impartially. There was a formal ballot, but no "No" was ever dropped in the bowl.
The constitution of the Society was fairly complex. There was a rota for PRESIDENT OF THE DAY, who took his seat after dinner, at which time he was invested with the BADGE OF THE SOCIETY by the BOOTS. The president of the day gave the charted toasts as listed for the day, proposed all resolutions duly made and seconded, and observed and enforced the ANCIENT CUSTOMS. However, he had no power. On the contrary, he was closely watched and sharply pulled up if he betrayed either ignorance or forgetfulness on the matter of routine. In fact, he was a target for all to shoot at, which was made easier by his ceremonials.
Behind him on the right of his chair hung the BEEF-EATER'S HAT (WITH PLUME), while to the left hung the THREE-CORNERED HAT which had not belonged to Garrick. To put a resolution, the President was bound to place the plumed hat upon his head, but to remove it instantly. Other officers of the constitution were the VICE PRESIDENT OF THE DAY, the oldest brother present, the BISHOP, who sang the GRACE and ANTHEM, and the RECORDER. The duty of the recorder was to rebuke everybody for offenses, both real and imaginary, and to deliver the CHARGE to each newly elected brother. For these special after-dinner occasions, the initiate and recorder retired to an anteroom, where port and punch were thoughtfully provided for the ordeal which followed. The initiate was brought in blindfolded, accompanied on his right by the bishop in his mitre, and on his left by another brother bearing the SWORD OF STATE.
Behind were the HALBERDIERS costumed in absurdity and incongruity, as determined by the nature of the costumes available from the current production running at the theatre. Thus, we can glimpse one of the central elements of the Society, and now can understand why the steaks were best cooked in a theatre.
Despite the pantomime, the charge dwelt quite seriously on the solemnity of the perfect equality which had to exist between the brethren of the Society. Perfect equality, however, was to be prevented from degenerating into undue familiarity. Badinage and other light railleries were encouraged, provided they were impersonal and no threat to good fellowship or good breeding. After the charge followed the original OATH, unchanged from its first swearing in 1735:-
OATH. You shall attend duly, vote impartially, and conform to our laws and orders obediently. You shall support our dignity, promote our welfare, and at all times behave as a worthy member in this Sublime Society. So Beef and Liberty be your reward.
Each clause was read by the bishop and repeated by the initiate, and then the blindfolded initiate bowed his head to kiss the book carried by the bishop. But, at this point, the SERJEANT (as the cook was called at this juncture), dashed into switch the book for a beef bone on a napkin. Thus, as his lips touched the bone, often with some propulsion from the halberdiers, the initiate became the newest brother and was entitled to be seated with the brethren, but not quite yet. As the newest brother, the former initiate now became the Boots of the Society and had grave and onerous responsibilities. He had to arrive before dinner-hour to fetch and decant the wine from the cellar. But this was not the worst of it. Tradition deemed that, when every hot plate and fresh steak was placed before him, Boots would be summoned, and could not refuse, to secure a fresh bottle of port from the cellar. No one was exempted.
The Duke of Sussex was Boots for one whole year from 1808 to 1809, when his place was taken by the Duke of Leinster. The punishment for anything less than good humour during this ordeal was to be taken from the room by two brethren bearing halberds, and preceded by a third carrying the sword. The delinquent donned the garb of the penitent (as the table-cloth was known when used for this purpose), and brought back in to be chided by the Recorder. Sometimes, it must be admitted, things got just a little out of hand. The perfect equality of the brethren did not come quite as easily for some as for others. Thus, when H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex was tried and found guilty, he was unable to resume his seat with much, or in fact any, good humour. But Beef and Liberty triumphed even here. The next day he apologised in front of the Palace, extending his enormous hands, calling out loudly in his accustomed note (B flat) "I made a fool of myself last night", and wringing the hand of the Society's representative until he winced with pain. And, while a groom held the reigns of the royal steed, the Highlander sentries solemnised the occasion by presenting arms.
Apart from the odd lapse from perfect equality, easily forgiven for those to whom it was unfamiliar if not treasonable, the royalty among the brethren did much to perpetuate the mystique of the Society. Rich merchants, particularly those unfamiliar with the gentry of London, were a favourite target when invited as guests. On one occasion having been presented to several royal brethren, a visitor was heard to mutter under his breath that he did not believe a word of it. At which point the usual conspiracy slowly got under way. After a while, the Duke of Sussex complained, talking to his brother as if to his butcher, that the steaks sent to him last Saturday were tough. To which his royal brother responded that the stays sent by the complainer for his wife's corset were misfitting. After overhearing these and other mercantile misrepresentations, the visitor was sure he was right. Two dukes then fell over backwards in an unscheduled event caused by the loss of a table leaf, and helped each other up from the ashes of the fireplace with great mirth. The sceptical guest was now totally convinced, and passed the remainder of his time in London casting aspersions on the nobility of the brethren in the Sublime Society whom, he assumed, were all merchants like himself. But he had missed the point entirely. There were actors, admirals, artists, bankers, brewers, cabinet ministers, colonels, poets, royalty and scholars. The brethren of the Sublime Society included anyone who liked beefsteaks, was fun to be with, and who could afford to join.
True to their ideals, the brethren shared their good times and pranks
with many a loyal servant. One notable Edward Heardson, retired pugilist,
died in the Societies chambers, content after many years of service as
cook and Serjeant to the Society. He was immortal as long as the Society
prospered, and was remembered in a regularly repeated epitaph which began,
At its height, there is no doubt that the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks crystallized some of those many strange attributes of the British, in which, somehow, sharing beefsteaks together can become poetically patriotic, as in the chorus of one of the Society's favourite songs,
In British breasts this spirit sprung
For Freedom's preservation,
But British beef their sinews strung
Who saved this freeborn nation.
By its own analysis, the Society was killed off by the railways (which made it all too easy to get out of London). On a sad April 7, 1869, the Society's effects were auctioned off. A catalogue of priceless portraits, prints and brethrens' initialled chairs were dispersed into oblivion, together with the halberds (which went for œ3 10s. the pair), the hat which did not belong to Garrick (for 15s.), and the bishop's mitre (ex Cardinal Gregorio, in a silk case, for 13s.). The president's high-backed oak chair with brass studs and foliage carvings fetched œ7 10s., and the working gridiron went for œ5 15s. What happened to the one in the ceiling one wonders?
And what of us who are still here? Well, the rump steaks so beloved by the brethren of the Society are still here as well, better than ever (provided you buy them from a real butcher who has aged them properly). The grapevine of railways that festooned England has been stripped and stumped. So, you have only yourself to blame if you do not meet regularly, jostling shoulder to shoulder with your drinking friends and with hot steaks sizzling before you.
Like Britain's Island lies our Steak,
A sea off gravy bounds it;
Shallots, profusely scattered, make
The rock-work which surrounds it.
Your Isle's best emblem there behold,
Remember ancient story;
Be like your grandsires, rough and bold,
And live and die with glory.
Be a sober, solitary vegetarian if you wish. May you live forever. But don't try to stop us eating beef! Beef and Liberty! By George, we'll fight for it.