The Kit-Cat Club is not well known today, and it may be surprising to learn that it has nothing to do with chocolate bars or food for felines, however it was probably named after a meat pie.
It was formed at the end of the seventeenth century, a pivotal point in British history, and was active from the 1690s to the 1720s. Its members participated in cultural, constitutional and social revolutions. Prominent members included writers William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh, Joseph Addison and politicians the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Burlington, the Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Sir Robert Walpole, and keystone member Jacob Tonson, the most enterprising publisher in London, who took on promising authors when others would not.
On the surface the club’s agenda was the promotion of Whig politics with its key features of constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule i.e. in favour of the authority of parliament over monarchy. However, the members were probably more passionately devoted to directing the course of English civilisation through literature and music.
The membership met at a tavern in London run by Christopher Catt, famous for his delicious mutton pies known as “Kit Cats”. Kit was a nickname for Christopher at the time, hence the probable origins of the club’s name.
“Who knows but by the dint of the Kit-Cat’s Pies,
You may, e’er long, to Gods and Monarchs Rise.”
Ned Ward (1709)
Much of British politics and culture of that time was inspired by or delivered through the Kit-Cat Club. So strong was the club’s presence felt that some elements of British society were even created in direct opposition to it.
Possessing a keen wit was a necessity for becoming a member, and wit was even exchanged as form of currency within the club. The club may also have been the first to really establish the approach of exploring art not as an escape from life, but as a way of understanding it better.
The combination of a limited membership and a focus on high-brow culture meant that joining the club was an exclusive endeavour. However, its attitude was actually quite an inclusive one; anyone with creative talent was welcomed and even nurtured. Membership was not defined by class, status or wealth, but by a desire for literate and intellectual companionship. This helped promulgate poetry, theatre and music, transitioning these arts from being traditional courtly pursuits to activities that every man could engage in and contribute to.
In turn, the members of the club acted as role models and set new standards for fashion, manners and morals, which spread throughout society. Thus forming the essence of what it means to be a gentleman; an ethos which is upheld to this day. Sir John Vanbrugh succinctly described the ethos of the club when he said that “good manners and soft words have brought many a difficult thing to pass”. This understanding of what it was to be a gentleman was also embodied by the members’ keen sense of what it meant to be English.
Most of the paperwork associated with the club has been lost or destroyed, so it’s history is more like one long conversation, which fits perfectly with the members’ belief that creative forces originated from commerce and intercourse between minds. Sharing and exchanging ideas was the key to being original and productive. Conversation was everything. This is something that has filtered down through the generations into the modus operandi of the modern gentleman. “No man is an island” John Donne, 1624.
Today’s gentleman owes a good deal to the Kit-Cat Club. The members were not without their flaws – heavy drinking and cronyism were commonplace – but they were founders, free-thinkers, trend-setters and even had an impact on society’s moral compass. They were witty, urbane and unafraid to speak their minds and stand against the social norms.
The modern gentleman is also not flawless, but if he strives to be the best version of himself, thereby contributing to society, he honours those founding members of the Kit-Cat Club.