For a history-loving traveler, stumbling on rare artifacts is exciting enough, but this sudden human connection to the past had me breaking out in a sweat. And this was just foreplay. I was here at the museum to inspect a whole cache of lewd memorabilia rescued from the raunchy British sex clubs of the 18th century. We often forget that the pre-Victorian era was more lusty than today. Such intimate curls, plucked from one's conquests, were a favorite souvenir; lovers exchanged them as tokens of affection, and rakes wore them like cockades in their hats as talismans of potency. But an aura of mystery still surrounds the extent of the licentious behavior behind club doors. The famously randy George IV had become a member of a notorious Scottish club called the Beggar's Benison while he was still a dandyish young prince in cravat and cuffs. Years later, when visiting Edinburgh as king in 1822, he apparently provided this token to the club for old times' sake. It's impossible to know from whom the curls originated, but his consort at the time was Elizabeth, the Marchioness of Coyningham, a feisty and alluring gold-digger ("beautiful, shrewd, greedy, voluptuous," rejoiced one writer) who listed future Russian Czar Nicholas I among her many paramours.
For me, this was more thrilling than fondling King Arthur's helmet. It was for moments like this, I told myself, that tourism to Britain is alive and well. And I hadn't even gotten to the dildolike toasting glasses or masturbation props.
"Of course, every request to see the club relics has to be approved," one college figure said to me. "We have to be careful. We don't want the story to be, University where Prince William went to collegehas rooms full of porn!"
"Quite," I agreed.
A couple of years ago, while researching a treatise on salacious European history, I discovered the phantasmagoric wonderland of sex that was Georgian Britain, the era from 1714 to 1837. Long before the heyday of Austin Powers, debauchery proliferated up and down the rain-soaked land, fueled by riotous boozing and self-indulgence. "There was a gusto about 18th century vice unmatched before or since," writes historian Fergus Linnane with tangible nostalgia, in London: The Wicked City. A flood of wealth from the budding empire allowed the leisured classes to fulfill their carnal fantasies without restraint. And perhaps the most striking feature of the age was the explosion of British sex clubs, where a colorful array of rakes, libertines, courtesans, and aristocratic adventuresses dressed up in outrageous outfits for kinky ceremonies. Each club accumulated its own peculiar regalia, such as erotic drinking vessels, sleazy curios, and obscene ballot boxes modeled on human torsos (yay or nay votes going into respective orifices). There would be ribald toasts, poring over the latest dirty books, and visits from comely young "posture molls," who posed nude on tables and gyrated like modern lap dancers. Special rooms were provided so members could retire in pairs or groups, and ladies of fashion could unwind with handsome rent boys. Surviving accounts suggest that some clubs would spice their orgies with a dash of Satanism, while others focused on elaborate rituals of self-abuse.
Sadly, during the prudish Victorian era, most references to these naughty clubs were scotched from the historical record. Horrified relatives burned embarrassing documents and club regalia. But their subversive antics survived in pornographic novels, travel guides to risqué tourist sites, and, of course, popular memory. In the countryside, colorful tales endured of partygoers racing through the dark forest for frenzied couplings or meeting in ruined abbeys, erotic gardens, and underground tunnels.
In the 1960s, British swingers revived their kinship for the world of Georgian sex and its giddy freedoms. Researchers have located a number of documents and relics that survived the Victorian purges. And academics argue that the clubbers were more than upper-class twits; they were motivated by a philosophical yearning and were essential for promoting the Enlightenment ideal that sex was for pleasure, not just for procreation.
Poring over these revisionist texts, I realized that a number of club locations could still be tracked down today. So I mapped out an itinerary that would take me through the hidden recesses of Georgian Britain to sample its fabled pleasures.
It was in swarming London town that the club craze began. But visiting the city today, you must constantly look past all the ponderous Victorian institutions that smothered the world of whimsical sex romps. No trace can be found of the Mollies Club for homosexuals, the range of transvestite societies (both men and women relished gender-bending in the 18th century), the Flagellants' Club for the many gentlemen who favored a little birching, or the women-only club for discreet lesbian encounters on Jermyn Street. A creative leap of imagination is needed to picture Covent Garden, now given over to flower markets and Body Shops, as the city's most sordid red light district, where, in the seedy Shakespeare's Head, waiter-pimps would set gentlemen up with ladies like Oyster Moll, who would "open the wicket of love's bear garden to any bold sportsman who has a venturesome mind to give a run to his puppy." And in tree-lined St. James's Square, nothing remains of upmarket bordellos like Miss Falkland's Temple of Love, where one could sip champagne in damask-lined parlors and enjoy such luxuries as "elastick beds" that were spring-loaded "to restore old men and debauched youths," much like the vibrating mattresses of Las Vegas hotels, and where resident doctors who would screen ladies for the pox.
So I spent a couple of days on swank Pall Mall, scoping out London's oldest private clubs, which mostly date from the 19th century and are now lined up like bunkers, their ornate wooden doorways guarded by liveried staff. These traditional clubs remain fearful temples of exclusivity, with dark reflective glass and nary a plaque to indicate their existence—a sure sign of upper-class hanky-panky, as far as I'm concerned.
I had to know what went on behind those closed doors. So I called in favors from British friends and penetrated a few—the Athenaeum, the Travellers, and the Society of Antiquaries. There were many leather chairs, valuable oil paintings, and porters half-asleep in their tuxedoes, but no whiff of depravity, historical or otherwise. Even the once-wild Brooks's Club, where Lord Cholmondeley had in the 18th century staked Lord Derby 500 guineas to fornicate with his mistress 1,000 feet up in a hot-air balloon, was now a quiet redoubt of toothy brokers. I could only hope they had hidden their spanking birches as soon as I entered.
But even this made a certain historical sense, I realized. In 1721, rumors began circulating throughout the city about a new group that called themselves the Hellfire Club, some 40 "persons of quality," male and female, led by a handsome and depraved young peer, Philip, Duke of Wharton. Along with the group sex and sadomasochism, there was talk of sacrilegious rites in their townhouses—mockeries of the Holy Eucharist, feasts of Devil's Loins and Holy Ghost Pie—so the club was shut down by royal order.
Not long afterward, London fell out of favor among the most extreme clubbers; it was too difficult to keep their rites secret, too close to the hand of the law. But the idea of mixing sex and mockery of religion was in the air. Imitation Hellfire Clubs began to crop up in rural England, Ireland, and Scotland. And the evocative name became the popular label for all the carnally adventurous societies of the 18th century. (The Hellfire Club title has lingered for centuries, claimed by dozens of S&M societies around the world, even one that flourished in New York's Meatpacking District in the 1970s.)
Clearly, London was passé. So, like any Georgian gentleman looking for hard-core entertainment, I set off into the English countryside.