Almack’s history is divided into two parts: one is from the inception to around 1815 and the other from 1815 on.
First opening on 12 February 1765 on King Street, St. James’s, Almack’s Assembly Rooms were situated immediately to the east of Pall Mall Place and comprised
… three very elegant new-built rooms, a ten-guinea subscription, for which you have a ball and supper once a week for twelve weeks. [written in a letter from Gilly Williams to George Selwyn, 22 February 1765, in Jesse, John Heneage, George Selwyn and his contemporaries (1843)].
Named after their founder, a Scotsman named William Almack, the rooms were initially home to a ladies’ club, designed to permit gambling in the smaller rooms and dancing in the great room. Unlike the entertainments hosted by Madame Cornelys at the Carlisle House, Almack’s developed an “exclusiveness” which set aside the more scandalous assemblies at Carlisle. On a side note, Almack also owned The Thatched House Tavern and founded a club for gentlemen that later became Brooks’s.
Almack’s lost a large portion of its popularity when the Pantheon opened in 1772. However, when the Pantheon burned down, Almack’s was still standing and grew again in popularity.
Though leading ladies of the Haut Ton were known as patronesses of Almacks, at first, both men and women were named to be patron.
The assemblies were held four or five times a season. They were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but not every week. The patronesses were listed in the paper, and the notice gave the date of the first assembly.
We assume around 1815, after the war with Napoleon ended, Lady Jersey took over Almack’s. The announcements seem to have ceased, the assemblies changed to Wednesday nights, and they were held just about every week during the season. The patronesses greatly restricted its membership. A person could not simply show up at the door and expect admittance. To attend, the person had to procure a “voucher,” signed by one of the patronesses, who are said to have kept a list of whether a person was “good ton” or “bad ton.” This exclusivity element lasted until around 1824.
According to (Samuel Leigh) Leigh’s New Picture of London (1818):
The balls at Willis’s rooms, commonly called Almack’s, are held every Wednesday during the season. They are very splendid, and are very numerously and fashionably attended. Some ladies are styled lady patronesses of these balls; and in order to render them more select, (the price being only seven shillings,) it is necessary that a visitor’s name should be inserted in one of these ladies’ books, which of course makes the admission difficult.
By the 1790s, Almack’s no longer hosted gaming rooms. Instead, dances and assemblies were the entertainment. Eventually, Almack’s became the place for a young lady to “demonstrate” her suitability to members of the ton and for a gentleman to seek out a wife of good social standing. Therefore, it became informally known as “The Marriage Mart.’
The committee at Almack’s changed periodically, but, during the middle of the Regency period, as recorded by Gronow, the Patronesses were Lady Castlereagh, Lady Jersey, Lady Cowper, Mrs. Drummond Burrel, the Countess Esterhazy, and the Countess Lieven. As stated in Ticknor’s [Ticknor, George, Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor (1876).] diaries: only one lady acted as patroness at a time on a rotation basis, but the members of the committee were referred to collectively as the “patronesses of Almack’s.”
Every Monday the Patronesses convened for the sole purpose of deciding who to drop from their membership and to whom to extend a voucher. The criteria for consideration to their hallowed halls was pretty much dependent upon one’s position in society, one’s address, one’s wealth (but being wealthy was not an automatic key to entrance), manners, how one behaved and treated others, and one’s general countenance. All considered acceptable young ladies were introduced to suitable partners by the patronesses, or suffer the consequences of being shunned by them and society, as a whole.
As mentioned above, Gronow, an army officer in London wrote:
… the Ladies Castlereagh, Jersey, Cowper, and Sefton, Mrs Drummond Burrell, now Lady Willoughby, the Princess Esterhazy, and the Countess Lieven. [Gronow, Captain. The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1862).] [Note: Other patronesses were the Marchioness of Salisbury and Lady Downshire.]