October Club (act. 17111714)
was a network of tory dissidents in the House of Commons that took its name from the potent ale the members were said to favour, and at the same time commemorated the resounding victory their party had obtained in the general election of October 1710. At the end of that year a watchdog committee of MPs known as the Loyal Club briefly surfaced, and in the following January the October Club took over its role.
Origins and objectives
The immediate aim of the group was to put pressure on the government led by Robert Harley to investigate the mismanagements of the preceding whig ministry. Their targets included Junto
lords such as Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland, but over time they focused chiefly on the principal figures in that administration, Sidney Godolphin and John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough. More generally they sought to influence Harley in the direction of a less centrist approach than the one he had adopted during his first few months in power, and urged a root and branch reform of policy, especially in areas like finance and ecclesiastical affairs. With no false modesty they allowed themselves to be described as Gentlemen
of the best Families
, the best Estates
of the British
that derive their Principles
from their Ancestors
, and are more affected for the Constitution
, in Church
, for the Sake of Posterity
, than Themselves
(Character and Declaration
, 1). Implausibly they vowed to refuse all posts and places of trust and profit.
The members embraced a wide range of opinion within the tory party on big issues of the day, notably the succession to the crown. None the less their ideology had its roots in traditional country philosophy, which regarded the land as the ultimate source of national strength and stability, and distrusted the growing power of the City of London. Their support base naturally lay chiefly in the rural gentry and the landowning class. Like others of the squirearchy they resented the heavy burden of tax imposed on them during the War of the Spanish Succession (170213). They looked on Harley's coadjutor Henry St John as their natural standard-bearer, but despite his ideological affinities with the club his personality proved too volatile and his behaviour too pragmatic for any sustained role as an éminence grise
within the ministry.
Jonathan Swift, who had just started to act as Harley's head of publicity, noted with concern the formation of this new splinter group. He told Esther Johnson on 18 February 1711:
We are plagued here with an October Club that is a set of above a hundred Parliament men of the country, who drink October beer at home and meet every evening at a tavern near Parliament, to consult affairs, and drive things on to extreams against the Whigs, to call the old ministry to account, and get off five or six heads.
Swift meant the impeachment or cashiering of office holders under the outgoing regime (Swift, Journal to Stella
, 1.1945). It was true that the club met regularly at the Bell tavern in King Street, just across New Parliament Square from the Palace of Westminster, and a few months later when Swift happened to be eating at the same tavern some prominent Octobrists invited him to join them at their dinner. But, he reported:
I sent my excuses, adorned with about thirty compliments, and got off as fast as I could. It would have been a most improper thing for me to dine there, considering my friendship with the Ministry. The Club is about a hundred and fifty, and near eighty of them were then going to dinner at two long tables in a great ground-room. (ibid., 1.242)
The passage shows how divisive the club had already become within the tory ranks. Just a day earlier Swift had encountered a leader of the group, Henry Campion (c
.16801761), one of … a club of country members, who think the ministers are too backward in punishing and turning out the Whigs (ibid., 1.241).
On 19 February Swift wrote to the third earl of Peterborough: The October club, which was in its rudiments when your Lordship left us [in early January], is now growing to be a party by itself, and begins to rail at the Ministry as much as the Whigs do. In return Peterborough deplored the damage the tories were doing to themselves, and reflected What patience could bear the dissapointment of a good scheme by the October Clubb? (Correspondence
, 1.335, 341).
Membership and numbers
Supporters of the government quickly hoisted warning flags. On 20 February 1711 Peter Wentworth wrote in alarm to his brother, Thomas, who was currently serving as an ambassador and would soon take a major role in the peace negotiations:
This loyal country club is a great disturbance to Mr. Harley, who finds they are past his governing; their Number is increased to. 150. They are most of them young gentlemen of estates that has never been in Parliament before, and are not very close, but declare to every body what they designe, to have every Whig turn'd out, and not to suffer that the new Ministry shou'd shake hands as they see they do with old. I was told by two or three of this club last Sunday, that they begin to send the old Fellows among them, but damn they won't be bite so, and that neither their weadles nor threats shall bring them under government, what has once been carried by the majority of their club they will stand to a man in the house. (Wentworth Papers, 180)
The reference to sending in the old Fellows suggests that the ministry had begun to attempt infiltration of the club by getting loyal adherents to join the group.
The most reliable contemporary list of members is probably to be found in a broadsheet published after the end of the parliamentary session of 171011. This is headed A true and exact list of those worthy patriots, who, to their eternal honour, have … detected the mismanagements of the late mry
. It supplies the names of MPs, almost without exception tories, who had voted in key divisions in favour of measures critical of the whigs on such matters as the debts of the nation and the state of the Church of England. Rather more than 150 names are marked with a dagger to indicate affiliation with the October Club. This tallies with Wentworth's count and that of the journalist Abel Boyer, whose figures may derive in part from the broadsheet. The similarity in all these estimates would suggest that the fraught times required accurate political intelligence.
These 150 or so individuals represented about 45 per cent of the 332 tories elected in October 1710. Despite Wentworth's claim, the club was not dominated by younger and more newly elected members: indeed several old stagers took a vigorous part in their activities, such as Sir John Pakington
, a plain-spoken Worcestershire squire once thought to be the model of The Spectator
's Sir Roger de Coverly. Some of the group, not all necessarily deliberately placed there as fifth columnists, had strong links to Harley: for example, the brothers Edward Foley (16761747; MP for Droitwich to 1711) and Thomas Foley
were close relatives by marriage. Another suspect must be George Hay, Viscount Dupplin
, Harley's son-in-law. Among the early members was Allen Bathurst
, then at the start of a long career in politics, and later an intimate of the poet Alexander Pope: he left the Commons soon after, when he was granted a peerage, and gravitated to Harley's side from that time on.
Day-to-day leadership devolved on men who otherwise left little mark on the high politics of the day. They included Henry Campion of Combwell, Kentthen MP for the Cornish borough of Bossineywho openly espoused the Jacobite cause in 1715, and a little-known Sussex gentleman, Charles Eversfield (16831749), MP for Sussex and from 1715 for Horsham. Among prominent figures in the party who did join the group was Sir Thomas Hanmer, fourth baronet
, later speaker of the House of Commons. In May 1711 the club expelled him because of his unduly close relations with the ministry, but he was allowed to rejoin a few months later. John Aislabie
, subsequently the beleaguered chancellor of the exchequer in a whig administration at the time of the South Sea Bubble, expressed his earliest disenchantment with the tories by attaching himself to the group even though he held office as a lord of the Admiralty. Opponents maintained that club members harboured a secret hope for their own preferment once the residual whig element was purged. However, few entered the government: Harley made a few token appointments to placate his critics, but the only significant promotion for a loyal Octobrist came with the choice in June 1712 of Sir William Wyndham
as secretary at war, an important role as the army had to be scaled down in response to the forthcoming peace.
For the most part the club maintained a lukewarm Hanoverian stance. Among the few active Jacobites it included were George Lockhart
of Carnwath, who attempted to enlist his colleagues in a bid to dissolve the union with Scotland, the doughty William Shippen
, and Charles Caesar
, a lifelong adherent of the Pretender. Even a fellow traveller like John Hynde Cotton
, who did become a member, referred to his colleagues as old beer-drinkers etc (HoP, Commons, 16901715
, 3.739). On the other hand, most of those MPs who took up the cause in 1715 on behalf of the Stuarts, for example John Anstis and Edward Harvey, were notably absent from the group. Again Wyndham provides an exception, as he occupied a prominent position in the Jacobite hierarchy in 1715 and at one time faced charges of treason until he was released from the Tower through family influence.
Some of the club's greatest success as a ginger group came early, when they managed in 1711 to defeat a proposed tax on leather and got through a measure to tighten the property qualifications for election to the Commons. Their high-church prejudices were assuaged when the government brought in an act to build the fifty new Queen Anne churches in London. In addition they helped to set up a commission, stuffed with their own number, to investigate land grants. They lent their support to measures that weakened the feared advance of the dissenting interest. Yet the party hierarchy still viewed them with suspicion, and in January 1712 Swift was encouraged to write Some Advice Humbly Offered to the Members of the October Club
, urging them to fall in with Harley's programme. The preface suggests that the club could now boast more than 200 members.
The year 1712 started well for the Octobrists, when they ensured the passage of a vote of censure on the duke of Marlborough for alleged peculations, which formed part of a campaign that had just led to the duke's dismissal as head of the army and would soon prompt his voluntary exile. Paradoxically, the Octobrists' increasing ability to see eye to eye with the ministry proved their undoing as a force in their party. In March 1712 a new splinter group arose, dedicated to the alternative brew of March ale. It was made up in part of MPs who seceded from the older body, and called themselves the Primative October men (Wentworth Papers
It is the nature of pressure groups to outlive their usefulness as soon as their campaigns bear fruit. However, there was an additional reason for the gradual withering of the October Club. Their on-off relations with Henry St John went into terminal decline as the secretary of state, now Viscount Bolingbroke, grew more and more estranged from his chief, now first earl of Oxford. As the tory party split into bitter factions the club found itself divided in its loyalties, in part precisely because Oxford had acceded to several of their earlier demands. The members no longer followed Bolingbroke blindly into the voting lobby, and it was left to the March Club to provide a focus for malcontents. The Octobrists had mostly obtained the peace terms they wanted, and many if not all were able to support the contentious commercial treaty that followed in May 1713. By the time that the ministry imploded on the eve of Queen Anne's death on 1 August 1714 their numbers had shrunk to about fifty. After this the tory party entered its long decades without power, and in the early Hanoverian years a group such as the October Club would have found no one to lobby and no government to put their steadily more irrelevant projects into action.
Other members of the October Club, with entries in the Oxford DNB
, are: Robert Byerley
; Sir John Cass
; Scrope Howe, first Viscount Howe
; John Hungerford
; Sir Roger Mostyn
; John Sharp
; and Samuel Shepheard