Feeling at Home with Savages (Competition entry LONDON)
There are threads that bind me to London. Some are thicker than others but they are all strong. I didn't’t know they were there at first, now I treasure them. There are threads that link me to great moments in history and to great writers such as Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling.
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1962 and was unaware of the threads. I knew that my father was English but I had no interest in finding out more about his family. I liked my surname, Catling, it was unusual but that was the end of my interest. As I grew older and moved to London, to work I became more interested in my family history.
That is when I became aware of the dark green book.
I am holding it my hands now. A faded, dark green book. Its hard-back cover feels like fine linen and smells like dust. The chalky feeling, cream coloured pages are sprinkled with toast coloured, age spots. Its spine withered with age. Some of the internal bindings are stretched so that the threads are evident.
The opening page says:
MY LIFE’S PILGRIMAGE
By THOS. CATLING
Formerly Editor of “Lloyds’ Weekly Newspaper”
JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET
This is a book that has been in my family for 105 years.
It is the incredible life story of my Great, Great Grandfather Thomas Catling.
Thomas was born in Cambridge on September 23rd 1838. Life was hard growing up and with little money coming in from his fathers gardening business, Thomas had to go out to work. He started work at the age of 12 at the Cambridge Chronicle where his job was to ‘take off’ the sheets of paper as they came off the printing drum. By 1845 and now a fifteen year old boy, Thomas set out to work in London to earn more.
Sitting here 171 years in the future I feel an immense sense of wonder and pride at the courage of this 15 year old boy setting out on his own to begin a career in London.
Using the experience he gained working at the Cambridge Chronicle, Thomas secured a position as a typesetter with Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, one of London’s first Sunday Newspapers. Edward Lloyd launched Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 1842. It was the first of three popular papers to be created for those who had the leisure time to read on Sundays.
Over the next 53 years Thomas went on to craft an extraordinary career with the paper. That sort of loyalty and service to one employer is unheard of today. Beginning in 1845 as a typesetter Thomas was eventually to serve as the editor of the paper for 25 years until 1904.
On 16th February 1896, Lloyd’s Weekly became the only British newspaper in the nineteenth century to sell more than a million copies.
Threads of Thomas’s story reach out to me from the book. He was the editor of this Sunday ‘newspaper for the people’ and as a result he came into contact with many prominent people of his day. He recounts how he spoke to Rudyard Kipling:
“When I asked Mr.Rudyard Kipling for a story he answered he found it impossible to guarantee work in advance with out damaging it’s quality”
He recounts how on one Saturday afternoon in May 1895 he looked in at The Old Bailey and just managed to squeeze his way on to the Bench as Mr. Justice Wills concluded his summing up at the second trial of Oscar Wilde. Thomas was there, waiting in the courtroom for the verdict.
The verdict was the maximum punishment of two years imprisonment with hard labour and Thomas writes with compassion in his notebook:
“ As Wilde heard the sentence, he raised his right arm and gazed forward with a look of horror such as I have never seen on the face of any other man. Although his mouth opened and his tongue moved, no sound reached the court. Yet another other effort he made, the anguish deepened on his torture-stricken face as he was gently turned towards the stairs and handed down from the Dock”
I was enthralled reading about Thomas’s tales of encounters with people of his time who now have almost mythical status.
But one thread in particular caught my attention.
My father had always struck me as a character straight out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. I imagine Dad would have been friends with Geeves. He was always immaculately groomed and had, to my ear, a very ‘posh’ English accent. He had told me of his wealthy and privileged childhood growing up in Wargrave on Thames in a house on the banks of the river Lodden. He had a gentleman’s gentleman to dress him in the morning and his father collected Rolls Royce cars for a hobby. His coming of age included becoming a member in an exclusive gentleman’s club in London and of course membership of the Masons. It all seemed strange, exclusive and possibly misogynistic to me. But when I don’t understand something I research. On reading more in Thomas’s book – My Life’s Pilgrimage’ I found reference to a gentleman’s club called ‘The Savages’. With a name like that, I had to find out more and so I began with Google to find out more.
The founding meeting of the club was held on the 12th October 1857. The club was set up to be ‘a meeting of gentlemen connected with literature and the fine arts, and warmly interested in the promotion of Christian knowledge, and the sale of exciseable liquors'
Many of the members were drawn from the ranks of bohemian journalists and writers for The Illustrated London News who considered themselves unlikely to be accepted into the older, arts related Garrick Club. Guests and members included Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and even Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, who arrived as a guest of Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, but was asked to leave.
So again a rich and intriguing history – made all the more interesting to me as I learned that in the Savages nineteenth year Thomas joined. It was at this time that the Savages were becoming more organised and so he is named as one of the founder members. He recalls, “Since January 1876, when I was appointed one of the honorary auditors, I have continued in office, being re-elected each year”
It didn't’t take me long on Google to find that that The Savage Club still existed and I got in touch with them immediately. Their archivist was excited to hear from me as he knew my name, Catling, how exciting.
I agreed to share with them what I had on my Great, Great Grandfather Thomas and they were delighted.
That is when I had an idea!
We were living in London and it would be wonderful to find out more about the Savages.
It is an all men’s club and so of course I couldn’t join – but my husband could. I talked with him about it and, being a modern man, he hesitated. He was unsure about joining a ‘men only’ club, as it seemed dated. But I insisted and so, he went for a meeting at the Savage Club – for me. I was excited, this was living history and another thread.
The club is currently based in the National Liberal Club, at 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1. Members are classified into one of six categories which best describes their main interest: art, drama, law, literature, music or science. I thought that ‘law’ stood out as ‘the odd man out’ and indeed it was. One year when the club was short of funds they discussed who might join that would be able to consistently pay their membership fees. The decision was lawyers! So the club is now one of artists and lawyers.
Prospective members must be proposed and seconded by two existing members, and if unknown by any other members, are required to attend a club function in order to meet some members. The category of membership might mirror a member's profession, though there are many members with an interest in one or more of the membership categories, but who practice none professionally. This was the case with Mark. He and I wrote a book together and it was published by Wiley so he was able to apply as an author. He had an additional meeting and then was invited to a dinner, during which he was able to meet other members. Following this he was nominated and seconded and was honored to become a member – Mark was a ‘Brother Savage’. You may be interested to know that on the home page of the Savage Club website (yes, they have a website) www.savageclub.com it states
The Savage Club was founded in 1857 and remains one of the leading Bohemian Gentleman's Clubs in London.
Clubs elsewhere have borrowed both the name and the style, which continues to be the 'pursuit of happiness' - a quest made infinitely more agreeable by the fellowship of members who are known to each other by the sobriquet*
(I had to look up ‘sobriquet’ see foot note.)
The threads to the past seemed so strong.
Although women are not permitted to become members, several times a year members invite ladies to share both the dinner and the entertainment, sometimes as performers. On these occasions guests always include widows of former Savages, who are known as Rosemaries (after rosemary, a symbol of remembrance).
Shortly after Mark joined, the Savages held one such event. It was their Founder’s Dinner. A white tie Dinner to celebrate their founders one of whom was Thomas Catling.
Mark and I were both delighted and it turned out to be an auspicious occasion. Mark wore full and formal ‘white tie’ dress – we had to research what that meant – it is more than ‘just wearing a white bow tie’. If you went to a very posh school you would know that. We didn’t. I wore a full-length evening gown and even had an ‘up-do’ on my hair. We felt very grand and a little awkward arriving at the entrance to the Liberal Club, 1 White hall Place.
We walked up the grand staircase and to the Savage Club room. On entering you pass a large Native Indian Headdress and an Indian drum. The club is small, warm and welcoming. It reminded me a little of a small bar in one London’s Victorian theaters. On the walls were framed photographs of famous members and also line drawings and caricatures. One of the pen and ink line drawings was of a distinctive gentleman with an especially long beard. It was Thomas Catling. It made me feel strange looking at the image. I felt connected to this place and these people and yet of course I was a modern woman in an all male club surrounded by monocles, spats and white ties. As I surveyed the room there were ladies in beautiful evening dresses but it was the men that made me want to stare. Had I fallen into a hole like Alice in Wonderland and gone back in time? It could well have been 1876 but it was 2006.
Over a hundred years ago Thomas was here, at his club, laughing with his friends and gossiping about the events of the time. Queen Victoria was on the throne and the prime minister was Benjamin Disraeli. Just then we were called to dinner by a ‘Brother Savage’ shouting the fact and banging on the native drum. We all moved to the stairs and then we were escorted into a grand room where we were to have dinner. Mark and I were in awe – the room was magnificent. I enquired about the unusual tiles on the wall and we were told that Josiah Wedgewood made them – of course!, We were shown to our table and introduced to those around us. I was desperate to take out my iPhone and take photos but it was very clear that this was not the ‘done thing’. The menu was in the form of a beautifully hand drawn cartoon created just for this occasion. This seemed so right. We loved talking to the guests at our table. One man in a monocle fascinated me he really looked like he belonged in a world 100 years ago.
Following a delicious, three course dinner and some excellent wines a very strange thing happened. The soporific low chatter and silver cutlery on porcelain clatter was rudely over shadowed. A gentleman shouted loudly from a table across the room “Number 6” this was immediately followed by several men shouting back at him “Bad form! Bad form!”
Mark and I had no idea what was going on. It certainly seemed weird behavior from such elegant and well-spoken gentlemen. We watched and waited.
Then I noticed a bent figure emerging from the gloom at back of the room. As we watched his slow and seemingly painful progress to the front of the room again a ‘Brother Savage’ shouted “Number 15” followed again but other members reply of “Bad Form! Bad Form!”
Finally the bent figure arrived and with a triumphant flourish he twisted and turned to face the elegant gathering. He slowly and deliberately lifted a small book in front of his face and then peering over the top of the book said confidently and clearly “Number 28”
There were cheers in the room and then a great deal of shuffling as everyone reached for something under their seats. Mark and I followed suit and found a small book under each of our chairs. We turned the pages and found Number 28 just as the whole place erupted in song – Number 28 was ‘Roll out the Barrel’ we sang along with everyone and it was so jolly (as one should say!)
It turns out that the Savages always sing songs following their dinners and they have a songbook with numbered songs. Each Brother Savage takes their turn to pick the number of the song that is to be sung. The gentleman whose turn it is to pick a song has to go to the front of the room and call out the number of the selected song. Because the gentleman, whose turn it was on this Founders Dinner, was extremely elderly it took him an age to reach the front of the room so other members were having fun calling out alternative numbers for songs and this was ‘Bad Form’.
As is the custom, following the ‘sing along’ other members performed – there was a magic act, an opera singer and a skiffle band. I have never in my life experienced something so extra ordinary.
Thanks to the dusty old green book, Mark and I were both able to grab the threads of history.
We are now not only living in London,
London is home.
1 August 2016
- A sobriquet (/ˈsoʊbrᵻkeɪ/ SOH-bri-kay) is a nickname, sometimes assumed, but often given by another. Distinct from a pseudonym that is assumed as a disguise, it more resembles a nickname and usually is a familiar name, familiar enough such that it may be used in place of a real name without the need of explanation