Jacob Tonson and the Kit-Cat Club



In the snowy spring of 1733, Samuel Croxall, a classical translator, travelled to Herefordshire to visit his retired publisher, Jacob Tonson. Tonson was now an emaciated, deaf old man, who spent his days drinking sack and reading by the fireside. According to Alexander Pope, however, Tonson’s mind remained “full of matter, secret history, and wit and spirit“. Croxall was hoping to extract some of this „secret history“ – an account of the most important London gentlemen’s club of the early 1700s, founded by Tonson: the Kit-Cat Club.

When Croxall roared his request, the near 80-years-old publisher „came into it at once, said nobody could tell better what to say of them [the Kit-Cats] than himself, for, to tell me the truth, he had been drunk with every one of them.“

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Kit-Cats

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Kit-Cats

Given his humble birth, Tonson was proud to have caroused with so many aristocrats and famous authors. Son of a barber-surgeon and bookseller, he grew up during the Restoration, taunted for his lame left leg, red hair and freckled „bull face“. After apprenticeship to a stationer, Tonson set up his own firm, purchasing the works of major authors such as Dryden, and quickly establishing a reputation as the first professional London publisher. During William III’s reign, John Somers, a lawyer whose star was rising under the new regime, befriended Tonson. They regularly ’unbent’ over bottles at Temple Bar taverns – even after Somers was made Lord Keeper in 1693. That year, Tonson started sharing a Fleet Street house with the brilliant young playwright William Congreve. Tonson acted as broker between his authors in need of income (like Congreve) and peers and politicians (like Somers and his Whig party colleagues) wanting to enhance their own reputations through gestures of literary patronage.

Jacob Tonson (1655/6–1736)

Jacob Tonson (1655/6–1736)

Shrewd, sociable and discreet, Tonson founded the Kit-Cat Club to solidify these relationships. He began by gathering the gang of „poetical young springs“ for Thursday meals at a Gray’s Inn pie-shop, belonging to one Mr Christopher (’Kit’) Catling (or ’Cat’), and promised to feed them delicious mutton pies in exchange for first options on their writings – effectively hosting the earliest recorded publisher’s expense account dinners. By 1700, this grouping, including many rich patron-members, was known as the Kit-Cat Club.

The club gradually expanded in size and ambition, becoming an unofficial centre of Whig power. It supported continuation of the Duke of Marlborough’s war against France, opposed restoration of the Stuarts, and aimed to reform English poetry and music to befit Britain’s new ’golden age’. In early 1703, Tonson leased a house at Barn Elms, west of Putney, as the Club’s summer venue, hiring Kit-Cat playwright-turned-architect John Vanbrugh to make the property fit „for the reception of a king“. The house received no royal visit, but instead a collection of Club portraits, painted by Godfrey Kneller and donated to Tonson by the Club’s members.

William Congreve (1670 – 1729)

William Congreve (1670 – 1729)

Tonson made a fortune throug his publications (especially the collected Spectator essays, written by Kit-Cat journalists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele). Dukes, earls and cabinet ministers treated him as their friend rather than servant, though they also made him the butt of their raillery on several occasions. When Tonson was on the Continent, Vanbrugh reported that he, Congreve and Baron Halifax (a government minister, Bank of England founder and Kit-Cat) toasted Tonson’s quick return „as we were sopping our Arses in the Fountain“ at Hampton Court Palace.

The Spectator was a daily publication founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England, lasting shortly, from 1711 to 1712

The Spectator was a daily publication founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England, lasting shortly, from 1711 to 1712

Tonson did not abdicate the Club’s chair until George I’s reign, when the Duke of Newcastle briefly took over. In 1725, Vanbrugh wrote nostalgically to Tonson that he had been visiting Lords Cobham and Carlisle, „old Friends that have been of a Club, and the best Club that ever met.“ Tonson remained until his death among Herefordshire neighbours who would, he complained, appreciate „a signpost as well as [a] Van Dyke, & any sad poem with Rhyme as well as Paradise Lost.“

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1693-1768)

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1693-1768)

Tonson outlived his famous Kit-Cat authors, dying a bachelor in 1736. Sadly, despite Croxall’s request for memoirs, no such manuscript has been discovered. This has contributed to consistent underestimation of the Kit-Cat Club’s impact, as the model for hundreds of clubs that followed, and as a powerful political, literary and social network based on professional friendships rather than family ties.

By Ophelia Field, author of  ’The Kit-Cat Club’

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