Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Where the Boys Were: The Four-Horse Club

Some things never change, and one of those is the preoccupation of young men with going very fast. We already know that fast, “sexy” vehicles are not a modern phenomenon: today’s Porsche was the 19th century’s high-perch phaeton-and-four.

So where were the boys of the 19th century who liked to go fast?

It seems to have been a not-uncommon event for dashing young men who fancied they knew a thing or two about “handling the ribbons’—that is, driving a team of horses—to bribe coach drivers to let them have a go at driving stagecoaches (much to the dismay of the passengers!) So popular was this pastime in the 18th century that one group of well-born hell-raisers started calling themselves “the Four-Horse Club”.

Fortunately for the poor stagecoach passengers of a few years later, young men decided that driving their own coaches might be more amusing (though it was still fashionable to imitate professional drivers in dress and, alas, in use of profanity), and in 1807 a group of them founded the Bensington Driving Club (BDC) in Bensington, Oxfordshire. Because membership in that club was limited to 25, a second driving club was established a year later and took over the name of Four-Horse Club (FHC). Membership was limited by several things—birth and social standing, ability to afford to belong, and, of course, driving skill. To be asked to join one of these very exclusive clubs was an enormous honor.

Members of these clubs gathered somewhere in London (the Four-Horse Club in Cavendish Square), then drove in procession to a pub some 20 miles from the city where they would dine, then drive back the following day. The Four-Horse Club used to alternate its destination between two pubs until one of them distinguished itself one hot summer’s afternoon by providing a change of chairs part-way through dinner, so that members might cool their posteriors!

The rules of the Four-Horse Club were very strict: only barouches were permitted, painted yellow; harnesses had to be silver-mounted, and horses (originally bays, though this rule was relaxed) had to wear rosettes. Drivers wore coats that reached to the ankles with three tiers of pockets and mother of pearl buttons as large as five shilling pieces. Their waistcoats were blue with yellow stripes an inch wide, their breeches of plush with strings and rosettes to each knee. It was fashionable that the hat should be 3 1/2 inches deep in the crown. Very strict, too, were the rules of the bi-weekly outings held in May and June: the order of the procession was always the same, and members were to keep to a strict trot and not attempt to pass each other. No drag-racing for these boys!

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