Kit Kat in Hampstead

KIT KAT CONFECTIONERY BARS are familiar to many people and I enjoy eating them occasionally. The ‘Kit Kat’ and ‘Kit Cat’ tradenames were registered by the Rowntree’s confectionery company in 1911, but the first chocolates bearing this name only appeared in 1920. Had you wanted to eat a Kit Kat in the early 18th century London, you would not have been served a chocolate item but a type of mutton pie. The Kit Kat mutton pie was the creation of Christopher Catling (aka ‘Katt’ and ‘Cat’), who had a pie house in Shire Lane near Temple Bar, which used to stand near the present-day Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand.

When walking in Hampstead Village recently, we saw something I had never noticed before during at least 60 years of visiting the area. It was wording above the doorway of a house on the corner of Heath Street and the much narrower Holly Bush Steps. The words are: “Kit Cat House” and (below them) “A.D. 1745”. Above one of the ground floor windows, that which is nearest to Heath Street but on the wall facing Holly Bush Steps, there are some painted letters, which I will discuss later.

The Kit Cat Club (also sometimes spelled as ‘Kit Kat’) was an 18th century club whose members were of the Whig political persuasion. Members included  literary men such as William Congreve, John Locke, Sir John Vanbrugh, and Joseph Addison; and politicians including Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Burlington, Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, The Earl of Stanhope, Viscount Cobham, Abraham Stanyan and Sir Robert Walpole, who was Prime Minister between 1721 and 1742. The painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was yet another member. He painted portraits of 48 members of the club, which are now kept in the National portrait Gallery.

The club is commonly believed to be named after Christopher Catling and his mutton pies, but this is not known for certain. The club’s meetings were held at first in Catling’s tavern in Shire Lane (which no longer exists). Then, they were held at the Fountain Tavern on the Strand, which stood where today stands Simpsons on the Strand, and then later at purpose-built premises at Barn Elms (between Barnes and Fulham). In summer, the members met at the Upper Flask in Hampstead.

The Upper Flask, which was demolished long ago, was a pub located on the corner of East Heath Road and Heath Mount, that is on the south corner of East Heath Road and Heath Street, about 190 yards north of the present Kit Cat House on Holly Bush Steps. It was on the site of the now closed Queen Mary’s Maternity Home that received patients between 1919 and 1975.

Edward Walford, writing in his encyclopaedic “Old and New London” (volume 5, published in 1878), noted:

“The ‘Upper Flask’ was at one time called ‘Upper Bowling-green House,’ from its possessing a very good bowling green …  when the Kit-Kat Club was in its glory, its members were accustomed to transfer their meetings in summer time to this tavern, whose walls – if walls have ears – must have listened to some rare and racy conversations … Mr Howitt in his ‘Northern Heights of London’ gives a view of the house as it appeared when that work was published (1869). The author states that the members of the Kit-Kat Club used ‘to sip their ale under the old mulberry tree, which still flourishes, though now bound together by iron bands, and showing signs of great age…’”

During the later year’s of the Club’s existence, in the first quarter of the 18th century, some of those members who sipped ale under this tree included the poets Shelley and Keats, who lived in Hampstead. Another member, who enjoyed meetings at the Upper Flask, the poet and physician Richard Blackmore (1654-1729), penned these lines about them in his poem “The Kit-Kats” (published in 1708):

“Or when, Apollo-like, thou’st pleased to lead

Thy sons to feast on Hampstead’s airy head:

Hampstead, that, towering in superior sky,

Now with Parnassus does in honour vie.”

So, the Kit Cat Club had an association with Hampstead, but was there any connection between the Club and the house on Holly Bush Steps, which bears the date 1745? The house was built in about 1800 (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15805/21), which is after the period between 1696 and 1720, when the Club was active (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/73609). It is also after the date above the door, ‘1745’.

An old postcard, published sometime between 1903 and 1930, reveals that the house was once a shop belonging to ‘Francis’. This was J Francis of number 1 Holly Bush Steps. What J Francis sold is not certain but above the whitewash that covers the wall of the ground floor, the remains of an old painted sign can be seen on the brickwork. It reads:

“Libraries” and also “S ?? D”, the two question marks represent letters that have disappeared.  Other letters below the word ‘libraries’ have also gone. I wonder whether it once read ‘Libraries bought and sold’. Interesting as this is, it does not explain to me why the house is so named or the significance of the date 1745. So far, and this might be purely coincidental, the only connection I have found is that Robert Walpole, a member of the Kit Cat Club, died in 1745. However, I am not at all sure that this is why the date appears below the name above the door of the house on Holly Bush Steps.

I enjoy chance findings like that which I noticed in Hampstead and investigating their histories. I am not sure that I am much the wiser about the naming on the house on Holly Bush Steps, but whilst trying to find out about it, I have learnt a little more about the history of Hampstead, a part of London that was important to me during my childhood and which I continue to enjoy visiting. And as for Kit Kats, I would prefer that you offer me the chocolate version, rather than the mutton one.

In the club

The Bangalore United Services Club was established in its present pleasant premises in 1868 by members of the British military, the United Services. It was an officers’ club. With a very few exceptions (some members of Indian royal families), the Club only admitted Europeans (i.e. white people).  One of its best-known members was Winston Churchill, who did not like Bangalore and left the city leaving an unpaid bill at the Club. After WW1, some Indian military officers were admitted as members, but other Indians were excluded. After 1946, the Club was renamed “The Bangalore Club”, and civilians, both ‘white’ and Indian could become members. My late father-in-law became one of the first Indian members in the early 1950s.

CLUB 1

Today, the Bangalore Club is regarded as being one of the top (elite) social clubs in India. To become a member, applications must be made, and a hefty amount of money must be deposited with the Club. Then, the prospective member is put on a waiting list. The average waiting time is currently about a quarter of a century. This slow method of entry can be bypassed if you are the child or the spouse of an existing member. It so happens that I married a member of the Club. I was eligible to become a ‘spouse member’.

Simply being married to a member is not enough to get you into the Club. The spouse candidate needs first to apply, and then to find six sponsors, who are already members of the Club, and then to attend an interview. The interviews are only held a few times a year. Missing the interview might wreck the candidate’s chances of ever becoming a member. So, the candidate, who might be living anywhere in the world, must drop everything and attend when he or she is summoned.

I was lucky. My father-in-law (‘Daddy’), a well-respected and much-loved member of the Club, arranged that I would be called for interview on a date, when he was certain that I would be in India. However, he did not tell us about the interview before we left London. Had I known, I would have packed my only smart suit, but I did not. As soon as we arrived in Bangalore, Daddy told us about the interview, and we told him that we had not brought my suit. Undismayed, he rang around his friends in the neighbourhood, and he and I drove from house to house, trying to find a suit for me to borrow. Eventually, some kind person lent me his incredibly smart double-breasted jacket suit, which fitted me well. Unfortunately, I had to return it after the interview.

For a few days before my interview, Daddy and I visited several venerable members of the Club to get their signatures for my sponsorship. At each of their homes, I was received kindly, offered drinks and snacks while my potential sponsors became acquainted with me. At last, I was ready for the interview.

On the day of the interview, I woke up with an attack of influenza. My temperature was high, but the interview could not be missed. I was dosed up with paracetamol. Just before we left the flat, with me in my smart suit, Daddy sprayed me with some Eau de Cologne, saying it was best that I should smell pleasant when I met the interviewing committee.

I arrived with Daddy at the Club, where we joined about ten other candidates. Each candidate was chaperoned by a member, who would introduce him or her to the interviewers. Daddy was my chaperone. The interview procedure involved introducing me to each of several Club Committee members. Each Committee member asked me questions. Daddy was clearly worried about what I might say in response. So, as soon as I was about to answer any of the questioners, Daddy would interrupt me, saying something like:

You remember me. I have been a member since 1954. How is your father? He joined at the same time as me, you know.”

I do not recall having answered any of the questions. Being Daddy’s son-in-law was enough to persuade them that I would be an acceptable member of the Club.

As we walked away from the interviewing room, Daddy congratulated me for becoming a member of the esteemed club. He led me to the Men’s Bar (for men only), where we downed draught Kingfisher beer. Oddly, my influenza symptoms were beginning to subside by then.

CLUB 2

Sadly, Daddy is no longer around. Today, the Men’s Bar is no longer for men alone. Its name changed in about 2017, by which time both men and women were permitted to use its facilities. Daddy would, I believe, have approved of the liberation of the former Men’s Bar.

 

Finally, let me emphasise that I do not agree with Groucho Marx, who said:

Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member