"He that of honour, wit, and mirth partakes, May be a fit companion o'er Beef-steaks: His name may be to future times enrolled In Estcourt's book, whose gridiron's framed with gold."
The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks is the oldest surviving dining society in Britain – possibly the world. It was founded in 1735 by John Rich, manager of the Covent Garden Theatre. There are a number of suggestions as to how the Society formed but the most recognised one sees John Rich and George Lambert entertaining many eminent individuals from time to time with Beef Steaks and Port at 2pm. Rich would dress the steaks himself on a hot gridiron, thus the nucleus of the Society started.
It was Rich who first staged John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”, whose runaway success led to the saying that it “made Gay rich and Rich gay”. This therefore paid for the building of the Royal Opera House and the Societies first home. The Laws of the Society include strict provision that its membership be restricted to twenty-four, a rule never broken even in the case of George IV, who as Prince of Wales had to await his turn for a vacancy. An elaborate ritual including a succession of toasts ensures a convivial gathering, the main course of the evening naturally being beefsteaks.
Members wear uniforms comprising blue tailcoats and buff waistcoats, with brass buttons bearing the Society’s emblem of the gridiron and their motto “Beef and Liberty”, addressing each other as “Brother so-and-so”. Officers of the Society include the President, who succeeds by rotation and against all odds maintains order throughout proceedings; the Bishop, who sings the grace; the Recorder, who imposes punishments on offenders against the Society’s laws and customs; and finally Boots, the most recently-joined Member, who must fetch wine and perform any other humbling task imposed by his fellow-Members.
The Society has long maintained a tradition of association with the stage and painting, one of the original twenty-four Members being William Hogarth. Other famous Members included Lord Sandwich, George IV’s brothers the Dukes of York and Sussex, the Dukes of Norfolk and Leinster, Lord Brougham, and the actor John Kemble. Boswell described a Dinner he attended in 1762, and not long before the Society was lauded in The Connoisseur as being “composed of the most ingenious artists in the kingdom, [who] meet every Saturday in a noble room at the top of Covent-Garden theatre, and never suffer any dish except Beef-steaks to appear.
Brother Hogarth's Roast Beef of Old England
Owner and machinist of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, home to our first dinners
An acclaimed English landscape artist and John Rich's theatre scene painter
An English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic, and editorial cartoonist
Edward Heardson- The Society's First Cook
As the Society became more established it was clear that a professional cook was required and the choice fell on Edward Heardson. He was a famed bare-knuckle boxer – reputedly the champion of all England. He was appointed in 1756 and held the office for thirty years. His steaks were prepared in a kitchen connected to the dining room by way of an enormous metal grill in the form of a gridiron, At the end of the meal Heardson came into the room to collect the money owed on a pewter plate, each member paying 5s for his steak and 10s 6d for any guests.
Such was Heardson’s fame that a print was made in 1785, showing him in his cook’s cap and holding a large kitchen knife above a plate of beef. Eleven years later Heardson was sick and dying, but he stayed on at work, asking with his last breath that he be carried into the dining room to die.
First Lord of the Admiral and Northern Secretary
Lawyer, Statesmen and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain
Sir Henry Irving
Actor, theatre manager- Knighted for his services to the stage
The Prince of Wales, later George IV
A key member of the Society until 1his succession as king
Actor and part owner of Covent Garden upon John Rich's death
Bard of The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks
an English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer
An English radical, journalist, and politician famed for his wit.
General Sir Andrew Barnard 1773-1855
Fought gallantly at Waterloo, Governor of Chelsea Hospital
The Marquess of Dalhousie 1812-1860
Scottish Statesmen and Governor General of India.
Brigadier Anthony Hunter-Choat,
Commander and Legion d''Honneur, French Foreign Legio & Commander of the SAS, OBE
The Beggars Opera
The Beggars Opera
Painted by Brother Hogarth
After Irving’s death the Society gradually languished until eventually it appeared to have expired again. However, it has proved itself IMMORTAL, and since its second revival in the midst of the last century it has continued from strength to strength, dining once a month every year save during the summer break. Members continue to wear the traditional uniform, and woe betide that impious dog who unwittingly infringes our ancient laws. Under the Recorder’s stern gaze he is doomed to crawl around the table in a white sheet, or suffer some yet more humiliating punishment.
All the ancient regalia have been restored to the Society. On learning of its resuscitation, Her Majesty the Queen graciously returned the historic Throne on which Members from Hogarth to Irving and onwards have sat in succession as President.
The President traditionally wears a Beefeater’s hat, and when it succumbed to age and rough usage a new one was formally presented at a Dinner by the Constable and Governor of the Tower. When the Recorder’s hat similarly required replacement, the Governor of the Chelsea Hospital likewise attended as a Guest and presented us with the traditional Pensioner’s tricorn.
Recently Acquired, Brother Rear Admiral George Dundas's seat