When James II brought his court down from Scotland he introduced a new ballgame to London – Palle Maille. This was a French game similar to croquet, and was played with much vigour up and down Catherine Street. The road soon became known as ‘Pall Mall’, as did the grand Mall nearby – a name which stuck for several centuries.
Pall Mall is home to London’s gentlemen’s clubs. Distinguished men assemble in their Sunday best and tailored clothes to chat about the weather over slow rounds of whiskey and cigars. Admittance is strictly by invitation only – so don’t try and blag your way in.
The oldest clubs are White’s, Brooke’s and Boodle’s. They soon made a name as places were gentlemen could go and gamble away the interest on their fortunes. Nothing was too bad to bet on. Horace Walpole once regaled a tale about a man dropping dead at the door:
A man dropped down dead at the door, he said,
and the club immediately made bets on whether he was dead or not.
The most famous club of all is probably the Athenaeum at 107, home to several famous authors including Thackeray, Dickens and Anthony Trollope. It was also home to Kipling, Conrad and Charles Darwin. It started up at Somerset House, but moved to its Pall Mall premises in 1828.
The admittance procedure to the Athenaeum is almost as famous as the club itself. It operates a secret ballot, followed by the dreaded black ball vote. Members can veto an application by ‘black-balling’ the candidate. Bertrand Russell, for example – Britain’s greatest-ever philosopher – had to wait forty years after getting a no.
Another fine venue is the Reform Club at 104–5, opened by the Liberals in 1841. It was here that the fictional Phileas Fogg made a bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days.
Other clubs on the street include the Traveller’s Club at 106 (members must have travelled at least a thousand miles from London), and the Oxford and Cambridge Club at 71. This is only open to the Universities’ graduates.