On a Gentleman’s Vices

John Montagu rose to prominence in the British government of the 18th century mainly through familial connections. During his time in the government, he served in many functions, including Lord of the Admiralty, Postmaster General, and a member of Parliament.

Public figures then, as now, were expected to hold themselves to certain standards of behavior. But because people are people, and since men of prominence were publicly forbidden certain carnal pleasures, they sought these pleasures in private. This gave rise to the popularity of Gentlemen’s Clubs.

The Gentleman’s Club would be a private place where men of wealth and high rank could do things they could not do publicly such as gamble, drink to excess, and enjoy licentious behavior. Such clubs were in most major cities of Britain. Local laws often forbade drinking during certain hours, for example, and the club was a way to get around those laws. So, indeed, as is often the case, there were two sets of rules for society: One for the average person and another for those of high rank.

Montagu was a member of an organization called the Hellfire Club, and it was as debauched as its name implies. The members paid large dues or fees every month to supply the club with the building, the liquor, the cigars, and the other things that they enjoyed there. It was also a way for the highborn to keep their private lives separate from their work and their families. Certainly, Montagu enjoyed drink and the women at the Hellfire Club, but his true vice was gambling.

Throughout his public career, Montagu was accused at the time of being a poor administrator. One detractor said about him that never in the history of Britain had one man held so many important positions and still accomplished so little. Some even laid the blame for the loss of the American colonies in the American Revolution at his feet because of his mismanagement of the Navy.

While his administrative history is debatable, what is beyond debate is how much time he spent at the gambling tables. And, too often, Montagu spent so much time at the tables that hours and hours would pass. He took to having his meals while he gambled away tens of thousands of pounds.

Interestingly, he would always order the same thing to eat no matter the time of day or night, and have the servers bring it to him while he gambled. In fact, this meal—a slab of meat between two slices of bread—became so common for him and so associated with him, that other people begin to order the same meal just by using his name. As you probably know by now, Montagu was John’s family name.

You know him better by his title: The Earl of Sandwich.

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