As early as 1693, White’s Chocolate House was established in St James’s Street, with rate books recording its original proprietor, the eponymous Francis White, as an occupant on the east side of the street. By 1698 Francis White had relocated to the west side, leasing land from the Crown at what is now No. 69 (currently forming part of The Carlton Club).
Referred to as ‘the Chocolatt Man in St. James’ Street’, Francis White’s will of 14 June 1708 shows him to have been a man of some means, with a number of relations in Genoa, suggesting he was of Italian descent. His beneficiaries included his children and family, with the bulk of his estate passing to his wife Elizabeth White. The subsequent lease and rate books record ‘Widow White’ as the main occupant of No. 69 until 1729, and advertisements for the chocolate house announced her as proprietor. Opera tickets for the King’s Theatre, Haymarket were sold through White’s Chocolate House during this period, with the hire or purchase of ‘Masquerade Habits’, found at ‘Window White’s House in Little Wild Street’. The last mention of Mrs White at 69 St James’s Street is in 1729. In September 1730 Francis White, quite possibly her son, is granted a new lease from the Crown, in which the house is described as ‘erected many yeares and by reason there of is grown so weak and out of Repair that without rebuilding, it will scarce stand out the term in being’.
It is around this time that management of the chocolate house passed to John Arthur, who is recorded as the occupant of No. 69 from 1730. He is also linked to the adjoining house, No. 68, where he had resided since 1701-2, suggesting Arthur had been associated with the White’s business for some years previously. From 1731 Arthur is also listed as the occupant for No. 70 St James’s Street, which adjoined 69 to the south. It is these three houses which the infamous White’s fire destroyed, beginning in the early hours of 28 April 1733, ‘in White’s Chocolate House in a gaming room called Hell’. The fire burned fast and caused much damage to several houses adjoining. White’s proximity to St James’s Palace meant the King and the Prince of Wales were in attendance, encouraging the firemen at their engines. They bought with them the palace guard to keep the crowds at bay, and afterwards dispensed rewards of 10 and 20 guineas to the fire crew. The fire is famously referenced in scene VI of Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, where a night watchman is observed rushing in to the gaming room with smoke billowing behind, and the ceiling is shown to catch light. In the later engraving for scene IV Hogarth makes an additional nod to the catastrophe, with a sign for White’s introduced at the site of its new home, Gaunt’s Coffee House, to which it temporarily relocated in May 1733. The rate books reveal that by 1735 the houses destroyed in the fire had been rebuilt, with White’s once again housed at No. 69. It is from 1736 that the first known reference to a club at White’s is made, with the publication of the club house rules, titled ‘Rules of the Old Club at White’s’. As a result White’s is acknowledged as the oldest of the West End clubs.
From 1752 John Arthur’s son Robert appears to take over the management of White’s, and in 1755 he purchased property on the east side of St James’s Street from Sir Whistler Webster of Battle Abbey, Sussex. The property, known as The Great House at No. 37-8, was constructed in 1674 by Colonel Villiers. Described as a ‘very fair house’ it probably forms the core of the present day building. Around this time Robert Arthur also purchased the Crown lease of the house to the rear (59 Jermyn Street), whose garden was eventually adapted to form the club’s domestic offices. Following White’s relocation to the east side of St James’s Street, management of the establishment passed to Robert Mackreth, a former waiter at the chocolate house. Mackreth subsequently married Arthur’s daughter Mary, following the death of her father in 1761. From April 1763 Mackreth leaves the running of the club to a near relation, and from 1772 John Martindale is recorded as overseeing its management. Eventually in August 1789 Mackreth sold the business to Martindale for £20,000, and it is probable that it was during this transition of ownership that a rebuild took place. For an eighteen-month period beginning in 1787, 37-8 St James’s Street is listed as empty. During this time John Martindale is shown to temporarily reside in Clifford Street, before returning to St James’s Street in 1789. At this point the rates for No. 37-38 were quite significantly raised from £225 to £300, suggesting large-scale improvements were made. Interestingly Sheppard notes that from 1789, the rate books show Martindale to reside with one Edward Fitch / Fitz. Sheppard suggests Martindale took on a partner to cover costs of the rebuild, alongside the purchase of White’s from Mackreth. Further money-making enterprises are also noted around this time, with the introduction of a 10 guineas entrance fee in 1788. It is to this period that Adam’s designs for the Chocolate House also date.
Adam’s scheme for White’s was an ambitious design, with its elegant three-bay terrace front, which King considers alongside Adam’s Haymarket Opera House scheme produced two years later. King notes that this design would have required an almost total rebuild of the earlier house, retaining only the wings to the rear. Ultimately a less extravagant scheme was settled upon, resulting in the present day building, albeit with some nineteenth-century alterations. The architect of the 1787-9 rebuild is unknown, but there is evidence to suggest it is the work of James Wyatt (1746-1813). The design is thought to be typical of Wyatt’s work, and he is associated with White’s Chocolate House at this time. On 31 March 1789 White’s held a ball in honour of George III’s return to health. The event was hosted at Wyatt’s Pantheon, with the supper supplied by Martindale and the overall design by Wyatt, with Smirke producing transparencies.
In spite of several attempted money-making exercises, Martindale was declared bankrupt in 1799. From 1800 White’s was assigned to Benjamin Martindale, who was subsequently bankrupt in 1812. From 1813 George Raggett was the proprietor, passing management on to his son Henry in 1844. Upon Henry Raggett’s death in 1859, White’s was leased to H. Percival, and subsequently his son. In 1888 the club was taken over by one of its members, the Hon. Algernon Bourke, author of ‘The History of White’s’. In 1927 the freehold of White’s was purchased by the club, and it remains White’s Club to the present day.
Following the rebuild of 1787-9, a number of minor alterations were made. In 1811 there was the addition of the famous bow window, which was built in place of the old entrance, with a new entrance inserted in the right-hand bay. Ornate balconies were introduced at some point prior to 1839, and there were subsequent alterations made by James Lockyer in 1851.
A. H. Bourke, The history of White’s (with the Betting Book from 1743 to 1878 and a list of members from 1736 to 1892), 1892; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index, p. 50; F.H.W. Sheppard (ed.), Survey of London: Volumes 29 & 30, St James, Westminster, Part I, 1960, pp. 450-58, 463-65; D. King, The complete works of Robert James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, pp. 26, 28, 45, 49, 57, pl. 55-57; J. Summerson, Georgian London, 2003, pp. 164, 283; S. Bradly and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 6: Westminster, 2005, pp. 37. 40. 583, 634-35; E Einberg, William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, 2016, pp. 136, 138; www.carltonclub.co.uk/the-club/history (accessed June 2019)