From 1732 to 1836 ‘The Most Ancient and Most Puissant order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther’, known as the ‘The Beggar’s Benison Club’ sought to reinforce the bonds of homo-sociability through a celebration of male sexuality. The club spawned branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh and even St Petersburg. Early members were local merchants and the gentry, though later recruits included members of the upper ranks of society, including the Prince of Wales (later George IV). Using myths and pseudo facts to justify their foundation the club employed a series of obscene rituals awarding a mock-solemn ‘diploma’ to their ‘knights’ so that they may freely enjoy ‘Merryland’ – a euphemism for sex.
The hedonistic club revelled in their sexuality and conducted a series of surprising initiation ceremonies including masturbating in front of existing members. Other unusual activities included comparing phalluses, studying the genitalia of ‘posture’ models, listening to lectures on sex and collectively masturbating leaving deposits in a ‘Test Platter’ for examination.
The Beggar’s Benison Club was not unique in its preoccupation with sex and the female body. The various incarnations of the ‘Hell Fire Club’, the Wig Club and even the Society of the Dilettanti had, what perhaps seems today, to be an adolescent fascination with rakish behaviour. Yet despite sharing such licentious pre-occupations, it is clear that what these clubs, like many others in the period, also offered was a space for sociability and conviviality, where interests could be shared and friendships formed.