Scotland’s neglected history: how a 18th century secret sex society flourished and thrived in the ancient fishing port of Anstruther, Fife.
East Neuk is an area of Fife known for its scenic coastal walking, picturesque and fishing villages, and a thriving local art scene inspired by light and sea. The fishing villages tumble down cliffs to the harbour, a jumbled-up assortment of red pantile roofs, whitewashed houses with crow-stepped gables and alleyways of grey slate walls. Their harbours shelter brightly-coloured fishing boats and are bedecked with drying briny nets and lobster pots. On sunny days the villages are charming, but when battered by North Sea storms you remember they were built from gritty times and the hard work of employment in the old herring industries.
One of these villages is Anstruther, home to the Scottish Fisheries Museum and a highly acclaimed fish and chip shop. Anstruther was once a significant trading port on a coastline notorious for blurring the margin between free trade and smuggling. What is less known is Anstruther’s secret history of hosting an extraordinary gentlemen’s sex and drinking club, the Beggar’s Benison, or to give its full name The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther
Walking through the old cobbled streets and wynds of the fishing village, where a crook in a salted alleyway suddenly reveals secret gardens and a panorama of roofs and sea, it is not difficult to imagine members of the club hurrying through these alleyways to obscure taverns, using the same routes and tricks as the smugglers of the age. Even better when night time sea storms battered the port and prolonged the debauchery long into the early morning.
The club was formed in 1732 and was estimated to have around 500 members whose background reflected the interests of local powerful figures in landowning, business, law and customs. It was linked to kings and courtesans and its evocative name was toasted with a knowing wink at polite dinner parties and referenced in the erotic literature of the day.
‘Merryland’ is a country – a pun on Maryland which had trade links with Anstruther, and a way of describing the female body in topographical metaphors which was coined by a sub-genre of 18th century erotic literature inspired by the language of Song of Songs of Solomon and tales in Gulliver’s Travels of giant women. A typical quote would be Thomas Stretzer writing in Merryland Displayed: “Her valleys are like Eden, her hills like Lebanon, she is a paradise of pleasure and a garden of delight.” Men of course would explore the landscape of creeks, inlets, hills and valleys in blissful euphoria.
Benison means ‘blessing’ and was inspired by a story about King James V who, while travelling disguised through Fife as a piper, came into difficulties trying to cross a burn. A maid or beggar woman, depending on the differing accounts, came to his rescue and carried her King to the opposite banks whereupon he paid for her help with a gold sovereign. In return she gave him her benison:
“May your purse ne’er be toom [empty]
And your horn aye [always] in bloom”.1
The club’s motto thus became, “May prick nor purse ne’er fail you”.2
The Beggars Benison was not unusual during a time when sex clubs and houses thrived offering services to all kinds of persuasions, and created a riot of sexual expression for both women and men. There were mollies houses for homosexuals, birching clubs, clubs where men dressed as milk maids and held mock weddings and births. The most famous club of the time was the high society Hell Fire Club although how true its notorious legends are is open to dispute. It was an age of royal decadence, libertines, rakes and courtesans that was to be displaced by a Victorian morality that lingered until sex was re-invented and re-discovered in 1963. Clubs such as the Benison or the Hell Fire only went into terminal decline when the cold chill of the Victorian age seeped into the atmosphere.
Clubs in the 18th century often operated in a more serious intellectual context than is suggested by their lewd reputation. Some clubs were just bawdy drinking dens, others allowed enlightened gentlemen to associate, discuss new ideas and express a libertine convivial celebration of sex and sexuality away from the confines of daily reality. In his book The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals David Stevenson argued that the members, ranging from affluent merchants and craftsmen to churchmen and aristocrats, were, in their own eyes, liberated hedonists influenced by Edinburgh’s Age of Enlightenment. Masturbation was an expression of intellectual freedom and a riposte to the irrational and backward panic that at the time was beginning to view masturbation as a moral and public health problem. Stevenson also makes another valid simple point that the Benison came about in an age where entertainment was not on instant demand, and had to be imagined, created and enjoyed as such.
In her highly entertaining book, Lascivious Bodies: a Sexual history of the 18th Century, Julie Peakman suggests that the Benison was a brotherhood that grew from its smuggling origins to serve the business interests of its members. The coastline between Edinburgh and Anstruther was a haven for smuggling, especially after the 1707 Act of Union when Scotland was hit by English taxes on trade causing smuggling to be viewed as an acceptable occupation. In other words, depending on your point of view, the Benison members were libertine and enlightened free trade heroes or a local wealthy elite of protectionist tax evaders. Whatever the case the rituals of the club were used to strengthen bonds and commit to the cause and one clue to the club’s nature in its symbol of a purse tied to a phallus.
24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged.
So what exactly happened at the Beggar’s Benison? The club’s members dined and drank together, sang obscene songs, wrote and recited erotic poems, discussed sex, looked at pornography and admired posing naked ladies, either local or, it was rumoured, the occasional wife. They also enjoyed collective masturbation rituals, especially for the initiation ceremony where a a new member was ‘prepared’ by the Recorder and two helpers in
“a closet, by causing him to propel his Penis until full erection. When thus ready he was escorted with four puffs of the Breath-Horn before the Brethren or Knighthood, and was ordered by the Sovereign to place his Genitals upon the Testing Platter, which was covered with a folded white napkin. The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the Novice Penis to Penis. Thereafter the special Glass, with the Society’s Insignia thereon and Medal attached, was filled with Port Wine, when the new Brother’s health was heartily and humorously drunk, he was told to select an amorous Passage from the Song of Solomon and to read it aloud.”3
Club records were kept and one glorious bit of minute keeping one entry says it all in admirable brevity. “”1737. St. Andrew’s Day. 24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged [ successfully masturbated ]. The Dr. expatiated. Two nymphs, 18 and 19, exhibited as heretofore. Rules were submitted by Mr. Lumsdaine for future adoption. Fanny Hill was read. Tempest. Broke up at 3 o’clock a.m.”
The members would all produce ‘horned spoonfuls’ onto the club’s silver platter. After this ritual the initiates were presented with ‘prick glasses’ with rounded scrotums filled with port. A toast was offered to “Firm erection, fine insertion. Excellent distillation, no contamination”. The glasses turned out to be as much as trick as prick, when the new members drank, port spilled out over their faces and shirts.
Then the most legendary relic of the club was produced – a wig that legend had it was made from the pubic hairs of King Charles II’s mistresses. There would be cheers, more boisterous toasts, more songs and more porn. Clublore recounts that King Charles II visited Fife and so enjoyed the parties that he sent the pubic wig as a sacred token to his hosts. (In a chain of six degrees of separation, these were the pubes kissed by the King, perhaps, whose hand was kissed by that libertine and wit the Earl of Rochester who wrote the depraved satire A Ramble in St. James’s Park where this writer grew up playing football using the trees as goalposts, unaware that:
Each imitative branch does twine
In some loved fold of Aretine,
And nightly now beneath their shade
Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made.)
The wig ended up as a talismanic centrepiece at Beggars Benison. There was an obligatory quarrel amongst a couple of members which resulted in a small group absconding with the wig and setting up a club in Edinburgh called the Wig Club. The Wig Club was of a more Scottish Tory establishment nature than the Benison and focused more on wining and dining rather than masturbation rituals. Nonetheless, members kissed the wig and contributed a public hair from their mistress to replace the fading hairs.
George IV, as honorary member of the Benison, made amends some forty years later for the stolen wig when he presented the Benison with a locket of his own mistress’s ginger pubic hairs in a silver snuff box.
After a period of decline the Benison was dissolved in 1836 although there were a couple of unsuccessful attempts to revive it. Its relics are now held in the Beggar’s Benson and Wig Club Collection of the University of St Andrews. The collection includes glass and metal phalluses, sashes, plates and bowls with genital decorations, seals depicting the club symbol, a phallus with a small bag suspended from it, medals engraved with lewd images, records, minutes, correspondence, and drawings. The medals and insignias are considered to be a parody of freemasonary.
The prize remaining relics are the platter used for the masturbation rituals for over a century inscribed with ‘The way of a man with a maid’. Sadly all that remains of the wig of King Charles II’s mistresses’ public hairs is its wooden wig box. However, George IV’s silver locket still survives and inside is a parchment declaring that its accompanying clump of hair is from the “Mons Veneris of a Royal Courtesan of King George IV”.
There is one final thought that takes us back to modern day Anstruther with its day trippers, colourful boats and fish and chips. On a dreicht stormy night when you see shadows flitting through the wynds and raucous bawdy songs echo from somewhere that can only be found through secret passageways, maybe the greatest trick the Benison members ever pulled was deceiving us into thinking it no longer exists.
References 1-3: A. Bold, ed. 1982 Beggar’s Benison of Anstruther. Paul Harris Publishing, Edinburgh
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