At the dinner in March 2008 I casually mentioned to our esteemed Secretary that I, and presumably other recent members, knew little, if anything, about the origins and history of the Club. With his infallible instinct for the main chance, he immediately said; “Why don’t you give us a paper on it at the next dinner?” So here I am and here it is. I apologise to the more long-standing members for covering ground with which they have long been familiar, but, who knows, I may have unearthed some facts that even they will find interesting. So here we go.
Despite the fact that the the Club has existed for more than a hundred years it appears to have no archives other than a collection of menus dating back to the early 1900s, which Charles Hodgson curated and augmented for many years. However, the first eighteen years of the club were commemorated in The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, a limited edition for members with illustrations from the menus along with a selection of poems and lists of members and guests, and in 1931 The Second Book of the Omar Khayyam Club brought the record up to 1929. Since then no further volumes have been published.
Philip Guedalla, writing in the first of these volumes, boasted that “with no rules to restrain an irresponsible committee, with no official archives whence a future chronicler could have drawn materials for its history, the Omar Khayyam Club proudly rests on unsullied traditions.”
Nevertheless, it is surprising how much about the Club is on record. A number of members have mentioned it in their memoirs, the archives at Kew Gardens proved fruitful, and some minutes of the club and associated correspondence, together with a fascinating table plan for the dinner in March 1939, exist in the library of McMaster University in Canada.
So let us begin at the very beginning. The first edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat was published by the London book dealer Bernard Quaritch in 1859. Although only 250 copies were printed, it did not sell well and was quickly remaindered. Nevertheless, there were one or two enthusiasts, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti., and 36 years later the poet Swinburne described in a letter to the Club how Rossetti: had introduced him to the delights of the Rubaiyat :
“At that time the first edition was being sold off at a penny a copy, having proved hopelessly unsaleable at the published price of one shilling. We invested in sixpennyworth apiece, and on returning to the stall next day for more, found that we had sent up the market to the sinfully extravagant sum of twopence, an imposition that evoked from Rossetti a fervent and impressive remonstrance.”
I like Swinburne’s use of the word “invested”. He cannot have had any idea how good an investment it was. A first edition is currently on the market for £28,000, so between them Rossetti and Swinburne’s dozen copies are now worth well over a quarter of a million.
Quaritch didn’t produce a second edition for another nine years, and even then it was limited to only 500 copies. All the same, enthusiasm for FitzGerald’s version gradually grew and one enthusiast was William Simpson, an artist working for the Illustrated London News, who in 1884 travelled from Tehran to Central Asia with the Afghan Boundary Commission, an expedition hoping to resolve a border dispute between Russia and Afghanistan. Their route passed near Naishapur, and Simpson took the opportunity to visit Omar Khayyam’s grave. Omar had told his friend Kwajah Nizami that his tomb should be “on a spot where the north wind may strew roses upon it”, and Simpson was delighted to discover that roses were still blossoming by the grave. He collected some hips and sent them to Bernard Quaritch, who passed them on to Kew Gardens, where the Keeper raised new plants from the seeds.
The 1880s and 1890s saw a fashion for founding literary dining clubs: amongst others the Johnson Club began in 1884 (Edmund Clodd was a co-founder and George Whale a member), the still extant Pepys Club of which George Whale was a founder, and the Titmarsh Club devoted to Thackeray.
Although I never came across it myself, I believe there was at Oxford University a dining club called the Mermaid, which was devoted to the memory of William Shakespeare, and I understood that the first item of business at each meeting was the proposal of the motion “that the Bard be not read tonight.” This was always seconded and passed nem. con., after which the members got down to the serious business of the evening.
And it was in the wake of that fashion that three friends, Frederick Hudson, Clement Shorter and George Whale met in 1892 and deplored the fact that they did not dine together often enough. Shorter was the editor of the Illustrated London News, and he went on to found the Sketch, the Sphere and the Tatler. Whale was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Chairman of the Rationalist Press Association and a friend of H. G. Wells. They agreed to dine together at stated intervals, and on 13th October 1892 they invited some friends to a dinner at Pagani’s Restaurant in Great Portland Street. Their guests included Edward Clodd, William Simpson and the poet William Watson. All three were Omarians. Clodd, who was to pay a major role in the early days of the Club, was a remarkable man; largely self-educated, who had arrived in London at the age of 22, walked into the London Joint Stock Bank and asked for a job. There he rose rapidly from a minor clerical post to Secretary of the Bank, a position he held until his retirement at the age of 75. In 1873 he had published his first book, a primer on evolutionary anthropology, which quickly passed through four editions and was translated into six European and two African languages. He went on to write biographies of Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and Herbert Spencer and a score of other books on a vast range of subjects. He had been a co-founder of the Johnson Club, of which Whale was a member and later a founder of the Pepys Club.
At that dinner in Pagani’s the Club was founded, and it was decided that membership should be restricted to 59 in commemoration of the year FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat.was first published. Pagani’s, which survived until the Second World War, became a regular venue for Club dinners. At one point the Club deserted it for Frascati’s, which is described as “a large and handsome establishment with winter garden, café and numerous billiard tables, but motor omnibuses having rendered Oxford Street unsuitable for the Club’s reflections it returned in 1911 to its birthplace at Pagani’s in search of quiet.”
Although Pagani’s remained the venue of most club dinners, it was the custom most years to hold a summer Dinner outside London, often at the Bull in Woodbridge in Suffolk, where Fitzgerald’s house still stood, but sometimes at other even more exotic hostelries. There are menus for the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, Skindle’s Hotel in Maidenhead, the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, and even, on one occasion, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
The most famous of these summer dinners was the Burford Bridge Dinner in 1895 when the President persuaded George Meredith, who lived locally, to be his guest, and who spoke in public for the first, last and only time in his life. The Dinner was reported at length, not only in the London press, but in papers as far afield as New York and Sydney.
Although summer Dinners in the country may be a thing of the past, many of the Club’s customs remain to this day. Philip Guedalla described them in 1910:
The ritual is quite unchanging. A poem recited by its author, a drawing explained (where possible) by its designer, a Speech from the discursive throne, the search for something new to say about Fitzgerald that succeeds astonishingly often, and a respectful vilification of the guests – these are the simple ingredients of the Club’s evenings.
Not quite everything, however, remains the same, and I shall shortly mention some changes that have occurred over time. Meanwhile, back to the roses.
A year after its foundation, the club decided to obtain a cutting of Simpson’s Persian rose from Kew Gardens and plant it at the head of FitzGerald’s grave, so on Saturday October 7th 1893 a small party consisting of Bernard Quaritch, William Simpson, Edward Clodd, Clement Shorter, George Whale, Edmund Gosse, Colonel Kerrich who was Fitz’s nephew and executor, and an American, Moncure Conway, descended on the churchyard at Boulge, a few miles from Woodbridge. Conway was a pillar of the South Place Ethical Society after whom Conway Hall, , the Society’s headquarters in Red Lion Square, is named. The Rector of Boulge church had not been enthusiastic, however, and had written a letter studded with italics expressing his reservations. He wrote:
“I personally cannot object to your proposal of planting a rose tree with a fence or rail for its protection at the head of Mr Edward FitzGerald’sgrave in Boulge churchyard, though I would much prefer the proposed plate of inscription having no reference to a heathen philosopher which I cannot but think out of place in a Christian churchyard.”
Fortunately the Rector of a neighbouring parish had no such qualms and willingly conducted the little ceremony. Simpson told the story of his pilgrimage to Naishapur, Gosse read a poem and they all made speeches.
Afterwards the group repaired to Clodd’s house in Aldburgh, where they stayed for the rest of the weekend.
The ceremonial planting of Simpson’s rose inspired Edmund Gosse to organise a petition from the members of the Club to the Shah of Persia asking him to help with the restoration and maintenance of Omar’s tomb.
The British Ambassador, Sir Mortimer Durand, later to become President of the Club, presented the letter to the Shah, who burst into uncontrollable laughter, then said: “Why all this fuss about poor Omar? Don’t you know that Persia has a hundred poets much greater than Omar, and who bothers about their tombs?” adding: “Let the club come over to Persia and look after this poet’s tomb for themselves.”
The membership in the 1890s included an impressive number of convivial writers, including Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang, Arthur Pinero, J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins (the author of The Prisoner of Zenda), Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edmund Gosse, and the long list of guests was equally impressive, including G.K. Chesterton, A.E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Herbert Asquith, later Prime Minister. A particularly notable guest was the American Ambassador, John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s secretary, and who spoke so impressively that his speech was reprinted several times. The club is described in one early account as “both literary and bibulous” and another source says that “their meetings furnished excuses for rumbustious drinking and the composition of appalling doggerel”. Omar Khayyam dinners seem to have changed little since then.
In 1899 Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote the last of his comic operas entitled “The Rose of Persia”. By this time he and W.S. Gilbert were no longer on speaking terms, and the book and lyrics were written by Basil Hood, a former Army officer, who went on to write a number of successful West End shows. The plot, a piece of oriental fantasy with echoes of “The Mikado”, has nothing to do with Omar Khayyam, the “rose” in question being a Persian princess who pretends to be a commoner. However, there is an intriguing side to it. Basil Hood had been, at least once, a guest of the Omar Khayyam Club, and one wonders whether the idea for the title at least might not have come from that association.
At the beginning of the First World War it was decided to continue to hold occasional dinners, but only three actually took place, in December 1914 and in June and December 1915. No pictures or poems adorned the menus, and no guests were invited.
And so to return to the matter of roses. As you know, members wear red carnations at dinners and guests wear white ones. However, Guedalla mentions wearing “roses white and red” and a poem on one of the menus states:
Red is the Wine, and Red the Rose we wear,
And though our Secretary takes good care
To say ‘another colour’ for our guests,
On damask cheeks there are the Roses there.
So it seems that any colour, so long as it was not red, was acceptable for the guests, and this is confirmed by a notice that was sent to members in 1919, which states that “Members will wear red roses, and their guests roses of another colour.”
I have been unable to discover when or why the roses were replaced by carnations, but I would suggest that, cost permitting, we should revert to the former.
And there are also a couple of references to the President wearing a myrtle wreath on his head, but I suspect that custom died out fairly early, for obvious reasons.
The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, 1892-1910. pp. 220. London, 1910.
The Second Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, 1910-1929. Printed for the members for private circulation. London, 1931.
ASQUITH, H. H. (Herbert Henry), 1852-1928 Uniform title [Works ] Title The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam … An address delivered to the Omar Khayyam Club, April 27, 1898. London, 1917. Physical descr. 4º. General note One of 25 copies printed for Clement Shorter.
CLODD, Edward.: Concerning a Pilgrimage to the Grave of Edward Fitzgerald. [With a portrait.]; pp. 18. Printed for private distribution to the members of the Omar Khayyam Club: London, 1894.
CLODD, Edward. Memories … With portraits. pp. xi. 288. Chapman & Hall: London, 1916.
CONWAY, Moncure Daniel. Autobiography. Memories and experiences of Moncure D. Conway. With two portraits. 2 vol. Cassell & Co.: London, 1904.
DE LA MARE, Walter, 1873-1956. [A menu of the Omar Khayyam Club, with a poem by W. de la Mare, beginning “Six and thirty years gone.”] [London, 1920.]
DOBSON, Austin, 1840-1921. Verses read at the Dinner of the Omar Khayyam Club on Thursday, 25th March, 1897. pp. 11. Printed at the Chiswick Press: London, 1897. 8º. An edition of 100 copies printed for Edmund Gosse.
GISSING, George, 1857-1903; “The letters of George Gissing to Edward Clodd. Edited and with an introduction by Pierre Coustillas, etc. London: Enitharmon Press, 1973. pp. 120: plates; facsim, port. 22 cm. Series (Enitharmon Press Gissing series. no. 7.)
HAY, John Milton.; In praise of Omar. An address before the Omar Khayyam Club. (Second edition.). pp. 10. T. B. Mosher: Portland, Maine, 1898.
HAY, John Milton: In praise of Omar. An address before the Omar Khayyam Club (1897). Berkeley Heights: Oriole Press, 1961.
HENDERSON, John, Papers as Secretary of Omar Khayyam Club c1899 (Cambridge University: Trinity College Library).
MOLONY, Senan, Rubáiyát reflections on Titanic.
PLIMMER, Henry George, ; “Omariana. Dedicated to the members of the Omar Khayyam Club on its twenty-first birthday. pp. 20. Privately printed: London, [1913.]
SADLEIR, Michael, Only Collect: Passages From The Autobiography Of A Bibliomaniac, London, 1951
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of Naishapur. (Rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald, and printed for the Omar Khayyam Club … under the care of C. R. Ashbee.) [With an introduction by Clement K. Shorter.] pp. vii. 26. Essex House Press: London, 1905.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam / Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald; with the address of John Hay at the Omar Khayyam Club, London. Publisher/year ] : [s.n.], 
Rubaiyat … Parallel texts of the first and second editions, etc. [With an essay on Edw. FitzGerald by Edward Clodd.] London : Selwyn & Blount, 1921.
Twenty Years of the Omar Khayyam Club of America. [Edited by Charles Dana Burrage. With facsimiles.] pp. 105. pl. 102. Rosemary Press: [Boston,] 1921. Privately printed. An edition of fifty copies.
George Whale, 1849-1925. (In Memoriam.-Essays by G. Whale.-The Life and Death of George Whale. Address … by J. M. Robertson.-The Last Speech of George Whale.) Edited by Edward Clodd, Clement Shorter and Winifred Stephens Whale. [With a portrait.] pp. 270. Jonathan Cape: London, 1926.
The Ralph Straus fonds: Series 1, Box 2, Vol.20; Series 7, Box 11, F.4, F.5; Series 10, Box 12, F.3, Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Daily Chronicle, 4 October 1893.
New York Times, 31 July 1897, 10 June 1899, 25 July 1900, 25 August 1900, 3 November 1900, 28 July 1901, 8 March 1902, 11 June 1904, 14 March 1909, 28 May 1910, 3 December 1910, 24 December 1916.
The Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.