The picture-perfect fishing village of Anstruther is situated in the county of Fife on Scotland’s east coast. The fragments of its ruined castle are still sitting perched on a rock above the harbour, looking across the Dreel Burn, the winding river that washes down to the sea, to the town’s ancient parish church on the opposite bank. For hundreds of years this quaint town had traded by ship with the Dutch, Flemish and Baltic ports and had even boasted to have rescued Spanish sailors from their wrecked Armada galleons. Another feather in the cap for Anstruther was that in 1732 the great and the good of the village founded the most notorious sex society of the day, The Beggar’s Benison, promoting ritualised male masturbation.
So why would the good folks of a charming Scottish fishing village want to open what we could only now be perceived as as a sex club in god-fearing 18th century Presbyterian Scotland? This unique part of Scotland is by no stretch of the imagination the wild Highlands of kilts and claymores. Three hundred years ago it was very much a gentler bourgeoise and intellectual county with coastal trading centres and grand fashionable inland country houses and estates. Here, European trade and commerce flourished and the prestigious University of St Andrews had existed since the 15th century.
The 18th century enlightenment was well established in this little corner of the world and punched well above its weight with regard to the famous inhabitants it would produce: the likes of Adam Smith, writer of the capitalist bible The Wealth of Nations and Robert Adam, world renowned architect of the Adam Style, lived only 20 miles from Anstruther. This was very much a modern world with outward-looking trade and commerce, learned study, religious dogmas and politics being dissected. And of course sexuality and all its aspects being intellectually and practically explored – and physically enjoyed.
The Beggar’s Benison, loosely translated as ‘The Beggar’s Blessing’ referred to The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther. This most grand of names was chosen after the tale of a ‘blessing’ which was allegedly bestowed by an earlier Scottish monarch, King James V, when the king was helped across a river by a young and beautiful beggar girl whom he rewarded with a gold coin. She then ‘reciprocated’ with her ‘blessing’ or ‘benison’.
Sex clubs for all tastes were abundant in 18th century Britain. The Beggar’s Benison was no exception in offering all kinds of celebrations of the pleasures of the flesh to its members. Across Britain there were clubs for all wants of sexual desires, for men and for women, some exclusive to each gender and others mixed. There were the bawdy drunken clubs and there were the ‘enlightened’, intellectual clubs devoted to the erotic literature of the day.
At any one time, there were never more than 32 members. From the local bishop, earls and lairds (landowners), church minster and bourgeois merchants to the local surgeon and town councillors, this was a society within a society.
Membership was by invitation and required the undertaking of a very formal initiation ceremony in front of the other members. Two naked ‘helpers’, or young women would assist the invited candidate to a small ‘closet’ where in private they would sexually arouse him. In an excited state, he was then escorted into the full gathering where the ‘sovereign’ would instruct him to lay his manhood on the ‘testing platter’, an erotically-engraved silvered plate.
After a very formal penis-to-penis touching ritual with the other knights he was required to scatter his seed into the decorated testing plate. Upon successful completion he was rewarded with copious quantities of port from an lewdly-engraved, elaborate glass chalice. The final trial required him to read aloud passages from the club’s vast collection of erotic literature. The club’s special ceremonial crockery and silverware were designed to titillate: phallic-shaped drinking vessels, engraved plates and cast medallions all served to intensify the experience. One record of an initiation reads, ‘24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged.’
Like the notorious Hellfire Club (a network of exclusive clubs for mostly elite politicians in Britain and Ireland who wanted to take part in ‘immoral acts’), the Beggar’s Benison offered an exotic alternative lifestyle far from the mundane daily grind. Soirées were held in grand rooms of fine buildings, with lavish feasts, exquisite wines and port served in abundance. The evenings would be laced with sexual ceremonies and erotic readings, obscene songs were sung and live pornographic art ateliers were hosted with nude local girls (or the occasional willing wife as rumour had it).
The president of the Beggar’s Benison club, was titled ‘The Sovereign’, his ‘crown’ an exotic fancy wig said to have been woven from the pubic hair of one of King Charles II’s mistresses. Like all such club icons, the wig had its obligatory history: King Charles II had donated it following visits to the county of Fife’s parties and fairs in the 17th century. Over the years the upkeep of the wig had required the members to supply ‘curls’ from their own mistresses.
The club’s gatherings were altogether a good evening’s entertainment, which although unorthodox, were carefully planned and followed set agendas with the night’s activities recorded as a ‘business meeting’. In an age where there was no internet or cinema – only long dark cold evenings, the club was a must-do and eagerly anticipated event. The club met regularly on Candlemass (Feb 2nd) and on St Andrew’s Day (30th November) in either the Smuggler’s Inn, a public house still in existence on the Anstruther’s high street or at the adjacent Dreel Castle.
The Order of the Beggar’s Benison both mimicked and mocked the old feudal ways. Often referred to as an ‘Erotic Order’, with a host of princes and lords at its helm, members were known as ‘knights’ and their leader as ‘The Sovereign’. The fiefdom or ‘country’ of this perverse feudal society was Merryland – a pun on Maryland, USA, which apparently traded with Anstruther (but this was also the name given to a fantastic and mythical land, the subject of various notorious 18th century erotic novels).
In 1740, Thomas Stretzer (little is known about him) had published one of these books entitled Merryland. These books objectified the female body as a lush and mysterious land to be explored, conquered, tilled and ploughed, describing the curves and crevasses of the female body in topographical metaphors. Stretzer wrote of Merryland, “Her valleys are like Eden, her hills like Lebanon, she is a paradise of pleasure and a garden of delight.” Men of course were destined to explore this enticing landscape of rolling hills, gentle valleys, inlets and creeks in blissful euphoria. Bawdy double-entendres was very much the stuff of 18th century erotic literature, as is also seen in the ‘biblical’ Song of Songs of Solomon and Expanded Tales from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels of the intimate detail of his giant women.
Like all great guilds and feudal societies, the club had its official paraphernalia. In addition to the sovereign’s wig there was the great seal or wax document stamp for its official documents and records. The armorial device on the seal is composed of an Anchor, Penis and Purse. The anchor provides the double entendre – apparently a nautical trading icon – but more so a reference to safe anchorage in a vaginal haven. On the seal the purse is artfully looped over the penis.
Like all feudal institutions, the Beggars Benison had its rhyming mottos;
“May your purse ne’er be toom (empty)
And your horn aye (always) in bloom”
The club’s own ‘benison’ (blessing) was; “May prick nor purse ne’er fail you”.
The meetings were held in a room known as the ‘temple’. A record of the 1734 Candlemass meeting described how ‘one feminine gender, 17, was hired for one sovereign, fat and well developed.’ After she sat on display, ‘every Knight passed in turn and surveyed the secrets of nature.’ The women were provided as visual objects for arousal, the purpose of the Order was phallic exhibitionism and man-talk. No contact was allowed, whoring it seems, was for other places.
The lavish dinners were followed by toasts and then saucy texts were recited. Not all texts were vulgar, some were of a quality such as Ovid’s Art of Love, Byron’s Don Juan and Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Occasionally, lectures or talks were given to the members, usually of a biological nature and inevitably discussing sexual anatomy and activity, but not necessarily just of humankind, the animal kingdom featured too.
Whilst membership was restricted to the invited, public knowledge of the club was not. Despite its remote and tiny base, The Beggar’s Benison attracted the young dandy Prince Regent George as a member. The famous wig (the one created from Charles II’s courtesan’s pubic hair) had been lost to a breakaway club in nearby Edinburgh and in 1822 Prince George (now King George IV) provided a replacement icon.
He gifted the society a locket case containing a tiny handwritten parchment, behind which was concealed a clump of his mistress’ pubic curls, rumoured to be those of the Countess of Coyningham. The parchment describes those curls being trimmed from ‘the Mons Veneris of a Royal Courtesan of King George IV.’ The countess was later described as beautiful, shrewd, greedy and voluptuous. The exchange of such souvenirs was not uncommon in all walks of 18th century society.
And why of all places on earth was tiny Anstruther the chosen location for the Beggar’s Benison? The answer may lie in crime. Anstruther was a centuries-old established, small yet successful international trading town, but the merging of the parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707 had seen the introduction of new import duties and taxes. Smuggling was rife (but perhaps always had been) and the avoidance of tax needed a society-wide system to work. So all were involved: the local land-owning lords, the town officials, the trading merchants and the all-seeing churchmen. The Beggar’s Benison was very much a club created to galvanise a group that would be as bound by their escapist erotic exploits as they would by the serious business of smuggling.
Having endured for over 100 years and initiated 500 members and even sprouted branches in Edinburgh and allegedly as far as St Petersburg in Russia, the club was formally wound up in 1836. Britain was now the centre of a great trading empire and Victorian sensibilities and order prevailed. Although some of the records were destroyed, copies had been made and many of the original artefacts, including the erotic seals, the sashes of office, the phallic-shaped goblets, the explicitly-illustrated medals, business documents and pornographic drawings, all found their way to safekeeping at the prestigious University of St Andrews.
The sovereign’s notorious wig disappeared, last seen in 1913 in an Edinburgh lawyer’s office, however, the box and stand did survive, and with the other artefacts, are now held in the University museum. Curiously (certainly from a 21st century viewpoint), the last club secretary used the remainder of the unspent funds – a total of £70 – to provide prizes for the local primary school in Anstruther.