They were seven young men from various parts of England and various colleges at Cambridge, who, in 1738, formed a club: the Everlasting Club.
The oldest of the seven was a thirty-year-old from Ireland, who already had attained an undergraduate degree and was working toward a graduate one; the youngest was twenty-two, the heir of a long line of carousers and duellists, and a Fellow of Jesus College. In between these two were a young doctor of medicine, a Cambridgeshire squire’s son, and three Fellows of other colleges at Cambridge.
They were all young, all reckless, and all rather easily led by the eldest of them, the Irish lordling. His name was Alan Dermot, and it was under his influence that they formed the Everlasting Club.
The Everlasting Club was modeled somewhat along the lines of the better-known Hellfire Clubs of the era, but considerably more anemic; the Everlastings didn’t parody the Catholic mass while dressed as priests, or hire whores to dress as nuns for horizontal entertainment. The Everlastings drank and ate and drank and sang and drank and blasphemed and–you get the picture: losers and boozers.
The rules of the club were fairly simple: the most sinister one being that the club literally was everlasting; no member, once inducted, could ever drop his membership, and there would be no members admitted after the induction of the seven originals. If living, they were called Corporeal members; after death, they were referred to as Incorporeal. Alan Dermot was president for life; the next eldest Corporeal would be the secretary, and keep a scrupulous Minute Book; as members became Incorporeals, the next in age would become secretary. Although they would meet at other times of the year, the most important Everlasting meeting was a dinner, to be attended by all seven, on November 2, the Feast of All Souls in the old tradition. This dinner would be held at the residence of each member in rotation, beginning at ten PM precisely, and would be held yearly unless at least four of the members met during the last week of October and formally voted not to have a dinner that year. If any Corporeal failed to attend the dinner, he would be fined by the President, although what that fine was, Lord only knows.
After the first couple of years, the various colleges were so scandalized by the drinking and eating and drinking and singing and drinking and blasphemy and drinking of these youngsters blowing off steam that all of them were expelled from the university altogether. Yet, for five years, they observed that yearly feast on November 2, taking it turn about to host.
Things began to go horrifyingly, supernaturally wrong at the dinner of November 2, 1743.
They met, that year, at the home of the young Cambridge doctor. Alan Dermot and five of the others were present; Henry Davenport was off with the army on the continent. His absence was reported by the secretary at the beginning of the meal, and a fine was imposed by the President. Each of the others wrote his name and address in the Minute Book, signifying his presence.
So the dinner began, and all was well until their plates were served by very correct Georgian servants. The President told the servants they would pour their own wine, and a decanter on a silver coaster was pushed around until it came to the empty chair set for Henry Davenport.
Out of the soft candlelight there came a hand that lifted the decanter and filled the glass set by Davenport’s plate. As the others watched in growing horror, Davenport himself slowly, slowly took form before their very eyes, his uniform bloody. He was grinning, though.
He said, Gentlemen, I kept my promise. I was killed in a skirmish today, yet here I am, Incorporeal though I may be. I’ve kept my promise; will you keep yours?
In the Minutes, written the following day, the Secretary noted: Hen. Davenport, by a Cannon-shot, became an Incorporeal Member. . .
Even that was not the biggest shock to come from that dinner of November 2, 1743. Alan Dermot, the President, had been living on the continent as well, at the court of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart pretender to the throne. He had been present, at the dinner, his old drinking, eating, laughing, singing, blaspheming self–had signed his name, with address, with a flourish, at the top of the page for November 2: Alan Dermot, President at the Court of His Royal Highness.
On November 10, the Secretary added another note to the Minute Book: This day. . .we received word that the President was become an Incorporeal. . .in a duel with a French chevalier. . .28 October 1743. . .Good God, shield us from ill!
Dermot had been dead five days when he took his seat at the head of that table–yet he had seemed very much a living man. Henry Davenport could have been a trick of the wine and the candlelight, but not Dermot.
The five survivors did what any sane men would do: they met yearly in October and formally voted not to have a dinner that year, for the next five years.
At the end of five years, another member became an Incorporeal.
For eighteen years, the four Corporeals met yearly to record their vote against a dinner that year.
In 1766, on January 27, the Secretary of eighteen years standing, Francis Witherington, died.
And then there were three.
The Minute Book was passed on to the next eldest Corporeal, James Harvey.
Harvey lived only a month after his elevation to Secretary of the Everlasting Club. On March 7, William Catherston became Secretary. He died in May.
And then, there was one: the youngest of the seven, Charles Bellasis, wrote on May 18, 1766, that he, the last surviving Corporeal, was now Secretary of the Everlasting Club.
Bellasis, in the twenty-odd years since that dreadful dinner in 1743, had become a model citizen: in fact, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, the college from which he had been expelled so many years before.
He knew that the dinner could no longer be put off by vote. He knew that Harvey and Catherston had both died–one, possibly, by suicide, the other from sheer terror–in dread of the very idea of facing a dinner with four ghosts.
Bellasis lived in rooms at the top of a staircase that was, oddly, called Cow Lane, leading up from street level one door over from the Hall of Jesus College. On November 2, 1766, he quietly settled into his rooms, locking both the inner and outer doors, and waited.
Dead on ten o’clock, the whole college was roused by the ruckus coming from Bellasis’ rooms at the top of the stairs. Breaking glass, smashing chairs, drunken shouts, blasphemy–
The racket stopped at midnight, but not until the next morning did the Master and dons of the college mount the stairs to check on Bellasis. The locks of the outer and inner doors were destroyed with sledgehammer and crowbar, and the party entered.
They gasped and retched at the smell of death in the air.
Charles Bellasis was sitting at the head of a long oak table, his head bent forward and his eyes shielded by his arms, dead and already cold.
On the table before him lay the Minute Book.
For the first time since 1742, under the date 2 November, the names of all seven Everlastings, in their own individual hands, were written, signifying their attendance, although none had included his present address; Bellasis’s signature was there, same as them all.
Underneath that list, in Alan Dermot’s bold hand, was posted a fine, in Latin: Mulctatus per Presidentem propter neglectum obsonii, Car. Bellasis.
Fined by the President for neglect of his obligations, Charles Bellasis.
Although there were, in the Everlasting rules, no provision for continuance of the November 2 dinners beyond the death of the last member, it’s recorded that, for nearly two centuries after, no student was allowed to live in Charles Bellasis’ rooms at the top of Cow Lane.
The only one who tried was nearly killed when he flung himself down the staircase, one November 2, when the rooms were suddenly invaded by seven exceptionally noisy, blasphemous ghosts, at ten PM.
There have been no reports of the Everlasting ghosts of Cow Lane, however, since the 1940s.
This story of the Club of Dead Men has an interesting provenance; it may be one that began as a composed story and entered Cambridge ghostlore thereafter.
Under the name “The Everlasting Club“, the story was published in a very bland, almost clinical form by Sir Arthur Gray (1852-1940), Master of Jesus College for nearly forty years, in a 1919 book called Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye.
Nearly a half-century later, the journalist and ghost story collector James Wentworth Day (1899-1983) told the story in a much more vivid and disturbing form in an article called “The Club of Dead Men”–from which I cribbed the title–published in John Canning’s 1971 volume 50 Great Ghost Stories. In his version, Day claims he first heard the story of the haunted chambers in Cow Lane from the the late Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, under whom he studied at Cambridge, in 1920.
Altogether, a chicken or egg conundrum.
As to its truth as a genuine Cambridge ghost story, Day quotes none other than Gray:
. . .I have before me a transcript [of the Minute Book] which, though it is in a recent handwriting, presents in a bald shape such a singular array of facts that I must ask you to accept them as veracious.
When all’s said and done, I’ll say this: if it’s not a true story, then dang it, it ought to be. 😉
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