Before All Else, An Ugly Face: Ye Ugly Face Clubb of Liverpool
Updated: Feb 11
Hey look, this isn't about the Coronavirus!
Ugly Clubs were an invention of the long 18th Century (generally covering the time between the Glorious Revolution in 1668 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) to subvert the idea that deformity or ugliness undoubtedly meant being evil or unworthy.
The concept of members clubs had really taken off, initially for upper class men so that they didn't have to talk to the plebs, but grew to include groups of people from the same industries. Soon enough there were so many different clubs that every characteristic of your personality had its own club. Most men were only in one club that aligned most closely with their values, but some were in a few, and there were some who were referred to as "unclubbable" which I don't think is supposed to sound as violent as it does.
The Most Honourable and Facetious Society of Ugly Faces in Liverpool is not thought to be the first of such clubs, running between 1743 and 1754, but is the one with the most records still available, and in my opinion, the funniest. Many of their books are extremely detailed, except the ones that they decided to destroy for unknown reasons. Other than that, super detailed. Down to descriptions of in exactly what way each of the members were considered ugly.
Around the time, the conflation of deformity and personal morality was becoming more and more rife. As a result, the idea of an Ugly Club had already been explored in fiction and in satire, with early mentions including Ned Ward's "The Secret History of Clubs" and articles in The Spectator. Many disabled people at this point were already exhibiting themselves in private on their own terms as a means of making a living, but in a way which allowed people to watch their hard earned skills in action, such as painting or languages, rather than necessarily just gawp at them. This along with the standard "freak shows" and Ugly Clubs were an early way of reclaiming the term and the ideology for themselves. (Of course this is debatable, people such as William Hay said it was just a way of bringing ridicule onto themselves and he would never join one and no-one else ever should too but when have we all agreed about anything?)
All members of the ugly club were bachelors (as stipulated by the rules of the club) although there were reports of an alternative ugly club in America which was one evening all of a sudden overrun by "spinster women" trying desperately to marry all of them, this is never documented to have happened to the club in Liverpool, alas.
In order to be admitted to the Ugly Club, you had to prove your ugliness to the others in the group. Only they could deem you pugly enough for the club. This was written into the rules as the concept that "the majority of society was to judge but the president would have the casting vote." And they made EXTENSIVE notes on every person who was admitted, which are all listed in the most complete (read not very complete at all) records of an Ugly Club.
However being disabled in another way wasn't enough, they had to have a deformity in the facial area, characterised in examples like "mouth from ear to ear resembling the mouth of a shark", "a dimple in his attick story" and "a prodigious long chin, meeting his nose like a pair of nutcrackers". One man was given the resounding compliment that he was "possessed of every extraordinary qualification to render him the phoenix of the society as the like will not appear again this 1000 years."
This acceptance and pride in their appearances was in stark contrast to the attitudes of the time, with John Wilkes' face being described in print once as "an indication of a very bad soul within", and he was advised he shouldn't show his face to pregnant women, lest she damage her unborn foetus in some way. Yeah that bit's never been particularly clear.
The very limited records we have about the Liverpool Ugly club are incredibly incomplete, with entire sections missing and pages ripped out, but we have no way of knowing whether this was intentional or not. Although having read about the Club for a while, I imagine they did it deliberately just to mess with us. It seems completely in character.
The bits that are leftover are fascinating, and raise a lot of questions. We can tell from the files that the club did a number of traditional club-type activities, such as going out for dinners and holding meetings where they spoke about all sorts of world issues. One of the only two recorded speeches in these records was the President's speech entitled "on the declaration of war against France". And I know what you're thinking, which one?! We went to war with them so many times. Well they didn't note what the date of this speech was so it could be any of about six different wars.
Most of their income came from the forfeits that men paid when they got married and left the society, as well as a few collections, which left an always pretty healthy bank balance to allow them to pay for things such as the use of a barber for a year, "ringers" (we assume of church bells) and "Miss Bett Wrigley, a tickett."
Why the Ugly Club, a bachelor's club, was paying for a ticket for something for Bett, or to I suppose, we will never know, but I'm sure we can all imagine the reason why they would have "paid for 5 pictures of ugly faces." Some have theorised that they might have been portraits of their members. I however prefer to think that they were just pictures of random ugly faces that they'd found somewhere to remind them of their cause, decorate their homes and offices and bring general delight and amusement, like the characterisation of the portraits owned by the Ugly Club in the silent film "The Man Who Laughed" (now also a modernised stage play called The Grinning Man, both are very good).
Because what better decorations exist for the group activity of drinking heavily in celebration of your own ugliness, in a club whose motto was "Tetrum ante omnia vultum": Before all things, an ugly face.
- Liverpool Ugly Face Club, Liverpool Mercury September 29th 1887, old-merseytimes.co.uk
- Ye Ugly Face Clubb records, Liverpool Records Office.
- The Ugly Face Club: A Case Study in the Tangled Politics and Aesthetics of Deformity, Gretchen E Henderson, Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory 2015
- Ugly Clubs, nineteenthcenturydisability.org
- Ugly Face Club, difformite.wordpress.com
- The Spectator, Tuesday, March 20,1711, Rutgers University.