One of the strangest relics in the history of sex lurks in a fluorescent-white room in the Museum of St Andrews University in Scotland. As part of my research for The Sinner’s Grand Tour, I made a formal request to see the remains of an odd 18th century gentleman’s club called the Beggar’s Benison, which was notorious for its bizarre masturbation rituals. (It’s a long story – men in silk sashes would gather in a tavern surrounded by naked, dancing Posture Molls, then ejaculate together into a silver platter).
The item looked like a typical antique silver snuff box, oval in shape and delicately engraved. But when I popped the lock, I found that a delicate piece of parchment concealed a tightly packed clump of silver hair, although I thought I detected a tinge of remaining ginger. These, the parchment explained in florid script, were in fact the pubic hairs trimmed from “the mons Veneris (mound of Venus) of a Royal Courtesan of King George IV.” You wouldn’t see that in Antiques Roadshow.
It was a vivid reminder so far that those fun-loving 18th century Brits, who had dozens of wacky sex clubs (known as Hellfire Clubs), could often be more brazen than today. Such intimate curls, snipped from one’s amorous conquests, were a popular form of souvenir; lovers exchanged them as tokens of affection, and rakes wore them like cockades in their hats as tokens of potency. Lady Caroline Lamb once sent hers to Lord Byron dipped in blood (perhaps to show that she wasn’t pregnant).
In this case, the famously randy George IV had become a member of the Beggar’s Benison while he was still a dandyish young prince in cravat and lace cuffs. Years later, while visiting Edinburgh as king in 1822, he provided this token to the club as a gesture for old time’s sake. It’s impossible to know from whom the curls truly originated, but his consort at the time was Elizabeth, the Marchioness of Coyningham, a feisty and alluring god digger (“beautiful, shrewd, greedy, voluptuous,” rejoiced one historian).
But in the Victorian age, such odd sex club treasures were hidden away… and in St Andrews, the naughty relics have still never been publicly displayed, for fear of offending a family museum audience, although they are available to all “serious scholars.”