We thought we’d shed some light on the secret societies Londoners love to shroud in mystery. From the bohemian to the outright bizarre, read on for our Top Ten…
1. The Freemasons
The former nod-and-a-wink club of Winston Churchill, Peter Sellers and Rudyard Kipling isn’t secret any more. But these pros pretty much invented the secret society formula, with a lexicon of handshakes, passwords and symbols. They’re also as London as they come: the first Grand Lodge was founded in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1717. So are they still creepy? Well, they let Westlife use their Holborn HQ for a music video, but that’s about as sinister as it gets.
2. The Gormogons
Few are as petty in their payback as expelled eighteenth-century Freemason Philip Wharton. Rather than skulking off with his ceremonial tail between his legs (actually the tail-wearing is a myth), he formed his own society with one explicit purpose: to ridicule his former brethren. Any Freemason who joined had to be utterly humiliated. The Gormogons didn’t last, but their cruel and unusual initiation rituals live on in university sports clubs all over the world.
3. The Order of Chaeronea
The Order of Chaeronea was the Grindr of its day. Formed in 1897,it allowed gay men to meet and communicate at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon to say the least (gay sex had been punishable by death until 1861). The group relied on secret codes, passwords and signals, though the universally recognised mime for sex – a finger going in and out of a hole made by another finger and thumb – was probably not one of them.
4. The Calves’ Head Club
Had the republic established after the English Civil War survived, there’s a chance the Calves’ Head Club would also still exist. They met on January 30 every year to celebrate the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, by eating a pike to represent tyranny and calves’ heads to represent the beheaded king and his supporters. They finally disbanded in 1734 when a mob stormed their dinner, presumably offended by the naffness of their culinary symbolism.
5. The Golden Dawn
Possibly the classiest secret society ever, this nineteenth- and early twentieth-century magical order included the likes of WB Yeats, Bram Stoker and Edith ‘The Railway Children’ Nesbit as members. ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’, Aleister Crowley, began his obsession with the whole candles and chanting thing here, and it’s one of the biggest influences on twentieth-century occultism. Voldemort would have approved.
6. A A
Not Alcoholics Anonymous or the Automobile Association: this mysterious magical splinter group was created by Aleister Crowley when he left The Golden Dawn in a strop. Still going today, it’s based around Crowley’s ‘religion’ of Thelema, which hinges on a perplexing concept called ‘true will’. One AA website we found claimed: ‘The Order is One, as there is but One Eye in the Triangle’, to clear up the confusion.
7. Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO)
And so to the Great Beast 666, aka Aleister Crowley again (yes, we’re getting fed up with him too). Until recently, he was the most famous person to have been a member of this weird sex cult, which apparently gives members secret masturbation techniques. Then, earlier this year, Peaches Geldof announced she was a follower, and tweeted pictures of an OTO tattoo, prompting a loud ‘click’ as thousands of teenage bedroom doors were locked in unison.
8. Opus Dei
Dan Brown has a lot to answer for – namely a boom in religion-themed London tourism (just ask the folk at Temple Church where the Knights Templar were once based). But he also overegged the sinister pudding on this secretive Catholic sub-sect. They’re a rather extreme bunch, who have been known to wear painful wire chains around their thighs to atone for their sins. But that’s a far cry from conspiring to screw over Mary Magdalene, as Brown suggests.
9. The London Seduction Society
Grabbing the absurdity biscuit with both hands, this contemporary group devoted to female seduction is run by three guys called Adrian, Fistboy and London Hunk. In the same vein as grim pick-up guide ‘The Game’, this lot use a mixture of management speak, motivational thinking and sexism to help cads get women. Ladies, you have been warned.
10. The Hellfire Club
The shadowy reputation of this club for posh rakes outweighs its slightly prosaic reality. There probably was a lascivious element to their subterranean eighteenthcentury gatherings, but the rumours of wild satanic orgies have been exaggerated. It survives – as a swingers’ club in west London. Compiled by Dan Frost