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Coffee Houses - a history

Coffee Houses - Strand and Covent Garden

How markedly the coffee-houses of London were differentiated from each other by the opening of the eighteenth century is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in Steele's first issue of the Tatler. After hoodwinking his readers into thinking he had a correspondent "in all parts of the known and knowing world," he informed them that it was his intention to print his news under "such dates of places" as would provide a key to the matter they were to expect. Thus, "all accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, shall be under the article of White's Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; learning, under the title of the Grecian; foreign and domestic news, you shall have from Saint James's Coffee-house, and what else I have to offer on any other subject shall be dated from my own apartment."

Several days elapsed ere there was anything to report from the Grecian coffee-house, which was situated in Devereux Court, Strand, and derived its name from the fact that it was kept by a Greek named Constantine. When it does make its appearance, however, the information given under its name is strictly in keeping with the character Steele gave the house. "While other parts of the town are amused with the present actions, we generally spend the evening at this table in inquiries into antiquity, and think anything news which gives us new knowledge." And then follow particulars of how the learned Grecians had been amusing themselves by trying to arrange the actions of the Iliad in chronological order. This task seems to have been accomplished in a friendly manner, but there was an occasion when a point of scholarship had a less placid ending. Two gentlemen, so the story goes, who were constant companions, drifted into a dispute at the Grecian one evening over the accent of a Greek word. The argument was protracted and at length grew angry. As neither could convince the other by mere words, the resolve was taken to decide the matter by swords. So the erstwhile friends stepped out into the court, and, after a few passes, one of them was run through the body, and died on the spot.

That the Grecian maintained its character as the resort of learned disputants may be inferred from the heated discussions which took place within its walls when Burke confused the public with his imitation of the style and language of Bolinbroke in his "Vindication of Natural Society." All the critics were completely deceived. And Charles Macklin in particular distinguished himself by rushing into the Grecian one evening, flourishing a copy of the pamphlet, and declaring, "Sir, this must be Harry Bolinbroke; I know him by his cloven foot!"

Grecian Coffee House


Even if it were not for that fatal duel between the two Greek scholars, there are anecdotes to show that some frequenters of the house were of an aggressive nature. There is the story, for example, of the bully who insisted upon a particular seat, but came in one evening and found it occupied by another.

"Who is that in my seat?"

"I don't know, sir," replied the waiter.

"Where is the hat I left on it?"

"He put it in the fire."

"Did he? damnation! but a fellow who would do _THAT_ would not mind flinging me after it!" and with that he disappeared.

Men of science as well as scholars gave liberal patronage to the Grecian. It was a common thing for meetings of the Royal Society to be continued in a social way at this coffee-house, the president, Sir Isaac Newton, being frequently of the parties. Hither, too, came Professor Halley, the great astronomer, to meet his friends on his weekly visit to London from Oxford, and Sir Hans Sloane, that zealous collector of curiosities, was often to be met at the Grecian. Nor did the house wholly lack patrons of the pen, for Goldsmith, among others, used the resort quite frequently.

Goldsmith was also a faithful customer of George's coffee-house which was situated close to the Grecian. This was one of the places to which he had his letters addressed, and the house figures in one of his essays as the resort of a certain young fellow who, whenever he had occasion to "ask his friend for a guinea, used to prelude his request as if he wanted two hundred, and talked so familiarly of large sums" that no one would have imagined him ever to be in need of small ones. It was the same young fellow at George's who, whenever he wanted credit for a new suit from his tailor, used to dress himself in laced clothes in which to give the order, for he had found that to appear shabby on such occasions defeated the purpose he had in view.

Most likely Goldsmith sketched his certain young fellow from life. There was another frequenter of the place who would have provided an original for another character study. This was that Sir James Lowther, afterwards Earl of Lonsdale, of whom the story is told that having one day changed a piece of silver in the coffee-house, and paid twopence for his cup of coffee, he was helped into his carriage and driven home, only to return a little later to call attention to the fact that he had been given a bad halfpenny in his change and demand another in exchange. All this was in keeping with the character of the man, for despite the fact that he had an income of forty thousand pounds a year, he was notorious for his miserly conduct, and would not pay even his just debts.

There was another legend connected with George's which Horace Walpole ought not to have destroyed. In telling a correspondent of the amusement with which he had been reading Shenstone's letters, he took occasion to characterize as vulgar and devoid of truth an anecdote told of his father, Lord Orford. This was the story that his father, "sitting in George's, was asked to contribute to a figure of himself that was to be beheaded by the mob. I do remember something like it," Walpole continued, "but it happened to myself. I met a mob, just after my father was put out, in Hanover-square, and drove up to it to know what was the matter. They were carrying about a figure of my sister." Walpole traded so largely in traditional stories himself that it was ungrateful of him to spoil so good a one.

On the way to Bedford Street, where Wildman's coffee-house was situated, the pilgrim will pass the site of the Somerset coffee-house, which was notable in its day from the fact that some of the letters of Junius were left here, the waiters being paid tips for taking them in. Wildman's was notorious as being the favourite headquarters of the supporters of John Wilkes, and hence the lines of Churchill:

"Each dish at Wildman's of sedition smacks;
Blasphemy may be Gospel at Almacks.
Peace, good Discretion, peace,--thy fears are vain;
Ne'er will I herd with Wildman's factious train."

Among the notable coffee-houses of Covent Garden were the Bedford, King's, Rawthmell's and Tom's. The first was situated under the Piazza, and could count among its patrons Fielding, Pope, Sheridan, Churchill, Garrick, Foote, Quinn, Collins, Horace Walpole and others. Its characters, according to the Connoisseur, 'afforded a greater variety of nearly the same type as those to be found at George's. It was, this authority asserts, crowded every night with men of parts. Almost every one to be met there was a polite scholar and a wit. "Jokes and _bon mots_ are echoed from box to box; every branch of literature is critically examined, and the merit of every production of the press, or performance at the theatres, weighed and determined. This school (to which. I am myself indebted for a great part of my education, and in which, though unworthy, I am now arrived at the honour of being a public lecturer) has bred up many authors, to the amazing entertainment and instruction of their readers."

But the Bedford coffee-house has a more sensational association. It was here, according to Horace Walpole, that James Hackman spent his last few hours of freedom ere he murdered Martha Ray as she was leaving Covent Garden theatre on the night of April 17th, 1779. No tragedy of that period caused so great a sensation. Miss Ray had for some years been the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, at whose house Hackman first met and fell in love with her. There are good reasons for believing that his love was returned for a time, but that afterwards Miss Ray determined to continue in her irregular relation with the nobleman. On learning that his suit was wholly hopeless, Hackman conceived the plan which had so fatal an ending. The question as to whether the fact that he provided himself with two pistols was proof that he intended to take his own life as well as that of Miss Ray was the theme of a warm discussion between Dr. Johnson and his friend Beauclerk, the latter 'arguing that it was not, and the former maintaining with equal confidence that it was.

King's coffee-house was nothing more than a humble shed, an early representative of the peripatetic coffee-stall which is still a common sight of London streets in the early morning. Kept by a Thomas King who absconded from Eton because he feared that his fellowship would be denied him, it was the resort of every rake according to Fielding, and, in the phrase of another, was "well known to all gentlemen to whom beds are unknown." On the other hand Rawthmell's was an exceedingly fashionable house, and witnessed the founding of the Society of Arts in 1754. It had another claim to slight distinction as being the resort of Dr. John Armstrong, the poet of the "Art of Preserving Health," and a man so generally unsociable that one acquaintance described him as having a rooted aversion against the whole human race, except a few friends, and they were dead!

Judging from a poetical allusion of 1703, Tom's coffee-house was at that time a political resort. A little later it was distinguished for its fashionable gatherings after the theatre. A traveller through England in 1722 records that at Tom's there was "playing at Picket, and the best of conversation till midnight. Here you will see blue and green ribbons and Stars sitting familiarly, and talking with the same freedom as if they had left their quality and degrees of distance at home." But the most interesting picture of this house is given by William Till. He writes: "The house in which I reside was the famous Tom's Coffee-House, memorable in the reign of Queen Anne; and for more than half a century afterwards: the room in which I conduct my business as a coin dealer is that which, in 1764, by a guinea subscription among nearly seven hundred of the nobility, foreign ministers, gentry, and geniuses of the age--was made the card-room, and place of meeting for many of the now illustrious dead, and remained so till 1768, when a voluntary subscription among its members induced Mr. Haines, the then proprietor, to take in the next door westward, as a coffee-room; and the whole floor _en_ suite was constructed into card and conversation rooms." It seems that the house took its name originally from the first landlord, a Captain Thomas West, who, driven distracted by the agony of gout, committed suicide by throwing himself from his own windows.

Interesting, as has been seen, as are the associations which cluster round the coffee-houses of this district already mentioned, their fame is slight compared with the glory of the houses known as Will's and Button's.

Macaulay has given us a glowing picture of the wits' room on the first floor at Will's. Through the haze of tobacco smoke with which he filled the apartment we can see earls, and clergymen, and Templars, and university lads, and hack-workers. We can hear, too, the animated tones in which discussions are being carried on, discussions as to whether "Paradise Lost" should have been written in rhyme, and many another literary question of little interest in these modern days. But, after all, the eye does not seek out earls, or clergy, or the rest; nor does the ear wish to fill itself with the sound of their voices. There is but one face, but one voice at Will's in which the interest of this time is as keen as the interest of the seventeenth century. That face and voice were the face and voice of John Dryden.

Exactly in what year Dryden first chose this coffee-house as his favourite resort is unknown. He graduated at Cambridge in 1654, and is next found in London lodging with a bookseller for whom he worked as a hack-writer. By 1662 he had become a figure of some consequence in London life, and a year later his first play was acted at the King's theatre. Then, in the pages of Pepys, he is seen as the centre of that group of the wits which he was to dominate for a generation. "In Covent Garden to-night," wrote Pepys under the date February 3rd, 1664, "going to fetch home my wife, I stopped at the great Coffee-house there, where I never was before; where Dryden, the poet, I knew at Cambridge, and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player, and Mr. Hoole, of our college. And, had I had time then, or could at other times, it will be good coming hither, for there, I perceive, is very witty and pleasant discourse."

With what persistence this tradition survived, the tradition of Dryden as the arbiter of literary criticism at Will's is illustrated by the story told by Dr. Johnson. When he was a young man he had a desire to write the life of Dryden, and as a first step in the gathering of his materials he applied to the 'only two persons then alive who had known him, Swinney and Cibber. But all the assistance the former could give him was to the effect that at Will's. Coffee-house Dryden had a particular chair for himself, which was set by the fire in winter, and removed to the balcony in summer; and the extent of Cibber's information was that he remembered the poet as a decent old man, judge of critical disputes at Will's. But happily a more detailed picture of Dryden as the centre of the wits at Will's has survived. On his first trip to London as a youth of seventeen, Francis Lockier, the future dean of Peterborough, although an odd-looking boy of awkward manners, thrust himself into the coffee-house that he might gaze on the celebrated men of the day. "The second time that ever I was there," Lockier said, "Mr. Dryden was speaking of his own things, as he frequently did, especially of such as had been lately published. 'If anything of mine is good,' says he, ''tis Mac Flecknoe; and I value myself the more upon it, because it is the first piece of ridicule written in Heroics.' On hearing this, I plucked up my spirit to say, in a voice just loud enough to be heard, that 'Mac Flecknoe was a very fine poem; but that I had not imagined it to be the first that ever was writ that way.' On this, Dryden turned short upon me, as surprised at my interposing; asked how long I had been a dabbler in poetry; and added, with a smile, 'Pray, sir, what is it that you did imagine to have been writ so before? 'I named Boileau's _Lutrin_, and Tassoni's Secchia _Rapita_, which I had read, and knew Dryden had borrowed some strokes from each. ''Tis true,' said Dryden, 'I had forgot them.' A little after Dryden went out, and in going spoke to me again, and desired me to come and see him next day. I was highly delighted with the invitation; went to see him accordingly, and was well acquainted with him after, as long as he lived."

As a companion to this picture in prose there is the poetic vignette which Prior and Montague inserted in their "Country Mouse and the City Mouse," written in burlesque of Dryden's "Hind and Panther."

"Then on they jogg'd; and since an hour of talk
Might cut a banter on the tedious walk,
As I remember, said the sober mouse,
I've heard much talk of the Wits' Coffee-house;
Thither, says Brindle, thou shalt go and see
Priests supping coffee, sparks and poets tea;
Here rugged frieze, there quality well drest,
These baffling the grand Senior, those the Test,
And there shrewd guesses made, and reasons given,
That human laws were never made in heaven;
But, above all, what shall oblige thy sight,
And fill thy eyeballs with a vast delight,
Is the poetic judge of sacred wit,
Who does i' th' darkness of his glory sit;
And as the moon who first receives the light,
With which she makes these nether regions bright,
So does he shine, reflecting from afar
The rays he borrowed from a better star;
For rules, which from Corneille and Rapin flow,
Admired by all the scribbling herd below,
From French tradition while he does dispense
Unerring truths, 'tis schism, a damned offence,
To question his, or trust your private sense."

Dryden appears to have visited Will's every day. His rule of life was to devote his mornings to writing at home, where he also dined, and then to spend the remainder of the day at the coffee-house, which he did not leave till late. There came a night for the poet when this regularity of habit had unpleasant consequences. A Newsletter of December 23rd, 1679, tells the story: "On Thursday night last Mr. Dryden, the poet, comeing from the coffee-house in Covent Garden, was set upon by three or four fellows, and very soarly beaten, but likewise very much cutt and wounded with a sword. It is imagined that this has happened to him because of a late satyr that is laid at his door, though he positively disowned it." The compiler of that paragraph was correct in his surmise. The hired ruffians who assaulted the solitary poet on that December night were in the pay of Lord Rochester, who had taken umbrage at a publication which, although not written by Dryden, had been printed with such a title-page as suggested that it was his work. A reward of fifty pounds was offered for the discovery of the perpetrators of this outrage, but to no effect. Still it is some consolation to know that the cowardly Rochester immediately fell under suspicion as the author of the attack. Less reprehensible is the story told of a Mr. Finch, "an ingenious young gentleman," who, nearly a decade later, "meeting with Mr. Dryden in a coffee-house in London, publickly before all the company wished him joy of his _new_ religion. 'Sir,' said Dryden, 'you are very much mistaken; my religion is the old religion.' 'Nay,' replied the other, 'whatever it be in itself I am sure 'tis new to you, for within these three days you had no religion at all.'"

Dryden died in 1700 and for a time Will's maintained its position as the resort of the poets. Did not Steele say that all his accounts of poetry in the Tatler would appear under the name of that house? But the supremacy of Will's was slowly undermined, so that even in the Tatler the confession had soon to be made that the place was very much altered since Dryden's time. The change had been for the worse. "Where you used to see songs, epigrams, and satires in the hands of every man you met, you now have only a pack of cards; and instead of the cavils about the turn of the expression, the elegance of the style, and the like, the learned now dispute only about the truth of the game." This is all confirmed by that traveller who took notes in London in 1722, and found there was playing at Picket at Will's after the theatre.

Addison was the chief cause of this transformation. And Steele helped him. The fact is that about 1713 Addison set up coffee-house keeper himself. That is to say, he was the means of getting one Daniel Button, once servant with the Countess of Warwick, to open such an establishment in close proximity to Will's. For Addison to remove his patronage from Will's to Button's meant the transference of the allegiance of the wits of the town also, consequently it soon became known that the wits were gone from the haunt of Dryden to the new resort affected by Addison. And a close scrutiny of the pages of the Guardian will reveal how adroitly Steele aided Addison's plan. Thus, the issue of the Guardian for June 17th, 1713, was devoted to the habits of coffee-house orators, and especially to the objectionable practice so many had of seizing a button on a listener's coat and twisting it off in the course of argument. This habit, however, was more common in the city than in the West-end coffee-houses; indeed, Steele added, the company at Will's was so refined that one might argue and be argued with and not be a button the poorer. All that delightful nonsense paved the way for a letter in the next number of the Guardian, a letter purporting to come from Daniel Button of Button's coffee-house.

"I have observed," so ran the epistle, "that this day you made mention of Will's Coffee-house, as a place where people are too polite to hold a man in discourse by the button. Everybody knows your honour frequents this house; therefore they will taken an advantage against me, and say, if my company was as civil as that at Will's, you would say so: therefore pray your honour do not be afraid of doing me justice, because people would think it may be a conceit below you on this occasion to name the name of Your humble servant, Daniel Button." And then there is this nadve postscript: "The young poets are in the back room, and take their places as you directed."

Nor did that end the plot. A few days later Steele found another occasion to mention Button's. His plan this time was to concoct a letter from one Hercules Crabtree, who offered his services as lion-catcher to the Guardian, and incidentally mentioned that he already possessed a few trophies which, he wished to present to Button's coffee-house. This lion business paved the way for Addison's interference in the clever scheme to divert the wits from Will's. Hence that paper of the Guardian which he wound up by announcing that it was his intention to erect, as a letter-box for the receipt of contributions, a lion's head in imitation of those he had described in Venice, through which all the private intelligence of that commonwealth was said to pass.

"This head," he explained, "is to open a most wide and voracious mouth, which shall take in such letters and papers as are conveyed to me by my correspondents, it being my resolution to have a particular regard to all such matters as come to my hands through the mouth of the lion. There will be under it a box, of which the key will be kept in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public. This head requires some time to finish, the workman being resolved to give it several masterly touches, and to represent it as ravenous as possible. It will be set up in Button's coffee-house in Covent-garden, who is directed to shew the way to the lion's head, and to instruct young authors how to convey his works into the mouth of it with safety and secrecy."

Lions Head at Buttons Coffee House


That lion's head was no myth. A fortnight later the leonine letter-box was actually placed in position at Button's, and, after doing service there for some years, was used by Dr. Hill when editing the Inspector. It was sold in 1804, the notice of the sale in the Annual Register stating that "The admirable gilt lion's head letter-box, which was formerly at Button's coffee-house, and in which the valuable original copy of the Guardian was received, was yesterday knocked down at the Shakespeare-tavern, Cove & Garden, to Mr. Richardson, for seventeen pounds ten shillings." It changed hands again in more recent times, and is now the property of the Duke of Bedford, who preserves it at Woburn.

For some months after the installation of the lion's head at Button's, constant references are made in the Guardian to that unique letter-box, Addison being mainly responsible for the quaint conceits which helped to keep attention on the house where it was placed. In the final number of the Guardian there is a lively letter in response to an attack on masquerading which had reached the public via the lion's head. "My present business," the epistle ran, "is with the lion; and since this savage has behaved himself so rudely, I do by these presents challenge him to meet me at the next masquerade, and desire you will give orders to Mr. Button to bring him thither, in all his terrors, where, in defenee of the innocence of these midnight amusements, I intend to appear against him, in the habit of Signior Nicolimi, to try the merits of this cause by single combat."

But Addison and his lion's head and Steele were not the only notable figures to be seen at Button's. Pope was a constant visitor there, as he was reminded by Cibber in his famous letter. Those were the days when, in Cibber's phrase, the author of the "Dunciad" was remarkable for his satirical itch of provocation, when there were few upon whom he did not fall in some biting epigram. He so fell upon Ambrose Philips, who forthwith hung a rod up in Button's, and let Pope know that he would use it on him should he ever catch him under that roof. The poet took a more than ample revenge in many a stinging line of satire afterwards.

Pope was cut adrift from Button's through the controversy as to which was the better version of the Iliad, his or Tickell's. As the latter belonged to the Addisonian circle, the opinion at Button's turned in favour of his version, especially as Addison himself thought Tickell had more of Homer than Pope. This ended Pope's patronage of Button's, and, indeed, it was not long ere the glory it had known began to wane. Various causes combined to take away one and another of its leading spirits, and when the much-talked-of Daniel Button passed away in 1730 it was to a pauper's grave. Yet farewell of so famous a house should not be made with so melancholy a story. There is a brighter page in its history, which dates three years earlier. Aaron Hill had been so moved by the misfortunes of his brother poet, Richard Savage, that he had penned an appeal on his behalf and arranged for subscriptions for a volume of his poems. The subscriptions were to be left at Button's, and when Savage called there a few days later he found a sum of seventy guineas awaiting him. Hill may, as has been asserted, have been a bore of the first water, but that kindly deed may stand him in stead of genius.

And Last updated on: Tuesday, 02-Jun-2020 15:01:38 BST