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Coffee Houses further west

Coffee Houses further west

Several favourite coffee-houses might once have been found in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross. One of these bore the name of the Cannon and was much frequented by John Philpot Curran, of whom it was said "there never was so honest an Irishman," and Sir Jonas Barrington, that other Irish judge who was at first intended for the army, but who, on learning that the regiment to which he might be appointed was likely to be sent to America for active service, declined the commission, and requested that it might be bestowed on "some hardier soldier." Evidently Sir Jonas desired no further acquaintance with cannon than was involved in visiting the coffee-house of that name. The legend is that he and Curran affected one particular box at the end of the room, where they might be seen almost any day.

British Coffee House

[Illustration: BRITISH COFFEE-HOUSE.]

In the same vicinity, but close to the Thames-side, was the coffee-house kept by Alexander Man, and known as Man's. The proprietor had the distinction of being appointed "coffee, tea, and chocolate-maker" to William III, which gave him a place in the vast army of "By Appointment" tradesmen, and resulted further in his establishment being sometimes described as the Royal Coffee-house. This resort had a third title, Old Man's Coffee-house, to distinguish it from the Young Man's, which was situated on the other side of the street.

Of greater note than any of these was the British coffee-house which stood in Cockspur Street. There is a record of its existence in 1722, and in 1759 it was presided over by the sister of Bishop Douglas, who was described as "a person of excellent manners and abilities." She was succeeded by a Mrs. Anderson, on whom the enoomium was passed that she was "a woman of uncommon talents and the most agreeable conversation." As the names of these ladies suggest, they were of Scottish birth, and hence it is not surprising to learn that their house was greatly in favour among visitors from north of the Tweed. That the Scottish peers were sometimes to be found here in great numbers is the only conclusion to be drawn from an incident recorded by Horace Walpole. There was a motion before the House of Lords for which the support of the Scots was required, and the Duke of Bedford wrote to sixteen of their number to solicit their votes, enclosing all the letters under one cover directed to the British coffee-house. It was under this roof, too, that the Scottish club called The Beeswing used to meet, one of whose members was Lord Campbell, that legal biographer who shared with most of his countrymen the ability of "getting on." The club in question consisted of about ten members, and the agreement was to meet once a month at the British coffee-house to dine and drink port wine. The other members included Spankie, Dr. Haslam, author of several works on insanity, Andrew Grant, a merchant of considerable literary acquirements, and George Gordon, known about town as "the man of wit." The conversation is described as being as good as any to be enjoyed anywhere in the London of that day, and the drinking was voted "tremendous." The last-named fact is one illustration out of many that during the latter years of their existence the coffee-houses of London did not by any means confine their liquors to the harmless beverage from which they took their name.

Slaughters Coffee House

[Illustration: SLAUGHTER'S COFFEE-HOUSE.]

Among the earliest coffee-houses to be established in the West-end of London was that opened by Thomas Slaughter in St. Martin's Lane in 1692 and known as Slaughter's. It remained under the oversight of Mr. Slaughter until his death in 1740, and continued to enjoy a prosperous career for nearly a century longer, when the house was torn down. The bulk of its customers were artists, and the famous men numbered among them included Wilkie, Wilson, and Roubiliac. But the most pathetic figure associated with its history is that of Abraham De Moivre, that French mathematician who became the friend of Newton and Leibnite. Notwithstanding his wonderful abilities he was driven to support himself by the meagre pittances earned by teaching and by solving problems in chess at Slaughter's. In his last days sight and hearing both failed, and he finally died of somnolence, twenty hours' sleep becoming habitual with him. By the time of De Moivre's death, or shortly after, the character of the frequenters of Slaughter's underwent a change, for when Goldsmith alluded to the house in 1758 it was to make the remark that if a man were passionate "he may vent his rage among the old orators at Slaughter's Coffee-house, and damn the nation, because it keeps him from starving."

Politics and literature were the topics most under discussion at the Smyrna coffee-house which had its location on the north side of Pall Mall. It makes its appearance in an early number of the Tatler, where reference is made to "that cluster of wise heads" that might be found "sitting every evening from the left hand side of the fire, at the Smyrna, to the door." Five months later Steele entered into fuller particulars.

"This is to give notice," he wrote, "to all ingenious gentlemen in and about the cities of London and Westminster, who have a mind to be instructed in the noble sciences of music, poetry, and politics, that they repair to the Smyrna coffee-house in Pall-mall, betwixt the hours of eight and ten at night, where they may be instructed gratis, with elaborate essays, by word of mouth on all or any of the above-mentioned arts. The disciples are to prepare their bodies with three dishes of bohea, and purge their brains with two pinches of snuff. If any young student gives indication of parts, by listening attentively, or asking a pertinent question, one of the professors shall distinguish him, by taking snuff out of his box in the presence of the whole audience." And the further direction is given that "the seat of learning is now removed from the corner of the chimney on the left towards the window, to the round table in the middle of the floor over against the fire; a revolution much lamented by the porters and chairmen, who were much edified through a pane of glass that remained broken all last summer."

That Steele and Addison knew their Smyrna well may be inferred from their familiar references to the house, and there are equal proofs that Swift and Prior were often within its doors. The Journal to Stella has many references to visits from the poet and the satirist, such as, "The evening was fair, and I walked a little in the Park till Prior made me go with him to the Smyrna Coffee-house, where I sat a while, and saw four or five Irish persons, who are very handsome, genteel fellows, but I know not their names." From Prior's pen there is an allusion to be found in the manuscripts of the Marquis of Bath in a letter the poet addressed to Lord Harley from London in the winter of 1719. Prior was lying low on that visit to town, for the main purpose of his presence was medicinal. "I have only seen Brown, the surgeon," he writes, "to whom, I have made an _auricular confession_, and from him have received _extreme unction_, and applied it, which may soften the obduracy of my ear, and make it capable of receiving the impression of ten thousand lies which will be poured into it as soon as I shall take my seat at the Smyrna."

Two other figures not unknown to fame haunt the shades of the Smyrna, Beau Nash and Thomson of the "Seasons." It is Goldsmith who tells of the first that he used to idle for a day at a time in the window of the Smyrna to receive a bow from the Prince of Wales or the Duchess of Marlborough as they drove by; and of the second is it not on record that he in person took subscriptions at the Smyrna for the "Four Seasons?"

In the Cocoa-Tree Club of to-day may be found the direct representative of the most famous Tory chocolate-house of the reign of Queen Anne. It had its headquarters first in Pall Mall, but removed not long after to St. James's Street, the Mecca of clubland at the present time. Perhaps the best picture of the house and its ways is that given by Gibbon, who in his journal for November 24th, 1762, wrote: "I dined at the Cocoa-Tree with ------, who, under a great appearance of oddity, conceals more real humour, good sense, and even knowledge, than half those who laugh at him. We went thence to the play, the 'Spanish Friar,' and when it was over, retired to the Cocoa-Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English; twenty, or perhaps thirty, of the first men in the kingdom in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin in the middle of a coffee room, upon a bit of cold meat or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch. At present we are full of King's Councillors and Lords of the Bedchamber, who, having jumped into the ministry, make a very singular medley of their old principles and language with their modern one." It is easy to infer from Gibbon's account, what was a fact, that by his time the house had been turned into a club, the use of which was restricted to members, as at the present time. The change was made before 1746, when the Cocoa-Tree was the rendezvous of the Jacobites. One of the most curious features of the present premises is a carved palm-tree which is thrust up through the centre of the front rooms on the first and second floors. What its age is no one knows, nor who was responsible for the freak of botanical knowledge implied by utilizing a palm-tree as symbolical of cocoa.

Soon after the transformation of the house into a club it became notorious for the high play which went on under the shadow of the palm-tree. Walpole, for example, tells the story of a gamble between an Irish gamester named O'Birne and a young midshipman named Harvey who had just fallen heir to a large estate by his brother's death. The stake was for one hundred thousand pounds, and when O'Birne won he said, "You can never pay me." But the youth replied, "I can, my estate will sell for the debt." O'Birne, however, had some scruples left, so said he would be content with ten thousand pounds, and suggested another throw for the balance. This time Harvey won, and it would be interesting to know that the lesson had not been lost. But Walpole does not throw any light on that matter.

Another lively scene took place under the palm-tree of the Cocoa-Tree late in the eighteenth century. The principal figure on that occasion was Henry Bate, that militant editor of the Morning Post whose duel at the Adelphi has already been recorded. It seems that Mr. Bate, who, by the way, held holy orders, and eventually became a baronet under the name of Dudley, was at Vauxhall one evening with a party of ladies, when Fighting Fitzgerald and several companions met them and indulged in insults. An exchange of cards followed, and a meeting was arranged for the following morning at the Cocoa-Tree to settle details of the inevitable duel. Fitzgerald, however, was late, and by the time he arrived apologies had been tendered and accepted by Mr. Bate. When Fitzgerald arrived on the scene with a Captain Miles he insisted on a boxing-match with the supposed captain, who, he affirmed, had been among the assailants of the previous night. Mr. Bate objected, inasmuch as he did not recognize Mr. Miles, and moreover scouted the indignity of settling such a matter with fists. He was willing to decide the dispute with sword or pistol. Fitzgerald, however, roused Bate's ire by dubbing him a coward. After that it did not take many minutes to form a ring under the shade of the palm-tree, and in less than a quarter of an hour the "coward" had pulverized Captain Miles in an eminently satisfactory manner.

Earlier and more sedate references to the Cocoa-Tree are in existence, There is, for example, a letter from General William Stewart, of October 27th, 1716, addressed to the father of William Pitt, placing this incident on record: "The other night, at the Cocoa-Tree, I saw Colonel Pitt and your brother-in-law Chomeley. The former made me a grave bow without speaking, which example I followed. I suppose he is directed to take no notice of me." Nor should the lively episode placed to the credit of a spark of the town in 1726 be overlooked. "The last masquerade," says a letter of that period, "was fruitful of quarrels. Young Webb had quarrelled at the Cocoa-Tree with Oglethorp, and struck him with his cane; they say the quarrel was made up." But "Young Webb" was evidently spoiling that night for more adventures, for while still in his cups he went to the masquerade and, meeting a German who had a mask with a great nose, he asked him what he did with such an ornament, pulled it off and slapped his face. "He was carried out by six grenadiers," is the terse climax of the story.

Florio was, of course, a frequenter of the Cocoa-Tree. And that his manners there as elsewhere must have been familiar is illustrated by the fact that one of the waiters addressed an epistle to him in the following terms: "Sam, the waiter at the Cocoa-Tree, presents his compliments to the Prince of Wales." The rebuke was characteristic: "You see, Sam, this may be very well between you and me, but it would never do with the Norfolks and Arundels!"

Of course the house has its George Selwyn story. An American captain began it by asserting that in his country hot and cold springs were often found side by side, which was convenient, for fish could be caught in the one and boiled in the other in a few minutes. The story was received as belonging to the "tall" order, until Selwyn gravely accepted it as true, because at Auvergne he had met a similar experience, with the addition that there was a third spring which supplied parsley and butter for the sauce.

Just as the Tories were faithful to the Cocoa-Tree, so the Whigs were stout in their loyalty to the St. James's coffee-house nearby. This was the resort named by Steele as the origin of the political news served up in the Tatler, and it was favoured with many references in the Spectator of Addison, The latter gives an amusing account of a general shiftround of the servants of the house owing to the resignation of one of their number, and in a later paper, devoted to coffee-house speculations on the death of the King of France, he gives the place of honour to the Whig resort as providing the most reliable information. "That I might be as near the fountain-head as possible, I first of all called at St. James's, where I found the whole outward room in a buzz of politics. The speculations were but very indifferent towards the door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of theorists, who sat in the inner room, within the steams of the coffee-pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish monarchy disposed of, and all the line of Bourbon provided for in less than a quarter of an hour."

Politics, however, did not claim all the interest of the frequenters of the St. James's. Verdicts were passed upon the literary products of the day in much the same manner as at Button's, and it should not be forgotten that Goldsmith's "Retaliation" had its origin at a meeting at this house.

Old Palace Yard, Westminster

[Illustration: OLD PALACE YARD, WESTMINSTER]

To judge from their present-day dignified appearance, no one would imagine that the Old Palace and the New Palace Yards at Westminster ever tolerated such mundane things as coffee-houses and taverns within their precincts. The evidence of history, however, shows that at one time there were numerous establishments of both kinds situated under the shadow of Westminster Hall and the Abbey. A drawing not more than a century old shows several such buildings, and the records of the city enumerate public houses of the sign of the Coach and Horses, and the Royal Oak, and the White Rose as being situated in the Old Palace Yard, while the coffee-houses there included Waghorne's and Oliver's. Nor was it different with New Palace Yard. In the latter were to be found Miles's coffee-house and the Turk's Head, both associated with James Harrington, that early republican whose "Oceana" got him into so much trouble. One story credits Cromwell with having seized the manuscript of that work, and with its restoration having been effected by Elizabeth Clay-pole, the favourite daughter of the Protector, whom Harrington is said to have playfully threatened with the theft of her child if her father did not restore his. The author of "Oceana" seems to have thought the occasion of Cromwell's death a favourable one for the discussion of his political theories, and hence the Rota club he founded, which used to meet at Miles's. Aubrey gives a vivid account of the room at the coffee-house where the club met, with its "large oval-table, with a passage in the middle for Miles to deliver his coffee. About it sat his disciples and the virtuosi. Here we had (very formally) a ballotting box, and ballotted how things should be carried by way of Tentamens. The room was every evening full as it could be crammed." But when it became obvious that the Restoration would soon be an accomplished fact the meetings at Miles's came to a sudden end. And shortly after, Harrington was committed to the Tower to meditate upon ideal commonwealths amid less congenial surroundings.

Westminster Hall itself had a coffee-house at the beginning of the last century. It was named Alice's, presumably after the proprietor, and was on one occasion the scene of a neat version of the confidence trick. The coffee-house was used almost entirely by barristers engaged in the different courts of law then held in Westminster Hall, and they availed themselves of the house for robing before going to the courts, and as the storeroom of their wigs and gowns when the business of the day was ended. Armed with this knowledge, a needy individual by the name of William Lill applied to the waiter at Alice's, and made a request for a Mr. Clarke's gown and wig, saying that he had been sent by a well-known lawyers' wig-maker and dresser. It happened, however, that Mr. Clarke's clerk had a little before fetched away the wig and gown Mr. Lill was so anxious to receive. But when the waiter imparted that information he did not lose his self-possession. He also wanted, he said, Mr. Ellison's wig and gown. Taken with the man's knowledge of the barrister's names, the waiter not only handed over the wig and gown, but also informed the obliging Mr. Lill that when Mr. Ellison was last in court he had left his professional coat and waistcoat at the coffee-house; perhaps Mr. Lill would take those too. Mr. Lill readily obliged, and disappeared. Later in the day the waiter's wits began to work. Being, too, in the neighbourhood of the wig-maker's shop, it occurred to him to drop in. There he learnt that no Mr. Lill had been sent for any wigs or gowns. The alarmed waiter next proceeded to Mr. Ellison's office, to learn there that no messenger had been sent to Alice's. At this stage the waiter, as he subsequently confessed, had no doubt but that Mr. Lill was "an impostor." Mr. Lill was more. He was courageous. Having secured his prey so simply on the one day, he came back on another, trusting, no doubt, that his waiter friend would be as obliging as before. But it was not to be; a few questions confirmed the waiter's suspicions that Mr. Lill really was "an impostor;" and a police-officer finished the story. One feels rather sorry for Mr. Lill. Of course it was wrong of him to annex those wigs and gowns, and sell them for theatrical "properties," but it is impossible not to admire the pluck of a man who stole from a lawyer in the precincts of a lawcourt. Alice's deserves immortality if only for having been the scene of that unique exploit.

By far the most curious of the coffee-houses of old London was that known as Don Saltero's at Chelsea. There was nothing of the don really about the proprietor, whose unadorned name was James Salter. The prefix and the affix were bestowed by one of his customers, Vice-Admiral Munden, who, having cruised much upon the coast of Spain, acquired a weakness for Spanish titles, and bestowed a variant of one on the Chelsea coffee-house keeper.

That same Mr. Salter was an odd character. Not content with serving dishes of coffee, nor with drawing people's teeth and cutting their hair, he indulged in attempts at fiddle-playing and set up a museum in his house.

Don Salteros Coffee House

[Illustration: DON SALTERO'S COFFEE-HOUSE.]

Steele's description of a visit to this manysided resort is by far the best picture of its owner and its contents. "When I came into the coffee-house," he wrote, "I had not time to salute the company, before my eye was diverted by ten thousand gimcracks round the room, and on the ceiling. When my first astonishment was over, comes to me a sage of thin and meagre countenance; which, aspect made me doubt, whether reading or fretting had made it so philosophic: but I very soon perceived him to be of that sect which the ancients call Gingivistc; in our language, tooth-drawers. I immediately had a respect for the man; for these practical philosophers go upon a very rational hypothesis, not to cure, but to take away the part affected." And then follows that delightful dissertation which linked Mr. Salter in the line of succession with the barber of Don Quixote. But Steele could not forgive the Chelsea barber and coffee-house keeper one thing. "I cannot allow the liberty he takes of imposing several names (without my license) on the collections he has made, to the abuse of the good people of England; one of which is particularly calculated to deceive religious persons, to the great scandal of the well-disposed, and may introduce heterodox opinions. He shews you a straw hat, which I know to be made by Madge Peskad, within three miles of Bedford; and tells you, 'It is Pontius Pilate's wife's chambermaid's sister's hat.' To my knowledge of this very hat it may be added, that the covering of straw was never used among the Jews, since it was demanded of them to make bricks without it."

Don Saltero had a poetic catalogue of his curiosities, of which one verse ran:

"Monsters of all sorts here are seen,
Strange things in nature as they grew so;
Some relics of the Sheba Queen,
And fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe."

These treasures, however, could not avert the fate which was due to befall the house on January 8th, 1799, when the lease of the building and all within were disposed of by public sale. A philosophic journalist, not possessing Steele's sense of humour, gravely remarked of the Don's gimcracks that they, with kindred collections, helped to cherish the infancy of science, and deserved to be appreciated as the playthings of a boy after he is arrived at maturity. Happily the Don himself did not survive to see his precious treasures fetch less than ten shillings a-piece.



And Last updated on: Wednesday, 21-Mar-2018 20:42:54 GMT