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Coffee Houses - a history

Coffee Houses around St Pauls

If there was a certain incongruity in the physicians having their special coffee-house in the heart of the city, there was none in clerics affecting the St. Paul's coffee-house under the shadow of the cathedral of that name. This being the chief church of the metropolis, notwithstanding the greater historic importance of Westminster Abbey, it naturally became the religious centre of London so far as clergymen were concerned. But the frequenters of this house were of a mixed type. That historian of Batson's who was quoted in the previous chapter, related that after leaving its dismal vicinity he was glad to "breathe the pure air in St. Paul's coffee-house," but he was obliged to add that as he entertained the highest veneration for the clergy he could not "contemplate the magnificence of the cathedral without reflecting on the abject condition of those 'tatter'd crapes,' who are said to ply here for an occasional burial or sermon, with the same regularity as the happier drudges who salute us with the cry of 'coach, sir,' or 'chair, your honour.'" Somewhat late in the eighteenth century St. Paul's coffee-house had a distinguished visitor in the person of Benjamin Franklin, who here made the acquaintance of Richard Price, that philosophical dissenting divine whose pamphlet on American affairs is said to have had no inconsiderable part in determining Americans to declare their independence. The fact that Dr. Price frequented the St. Paul's coffee-house is sufficient proof that its clients were not restricted to clergymen of the established church.

More miscellaneous was the patronage of Child's, another resort in St. Paul's Church-yard. It is sometimes described as having been a clerical house like the St. Paul's, and one reference in the Spectator gives some support to that view. The writer told how a friend of his from the country had expressed astonishment at seeing London so crowded with doctors of divinity, necessitating the explanation that not all the persons in scarfs were of that dignity, for, this authority on London life continued, "a young divine, after his first degree in the university, usually comes hither only to show himself; and on that occasion, is apt to think he is but half equipped with a gown and cassock for his public appearance, if he hath not the additional ornament of a scarf of the first magnitude to entitle him to the appellation of Doctor from his landlady and the boy at' Child's." There is another allusion to the house in the Spectator. "Sometimes I"--the writer is Addison--"smoke a pipe at Child's, and while I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman, overhear the conversation of every table in the room." Apart from such decided lay patrons as Addison, Child's could also claim a large constituency among the medical and learned men of the day.

Notwithstanding its ecclesiastical name, the Chapter coffee-house in Paul's Alley was not a clerical resort. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had come to be recognized as the rendezvous of publishers and booksellers. "The conversation here," to appeal to the Connoisseur once more, "naturally turns upon the newest publications; but their criticisms are somewhat singular. When they say a good book, they do not mean to praise the style or sentiment, but the quick and extensive sale of it. That book in the phrase of the Conger is best, which sells most; and if the demand for Quarles should be greater than for Pope, he would have the highest place on the rubric-post. There are also many parts of every work liable to their remarks, which fall not within the notice of less accurate observers. A few nights ago I saw one of these gentlemen take up a sermon, and after seeming to peruse it for some time with great attention, he declared that 'it was very good English.' The reader will judge whether I was most surprised or diverted, when I discovered that he was not commending the purity and elegance of the diction, but the beauty of the type; which, it seems, is known among printers by that appellation. We must not, however, think the members of the Conger strangers to the deeper parts of literature; for as carpenters, smiths, masons, and all mechanics, smell of the trade they labour at, booksellers take a peculiar turn from their connexions with books and authors."

Could the writer of that gentle satire have looked forward about a quarter of a century he would have had knowledge on which to have based a greater eulogy of the Congers. It should be explained perhaps that Conger was the name of a club of booksellers founded in 1715 for co-operation in the issuing of expensive works. Booklovers of the present generation may often wonder at the portly folios of bygone generations, and marvel especially that they could have been produced at a profit when readers were so comparatively few. Many of those folios owed their existence to the scheme adopted by the members of the Conger, a scheme whereby several publishers shared in the production of a costly work.

Such a sharing of expense and profit was entered into at that meeting at the Chapter coffee-house which led to Dr. Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets." The London booksellers of that time were alarmed at the invasion of what they called their literary property by a Scottish publisher who had presumed to bring out an edition of the English poets. To counteract this move from Edinburgh the decision was reached to print "an elegant and accurate edition of ail the English poets of reputation, from Chaucer down to the present time." The details were thoroughly debated at the Chapter coffee-house, and a deputation was appointed to wait upon Dr. Johnson, to secure his services in editing the series. Johnson accepted the task, "seemed exceedingly pleased" that it had been offered him, and agreed to carry it through for a fee of two hundred pounds. His moderation astonished Malone; "had he asked one thousand, or even fifteen hundred guineas, the booksellers, who knew the value of his name, would doubtless have readily given it."

But writers of books as well as makers and sellers of books could be found on occasion within the portals of the Chapter coffee-house. Two memories of Goldsmith, neither of them pleasant, are associated with the house. One is concerned with his acceptance of an invitation to dinner here with Charles Lloyd, who, at the end of the meal, walked off and left his guest to pay the bill. The other incident introduces the vicious William Kenrick, that hack-writer who slandered Goldsmith without cause on so many occasions, Shortly after the publication of one of his libels in the press, Kenrick was met by Goldsmith accidentally in the Chapter and made to admit that he had lied. But no sooner had the poet left the house than the cowardly retractor began his abuse again to the company at large.

Chatterton, too, frequented the house in his brief days of London life. "I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffee-House," he wrote his mother, "and know all the geniuses there." And five years later there is this picture of the democratic character of the resort from the shocked pen of one who had been attracted thither by the report of its large library and select company: "Here I saw a specimen of English freedom. A whitesmith in his apron and some of his saws under his arm came in, sat down, and called for his glass of punch and the paper, both which he used with as much ease as a lord. Such a man in Ireland and, I suppose, in France too, and almost any other country, would, not have shown himself with his hat on, nor any way, unless sent for by some gentleman."

Perhaps the most interesting association of the Chapter coffee-house was that destined to come to it when its race was nearly run. On a July evening in 1548 the waiter was somewhat startled at the appearance of two simply-dressed, slight and timid-looking ladies seeking accommodation. Women guests were not common at the Chapter. But these two were strangers to London; they had never before visited the great city; and the only hostelry they knew was the Chapter they had heard their father speak about. So it was to the Chapter that Charlotte and Anne Bronté went when they visited London to clear up a difficulty with their publishers, Smith and Elder. Mrs. Gaskell describes the house as it was in those July days. "It had the appearance of a dwelling-house two hundred years old or so, such as one sometimes sees in ancient country towns; the ceilings of the small rooms were low, and had heavy beams running across them; the walls were wainscoted breast-high; the stairs were shallow, broad, and dark, taking up much space in the centre of the house. The gray-haired elderly man who officiated as waiter seems to have been touched from the very first by the quiet simplicity of the two ladies, and he tried to make them feel comfortable and at home in the long, low, dingy room upstairs. The high, narrow windows looked into the gloomy Row; the sisters, clinging together in the most remote window-seat (as Mr. Smith tells me he found them when he came that Saturday evening), could see nothing of motion or of change in the grim, dark houses opposite, so near and close, although the whole breadth of the Row was between." If it were only for the sake of those startled sisters from the desolate Yorkshire moors one could wish that the Chapter coffee-house were still standing. But it is not. Nor are there any vestiges remaining of the St. Paul's or Child's.

Nor will the pilgrim fare better in the adjacent thoroughfare of Ludgate Hill. Not far down that highway could once be found the London coffee-house, which Benjamin Franklin frequented, and where that informal club for philosophical discussions of which Dr. Priestly was the chairman held its social meetings. The London continued in repute among American visitors for many years. When Charles Robert Leslie, the artist, reached London in 1811 intent on prosecuting his art studies, he tells how he stopped for a few days "at the London Coffee-house on Ludgate Hill, with Mr. Inskeep and other Americans."

Further west, in the yard of that Belle Sauvage inn described in an earlier chapter, there existed in 1730 a coffee-house known as Wills', but of which nothing gave one somewhat pathetic incident is on record. The memory of this incident is preserved among the manuscripts of the Duke of Portland in the form of two letters to the Earl of Oxford. The first letter is anonymous. It was written to the earl on February 8th, 1730, in the interests of William Oldisworth, that unfortunate miscellaneous writer whose adherence to the Stuart cause helped, along with a liking for tavern-life, to mar his career. This anonymous correspondent had learnt that Oldisworth was in a starving condition, out of clothes likewise, and labouring under many infirmities. "Though no man has deserved better of his country, yet is none more forgot." The letter also hinted at the fact that Oldisworth would not complain, nor suffer any one to do that office for him. But the writer was wise enough to enclose the address of the man in whose behalf he made so adroit an appeal, that address being Wills' coffee-house in the Belle Sauvage yard.

Edward Harley, that Earl of Oxford who preferred above all things to surround himself with poets and men of letters, and whose generosity helped to bring about his financial ruin, was not the man to ignore a letter of that kind. Some assistance was speedily on its way to Will's coffee-house, for on February 2lst Oldisworth was penning an epistle which was to "wait in all humility on your Lordship to return you my best thanks for the late kind and generous favour you conferred on me." He sent the earl an ancient manuscript as token of his gratitude, explained that he was ignorant of the one who had written in his behalf, and for the rest was determined to keep his present station, low as it was, with content and resignation. The inference is that Will's coffee-house was but a lowly and inexpensive abode and hence it is not surprising that it makes so small a showing in the annals of old London.

At the western end of Fleet Street the passer-by cannot fail to be attracted by the picturesque, timbered house which faces Chancery Lane. This unique survival of the past, which has been carefully restored within recent years, has often been described as "Formerly the Palace of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey." Another legend is that the room on the first floor was the council-chamber of the Duchy of Cornwall under Henry, the eldest son of James I. More credible is the statement that Nando's coffee-house was once kept under this roof. In the days when he was a briefless barrister, Thurlow was a frequent visitor here, attracted, it is said, as were so many more of the legal fraternity, by the dual merits of the punch and the physical charms of the landlady's daughter. Miss Humphries was, as a punster put it, "always admired at the bar by the bar." The future Lord Chancellor had no cause to regret his patronage of Nando's. So convincingly did he one day prove his skill in argument that a stranger present bestirred himself, and successfully, to have the young advocate retained in a famous law case of the time, an apppointment which led to Thurlow's becoming acquainted with the Duchess of Queensbury, with after important results.

During those stirring days when the "Wilkes and Liberty" riots caused such intense excitement in London, one worthy merchant of the city found Nando's a valuable place of refuge. Arrangements had been made for a body of merchants and tradesmen of the city to wait on George III at St. James's with a loyal address and as token of their sympathy with the position assumed by that obstinate monarch. But on the night before handbills had been scattered broadcast desiring all true and loyal subjects to meet on the following day and form a procession towards the city, taking particular care "not to interfere with the Merchants going to St. James's" The handbill had the desired effect. The cavalcade of merchants was scattered in confusion long before it reached Temple-bar, and isolated members of the party, few in number, did their best to reach the royal palace' by roundabout ways. Even so they were a sorry spectacle. For the other loyal subjects of the king had liberally bespattered them with mud. Nor was this the most disconcerting feature of their situation. Having reached the presence of their sovereign it was certainly annoying that they could not present the address which had brought them into all this trouble. But the fact was the address was missing. It had been committed to the care of a Mr. Boehm, and he was not present. As a matter of fact Mr. Boehm had fled for refuge to Nando's coffee-house, leaving the precious address under the seat of his coach. The rioters were not aware of that fact, and it seems that the document was eventually recovered, after his Majesty had been "kept waiting till past five."

There is a fitness in the fact that as Thurlow's name is linked with Nando's coffee-house so Cowper's memory is associated with the adjacent establishment known as Dick's. The poet and the lawyer had been fellow clerks in a solicitor's office, had spent their time in "giggling and making giggle" with the daughters of Cowper's uncle, and been boon friends in many ways. The future poet foretold the fame of his friend, and extorted a playful promise that when he was Lord Chancellor he would provide for his fellow clerk. The prophecy came true, but the promise was forgotten. Thurlow did not even deign to notice the poetical address of his old companion, nor did he acknowledge the receipt of his first volume of verse. "Be great," the indignant poet wrote--

"Be great, be fear'd, be envied, be admired;
To fame as lasting as the earth pretend,
But not hereafter to the name of friend!"

For Thurlow the ungrateful, Nando's was associated with his first step up the 'ladder of success; for Cowper, Dick's was the scene of an agony that he remembered to his dying day. For it was while he was at breakfast in this coffee-house that he was seized with one of his painful delusions. A letter he read in a paper he interpreted as a satire on himself, and he threw the paper down and rushed from the room with a resolve either to find some house in which to die or some ditch where he could poison himself unseen.

Reference has already been made to the Rainbow as one of the famous taverns of Fleet Street, and also to the fact that it was a coffee-house ere it became a tavern. But somehow it was as a coffee-house that it was usually regarded. It is so described in 1679, in 1708, in 1710, and in 1736. Under the earliest date it appears as playing a part in the astounding story of Titus Gates. One of the victims of that unrivalled perjurer was Sir Philip Lloyd, whom Oates declared had "in a sort of bravery presented himself in the Rainbow coffee-house, and declared he did not believe any kind of plot against the King's person, notwithstanding what any had said to the contrary." This was sufficient to arouse the enmity of the wily Oates, who had the knight haled before the council and closely examined. Sir Philip explained that he had only said he knew of no other than a fantastic plot, but, as a contemporary letter puts it, "Oates had got ready four shrewd coffee-drinkers, then present, who swore the matter point blank." So the perjurer won again, and Sir Philip was suspended during the king's pleasure as the outcome of his Rainbow coffee-house speech.

But there is a pleasanter memory with which to bid this famous resort farewell. It is enshrined in a letter of the early eighteenth century, wishing that the recipient might, if he could find a leisure evening, drop into the Rainbow, where he would meet several friends of the writer in the habit of frequenting that house, gentlemen of great worth and whom it would be a pleasure to know.


And Last updated on: Wednesday, 21-Mar-2018 00:28:31 GMT