Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Coffee-Houses of 18th Century London


Of Ward's Secret History of the Clubs of his time we have already given several specimens. Little is known of him personally. He was, probably, born in 1660, and early in life he visited the West Indies. Sometime before 1669, he kept a tavern and punch-house, next door to Gray's Inn, of which we shall speak hereafter. His works are now rarely to be met with. His doggrel secured him a place in the Dunciad, where not only his elevation to the pillory is mentioned, but the fact is also alluded to that his productions were extensively shipped to the Plantations or Colonies of those days,—

"Nor sail with Ward to ape-and-monkey climes,

Where vile mundungus trucks for viler rhymes,"

the only places, probably, where they were extensively read. In return for the doubtful celebrity thus conferred upon his rhymes, he attacked the satirist in a wretched production, intituled Apollo's Maggot in his Cups; his expiring effort, probably, for he died, as recorded in the pages of our first volume, on the 22nd of June, 1731. His remains were buried in the churchyard of Old St. Pancras, his body being followed to the grave solely by his wife and daughter, as directed by him in his poetical will, written some six years before. We learn from Noble that there are no less than four engraved portraits of Ned Ward. The structure of the London Spy, the only work of his that at present comes under our notice, is simple enough. The author is self-personified as a countryman, who, tired with his "tedious confinement to a country hutt," comes up to London; where he fortunately meets with a quondam school-fellow,—a "man about town," in modern phrase,—who undertakes to introduce him to the various scenes, sights, and mysteries of the, even then, "great metropolis:" much like the visit, in fact, from Jerry Hawthorn to Corinthian Tom, only anticipated by some hundred and twenty years. "We should not be at all surprised (says the Gentleman's Magazine,) to find that the stirring scenes of Pierce Egan's Life in London were first suggested by more homely pages of the London Spy."

At the outset of the work we have a description—not a very flattering one, certainly—of a common coffee-house of the day, one of the many hundreds with which London then teemed. Although coffee had been only known in England some fifty years, coffee-houses were already among the most favourite institutions of the land; though they had not as yet attained the political importance which they acquired in the days of the Tatler and Spectator, some ten or twelve years later:—

"'Come,' says my friend, 'let us step into this coffee-house here; as you are a stranger in the town, it will afford you some diversion.' Accordingly in we went, where a parcel of muddling muckworms were as busy as so many rats in an old cheese-loft; some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, some smoking, others jangling; and the whole room stinking of tobacco, like a Dutch scoot [schuyt], or a boatswain's cabin. The walls were hung round with gilt frames, as a farrier's shop with horse-shoes; which contained abundance of rarities, viz., Nectar and Ambrosia, May-dew, Golden Elixirs, Popular Pills, Liquid Snuff, Beautifying Waters, Dentifrices, Drops, and Lozenges; all as infallible as the Pope, 'Where every one (as the famous Saffolde has it) above the rest, Deservedly has gain'd the name of best:' every medicine being so catholic, it pretends to nothing less than universality. So that, had not my friend told me 'twas a coffee-house, I should have taken it for Quacks' Hall, or the parlour of some eminent mountebank. We each of us stuck in our mouths a pipe of sotweed, and now began to look about us."

A description of Man's Coffee-house, situate in Scotland-yard, near the water-side, is an excellent picture of a fashionable coffee-house of the day. It took its name from the proprietor, Alexander Man, and was sometimes known as Old Man's, or the Royal Coffee-house, to distinguish it from Young Man's and Little Man's minor establishments in the neighbourhood:—

"We now ascended a pair of stairs, which brought us into an old-fashioned room, where a gaudy crowd of odoriferous Tom-Essences were walking backwards and forwards with their hats in their hands, not daring to convert them to their intended use, lest it should put the foretops of their wigs into some disorder. We squeezed through till we got to the end of the room, where, at a small table, we sat down, and observed that it was as great a rarity to hear anybody call for a dish of Politician's porridge, or any other liquor, as it is to hear a beau call for a pipe of tobacco; their whole exercise being to charge and discharge their nostrils, and keep the curls of their periwigs in their proper order. The clashing of their snush-box lids, in opening and shutting, made more noise than their tongues. Bows and cringes of the newest mode were here exchanged, 'twixt friend and friend, with wonderful exactness. They made a humming like so many hornets in a country chimney, not with their talking, but with their whispering over their new Minuets and Bories, with their hands in their pockets, if only freed from their snush-box. We now began to be thoughtful of a pipe of tobacco; whereupon we ventured to call for some instruments of evaporation, which were accordingly brought us, but with such a kind of unwillingness, as if they would much rather have been rid of our company; for their tables were so very neat, and shined with rubbing, like the upper-leathers of an alderman's shoes, and as brown as the top of a country housewife's cupboard. The floor was as clean swept as a Sir Courtly's dining-room, which made us look round, to see if there were no orders hung up to impose the forfeiture of so much Mop-money upon any person that should spit out of the chimney-corner. Notwithstanding we wanted an example to encourage us in our porterly rudeness, we ordered them to light the wax-candle, by which we ignified our pipes and blew about our whiffs; at which several Sir Foplins drew their faces into as many peevish wrinkles, as the beaux at the Bow-street Coffee-house, near Covent-garden did, when the gentleman in masquerade came in amongst them, with his oyster-barrel muff and turnip-buttons, to ridicule their fopperies."

A cabinet picture of the Coffee-house life of a century and a half since is thus given in the well-known Journey through England in 1714: "I am lodged," says the tourist, "in the street called Pall Mall, the ordinary residence of all strangers, because of its vicinity to the Queen's Palace, the Park, the Parliament House, the Theatres, and the Chocolate and Coffee-houses, where the best company frequent. If you would know our manner of living, 'tis thus: we rise by nine, and those that frequent great men's levees, find entertainment at them till eleven, or, as in Holland, go to tea-tables; about twelve the beau monde assemble in several Coffee or Chocolate houses: the best of which are the Cocoa-tree and White's Chocolate-houses, St. James's, the Smyrna, Mrs. Rochford's, and the British Coffee-houses; and all these so near one another, that in less than an hour you see the company of them all. We are carried to these places in chairs (or sedans), which are here very cheap, a guinea a week, or a shilling per hour, and your chairmen serve you for porters to run on errands, as your gondoliers do at Venice.

"If it be fine weather, we take a turn into the Park till two, when we go to dinner; and if it be dirty, you are entertained at piquet or basset at White's, or you may talk politics at the Smyrna or St. James's. I must not forget to tell you that the parties have their different places, where, however, a stranger is always well received; but a Whig will no more go to the Cocoa-tree or Ozinda's, than a Tory will be seen at the Coffee-house, St. James's.

"The Scots go generally to the British, and a mixture of all sorts to the Smyrna. There are other little Coffee-houses much frequented in this neighbourhood,—Young Man's for officers, Old Man's for stock-jobbers, pay-masters, and courtiers, and Little Man's for sharpers. I never was so confounded in my life as when I entered into this last: I saw two or three tables full at faro, heard the box and dice rattling in the room above stairs, and was surrounded by a set of sharp faces, that I was afraid would have devoured me with their eyes. I was glad to drop two or three half crowns at faro to get off with a clear skin, and was overjoyed I so got rid of them.

"At two, we generally go to dinner; ordinaries are not so common here as abroad, yet the French have set up two or three good ones for the convenience of foreigners in Suffolk-street, where one is tolerably well served; but the general way here is to make a party at the Coffee-house to go to dine at the tavern, where we sit till six, when we go to the play; except you are invited to the table of some great man, which strangers are always courted to, and nobly entertained."

We may here group the leading Coffee-houses,[8] the principal of which will be more fully described hereafter:

"Before 1715, the number of Coffee-houses in London was reckoned at two thousand. Every profession, trade, class, party, had its favourite Coffee-house. The lawyers discussed law or literature, criticized the last new play, or retailed the freshest Westminster Hall "bite" at Nando's or the Grecian, both close on the purlieus of the Temple. Here the young bloods of the Inns-of-Court paraded their Indian gowns and lace caps of a morning, and swaggered in their lace coats and Mechlin ruffles at night, after the theatre. The Cits met to discuss the rise and fall of stocks, and to settle the rate of insurance, at Garraway's or Jonathan's; the parsons exchanged university gossip, or commented on Dr. Sacheverel's last sermon at Truby's or at Child's in St. Paul's Churchyard; the soldiers mustered to grumble over their grievances at Old or Young Man's, near Charing Cross; the St. James's and the Smyrna were the head-quarters of the Whig politicians, while the Tories frequented the Cocoa-tree or Ozinda's, all in St. James's-street; Scotchmen had their house of call at Forrest's, Frenchmen at Giles's or Old Slaughter's, in St. Martin's-lane; the gamesters shook their elbows in White's and the Chocolate-houses round Covent Garden; the virtuosi honoured the neighbourhood of Gresham College; and the leading wits gathered at Will's, Button's, or Tom's, in Great Russell-street, where after the theatre was playing at piquet and the best of conversation till midnight. At all these places, except a few of the most aristocratic Coffee or Chocolate-houses of the West-End, smoking was allowed. A penny was laid down at the bar on entering, and the price of a dish of tea or coffee seems to have been two-pence: this charge covered newspapers and lights. The established frequenters of the house had their regular seats, and special attention from the fair lady at the bar, and the tea or coffee boys.

"To these Coffee-houses men of all classes, who had either leisure or money, resorted to spend both; and in them, politics, play, scandal, criticism, and business, went on hand-in-hand. The transition from Coffee-house to Club was easy. Thus Tom's, a Coffee-house till 1764, in that year, by a guinea subscription, among nearly seven hundred of the nobility, foreign ministers, gentry, and geniuses of the age, became the place of meeting for the subscribers exclusively.[9] In the same way, White's and the Cocoa-tree changed their character from Chocolate-house to Club. When once a house had customers enough of standing and good repute, and acquainted with each other, it was quite worth while—considering the characters who, on the strength of assurance, tolerable manners, and a laced coat, often got a footing in these houses while they continued open to the public, to purchase power of excluding all but subscribers."

Thus, the chief places of resort were at this period Coffee and Chocolate-houses, in which some men almost lived, as they do at the present day, at their Clubs. Whoever wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not where he resided, but which coffee-house he frequented. No decently attired idler was excluded, provided he laid down his penny at the bar; but this he could seldom do without struggling through the crowd of beaux who fluttered round the lovely bar-maid. Here the proud nobleman or country squire was not to be distinguished from the genteel thief and daring highwayman. "Pray, sir," says Aimwell to Gibbet, in Farquhar's Beaux Stratagem, "ha'n't I seen your face at Will's Coffee-house?" The robber's reply is: "Yes, Sir, and at White's too."

Three of Addison's papers in the Spectator, (Nos. 402, 481, and 568,) are humorously descriptive of the Coffee-houses of this period. No. 403 opens with the remark that "the courts of two countries do not so much differ from one another, as the Court and the City, in their peculiar ways of life and conversation. In short, the inhabitants of St. James's, notwithstanding they live under the same laws, and speak the same language, are a distinct people from those of Cheapside, who are likewise removed from those of the Temple on the one side, and those of Smithfield on the other, by several climates and degrees in their way of thinking and conversing together." For this reason, the author takes a ramble through London and Westminster, to gather the opinions of his ingenious countrymen upon a current report of the King of France's death. "I know the faces of all the principal politicians within the bills of mortality; and as every Coffee-house has some particular statesman belonging to it, who is the mouth of the street where he lives, I always take care to place myself near him, in order to know his judgment on the present posture of affairs. And, as I foresaw, the above report would produce a new face of things in Europe, and many curious speculations in our British Coffee-houses, I was very desirous to learn the thoughts of our most eminent politicians on that occasion.

"That I might begin as near the fountain-head as possible, I first of all called in 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 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 Bourbons provided for in less than a quarter of an hour.

"I afterwards called in at Giles's, where I saw a board of French gentlemen sitting upon the life and death of their grand monarque. Those among them who had espoused the Whig interest very positively affirmed that he had departed this life about a week since, and therefore, proceeded without any further delay to the release of their friends in the galleys, and to their own re-establishment; but, finding they could not agree among themselves, I proceeded on my intended progress.

"Upon my arrival at Jenny Man's I saw an alert young fellow that cocked his hat upon a friend of his, who entered just at the same time with myself, and accosted him after the following manner: 'Well, Jack, the old prig is dead at last. Sharp's the word. Now or never, boy. Up to the walls of Paris, directly;' with several other deep reflections of the same nature.

"I met with very little variation in the politics between Charing Cross and Covent Garden. And, upon my going into Will's, I found their discourse was gone off, from the death of the French King, to that of Monsieur Boileau, Racine, Corneille, and several other poets, whom they regretted on this occasion as persons who would have obliged the world with very noble elegies on the death of so great a prince, and so eminent a patron of learning.

"At a Coffee-house near the Temple, I found a couple of young gentlemen engaged very smartly in a dispute on the succession to the Spanish monarchy. One of them seemed to have been retained as advocate for the Duke of Anjou, the other for his Imperial Majesty. They were both for regarding the title to that kingdom by the statute laws of England: but finding them going out of my depth, I pressed forward to Paul's Churchyard, where I listened with great attention to a learned man, who gave the company an account of the deplorable state of France during the minority of the deceased King.

"I then turned on my right hand into Fish-street, where the chief politician of that quarter, upon hearing the news, (after having taken a pipe of tobacco, and ruminated for some time,) 'If,' says he, 'the King of France is certainly dead, we shall have plenty of mackerel this season: our fishery will not be disturbed by privateers, as it has been for these ten years past.' He afterwards considered how the death of this great man would affect our pilchards, and by several other remarks infused a general joy into his whole audience.

"I afterwards entered a by-coffee-house that stood at the upper end of a narrow lane, where I met with a conjuror, engaged very warmly with a laceman who was the great support of a neighbouring conventicle. The matter in debate was whether the late French King was most like Augustus C├Žsar, or Nero. The controversy was carried on with great heat on both sides, and as each of them looked upon me very frequently during the course of their debate, I was under some apprehension that they would appeal to me, and therefore laid down my penny at the bar, and made the best of my way to Cheapside.

"I here gazed upon the signs for some time before I found one to my purpose. The first object I met in the coffee-room was a person who expressed a great grief for the death of the French King; but upon his explaining himself, I found his sorrow did not arise from the loss of the monarch, but for his having sold out of the Bank about three days before he heard the news of it. Upon which a haberdasher, who was the oracle of the Coffee-house, and had his circle of admirers about him, called several to witness that he had declared his opinion, above a week before, that the French King was certainly dead; to which he added, that, considering the late advices we had received from France, it was impossible that it could be otherwise. As he was laying these together, and debating to his hearers with great authority, there came a gentleman from Garraway's, who told us that there were several letters from France just come in, with advice that the King was in good health, and was gone out a hunting the very morning the post came away; upon which the haberdasher stole off his hat that hung upon a wooden peg by him, and retired to his shop with great confusion. This intelligence put a stop to my travels, which I had prosecuted with so much satisfaction; not being a little pleased to hear so many different opinions upon so great an event, and to observe how naturally, upon such a piece of news, every one is apt to consider it to his particular interest and advantage."

[8] From the National Review, No. 8.

[9] We question whether the Coffee-house general business was entirely given up immediately after the transition.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. II
London, 1866