Now places to obtain a machiatto, ristretto, leche y leche, dopio, chai latte or mochaccino (and other equally wonderful names encountered when one wishes to buy a coffee), the modern coffee house is just that: a house where one buys a coffee. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was much more.
‘The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink.
First publiquely made and sold in England, by Pasqua Rosée. THE Grain or Berry called Coffee, groweth upon little Trees, only in the Deserts of Arabia.’
(From a handbill published in 1652 to promote the launch of Pasqua Rosée’s coffeehouse telling people how to drink coffee and hailing it as the miracle cure for just about every ailment under the sun … It is held in the British Museum.)
‘A coffee-house the learned hold,
It is a place where coffee’s sold;
This derivation cannot fail us,
For where ale’s vended, that’s an alehouse.’
From The Early History of Coffee Houses in England by Edward Forbes Robinson (1893)
The history of the coffee house is a very rich one and makes fascinating reading. Try http://www.buildinghistory.org/primary/inns/coffee-houses.shtml, http://web.archive.org/web/20030213111215/http://home.att.net/~waeshael/coffee.htm and, of course, Wikipedia to learn more about them.
The connection of such coffee houses to the history of the School lies merely in their use as providers of meeting rooms before the School buildings were large enough to provide a suitable meeting space within. The earliest Minute Book records that the meetings of the Committee establishing the school took place in The Oxford Coffee House, in the Strand. They also used the Thatched House Tavern in St James, St Albans Tavern, in Pall Mall, and the Free Mason’s [sic] Tavern.
On 14th October 1788 (i.e. nearly 3 months before any pupils started at the School), a meeting was convened at the Thatched House Tavern. This was run by a man called William Almack who had been profitable in business and erected ‘the large assembly-rooms in King Street, St. James’s, by which he is chiefly known.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Almack) Opened in 1765, the inaugural reception was attended by the Duke of Cumberland who was, a couple of decades later, to be the Patron of the School. However, there had clearly been an inn in this area and carrying the same name for some considerable time, the name probably deriving from its appearance. Jonathan Swift in Journal to Stella (1711) writes of ‘having entertained our society at dinner at the Thatched House Tavern.’ The area in which it stood began to become more important when the Court of St James was sited here. As a result, what had started as an alehouse began to attract a different clientele, ‘had grown into a recognized rendezvous of wits, politicians, and men of fashion’ (Wikipedia) and had developed into one of the most important taverns of the area, making it a likely proposition for Almack to build some assembly rooms attached to it. ‘… Pall Mall and the immediate neighbourhood of St. James’s have been for a century the headquarters of those London clubs which have succeeded to the fashionable coffee-houses, and are frequented by the upper ranks of society …’ (1) (www.british-history.ac.uk.)
(Exterior image from http://researchingfoodhistory.blogspot.co.uk; Interior image from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Interior-Thatched-Tavern-Jamess-Street/dp/B00G362EIQ)
There is some confusion about what happened to the tavern. One source indicates that it was pulled down in 1814 and another states that it was demolished in 1843 to make way for the Conservative Club. If this were the case – and there is disagreement about dates so there is an element of doubt – then it existed at 74 St James St.
Wherever it was, the Thatched House Tavern was clearly in existence in 1788 as the next meeting for the Committee also took place there. Later in the same month (30th October 1788) they met at the Oxford Coffee House, Strand. This may simply have been from expediency as a few months’ later, the Thatched House was their meeting place again. However for the remaining meetings of 1788 and until a meeting in March 1789, the Oxford was the venue they used mostly. John Feltham’s The Picture of London for 1809 stated that the Oxford and Cambridge Coffee House in the Strand was ‘frequented by gentlemen belonging to the theatres and Somerset place.’ (https://books.google.co.uk/books) Coffee houses became associated with different groups of people: the literati favouring different ones from businessmen, for example. ‘As might be expected, Whigs and Tories patronised different coffee-houses, the Whigs choosing the St. James’ http://web.archive.org/web/20060619105023/http://home.att.net/~waeshael/coffee.htm The most famous example of a coffeehouse giving rise to particular group is the one run by Edward Lloyd in Tower Street in 1688, then in Lombard Street near to the Exchange, which gave rise to the Institution now known simply as Lloyd’s of London.
The Committee meetings were convened several times in 1788 and 1789 at the Oxford coffeehouse in the Strand but it has been difficult to pin down any information about it other than the passing reference in Feltham’s book. It is possible that it traded under a different name and was simply known as the Oxford coffeehouse. It may well have been the British Coffeehouse at which a meeting was convened to form the Oxford and Cambridge Club in 1830 for those graduates of the Universities who were in London, or it may have been a coffeehouse that had begun in Oxford itself and then migrated to London. Wherever and whatever it was, meetings were held there and here such decisions were made as to the names of the first candidates as pupils and the appointment of the first Matron.
At the same time as Committee meetings were being held in the Oxford coffeehouse in the Strand, we also have the first mentions of St Alban’s Tavern in connection with the School. It was from here on 5th January 1789 that ‘many of the Governors met … and went in procession from the Treasurer’s House with the Children clothed in the dress of the Institution to the School where they (Children) were delivered in the Care of the Matron.’
After the children were ‘delivered’, the gentlemen returned to the tavern to dine. Of the tavern itself, there is little information although it did give its name to a political group who met there and ‘who aimed to bring about a reconciliation of William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox in a unified Ministry. They were named after the St. Alban’s Tavern where the members met from January 1784.’ (Wikipedia) Another group that met there was the St Albans Medical Club, a London dining club which met until 1797. (http://archives.wellcome.ac.uk/) The Tavern had been named for the place it was situated but the street was demolished to create Regent St (although there is still a St Albans Street, it is not the original one). The ‘old’ St Albans Street ‘was described by Strype in 1720 as ‘handsome [and] well built’, and ran from the north side of Pall Mall up to the market place.’ (2) (www.british-history.ac.uk.)
The regular meetings continued to vary in venue between the Oxford, St Albans and a third place – the Free Mason’s Tavern. At the meeting on 30th April 1789, ‘The Secretary read a Letter which he had received from Mr White the Grand Secretary, purporting that the Hall Committee had Granted the Use of a Room in the Free Mason’s Tavern for the Meetings of this Institution during the time the Tavern may be untenanted.’ The Minute Book ends shortly after this entry so it is not clear whether the meetings continued to be peripatetic or whether they moved to the Free Mason’s Tavern until 1795. In June of that year – and it is indeed the only way we know when the School had moved to its second, larger and purpose-built site – other Minutes record that the meeting was at the new Schoolhouse in St George’s Fields. (Image from http://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/freemasons-tavern)
In 1774, the premises of the Free Mason’s Tavern were occupied for a short time by Mary Robinson. Her own account says: ‘On our return to London after ten days’ absence, a house was hired in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was a large, old-fashioned mansion, and stood on the spot where the Freemasons’ Tavern has since been erected.’(3) (www.british-history.ac.uk.) The tavern was built in 1786 by William Tyler so one presumes that its being untenanted was due to its newness rather than any other cause. But the fact that it was in Great Queen Street will ring bells with those associated with the School. Not only is it where Grand Lodge is to be found but it is also the home of the organisation that formerly supported the School (1788-1978).
Quite amazing the history behind such simple statements as where meetings were held! Time for refreshment, methinks. Mine’s a regular cappuccino please.
- Edward Walford, ‘Pall Mall; Clubland’, in Old and New London: Volume 4 (London, 1878), pp. 140-164 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol4/pp140-164 [accessed 19 February 2016].)
- ‘St. James’s Fair, St. James’s Market and Surrounding Streets’, in Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1960), pp. 215-222 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp215-222 [accessed 17 February 2016]
- ‘Freemasons’ Hall’, in Survey of London: Volume 5, St Giles-in-The-Fields, Pt II, ed. W Edward Riley and Laurence Gomme (London, 1914), pp. 59-83 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol5/pt2/pp59-83 [accessed 19 February 2016].