Victorian London - Food and Drink - Coffee Houses / Coffee Rooms - Character of

COFFEE, &c., IN LONDON. The best cup of coffee to be had in London is at the Cigar Divan, 102, Strand. You pay 1s. to enter the Divan, which will entitle you to a cup of coffee and cigar, and the privileges of the room, the newspapers, chess, &c. Coffee may be had good at Verrey's, corner of Hanover-street, Regent-street, at 6d. a cup ; and still better at Croom's, 16, Fleet-street, for only 3d. (Ask for a small cup.) For ices, go to Gunter's in Berkeley-square, and Granges in Piccadilly, over against Bond-street, and for cool drinks to Sainsbury's, 177, Strand. The best buns are to be had at Birch's, 15, Cornhill, and at Caldwell's, 42, Strand.

COFFEE HOUSES. The first coffee-house in London was established in 1657, in St. Michael's-alley, Cornhill, near the present Jamaica and Madeira Coffee-house; the second was established by a person named Farr, at the Rainbow, 15, Fleet-street, now the Rainbow Tavern.

 Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

  There was early coffee to be got about Covent-garden Market, and that was more company - warm company, too, which was better. Toast of a very substantial quality, was likewise procurable: though the towzled-headed man who made it, in an inner chamber within the coffee-room, hadn't got his coat on yet, and was so heavy with sleep that in every interval of toast and coffee he went off anew behind the partition into complicated cross-roads of choke and snore, and lost his way directly. Into one of these establishments (among the earliest) near Bow-street, there came one morning as I sat over my houseless cup, pondering where to go next, a man in a high and long snuff-coloured coat, and shoes, and, to the best of my belief, nothing else but a hat, who took out of his hat a large cold meat pudding; a meat pudding so large that it was a very tight fit, and brought the lining of the hat out with it. This mysterious man was known by his pudding, for on his entering, the man of sleep brought him a pint of hot tea, a small loaf, and a large knife and fork and plate. Left to himself in his box, he stood the pudding on the bare table, and, instead of cutting it, stabbed it, overhand, with the knife, like a mortal enemy; then took the knife out, wiped it on his sleeve, tore the pudding asunder with his fingers, and ate it all up. The remembrance of this man with the pudding remains with me as the remembrance of the most spectral person my houselessness encountered. Twice only was I in that establishment, and twice I saw him stalk in (as I should say, just out of bed, and presently going back to bed), take out his pudding, stab his pudding, wipe the dagger, and eat his pudding all up. He was a man whose figure promised cadaverousness, but who had an excessively red face, though shaped like a horse's. On the second occasion of my seeing him, he said huskily to the man of sleep, "Am I red to-night? "You are, he uncompromisingly answered. "My mother, said the spectre, "was a redfaced woman that liked drink, and I looked at her hard when she laid in her coffin, and I took the complexion. Somehow, the pudding seemed an unwholesome pudding after that, and I put myself in its way no more.

Charles Dickens, Night Walks (article from All the Year Round), 1860

What is chiefly remarkable in these popular resorts is their Protean variety and their wonderful adaptation to the circumstances of the neighbourhood. While some are handsomeley furnished saloons, where French café is served in china, where the customers smoke cigars and play critically at chess, first dropping a shilling for admission, others are little better than mere barns, where you see the navvy and the hodman importing their own provisions, and paying their one penny for a pint of the liquid, which, so that it be stingingly hot, satisfies them well. In some districts you find the coffee-house a single room, and that but thinly frequented; in others you shall remark that it overflows several floors of the house, threatening even the attics. In the neighbourhoods of large industrial establishments, you find them usurping all the available premises and driving other tradesmen aways; and if you enter of thsese at any of the intervals between working hours, you shall see an interesting spectacle. Pushing open the door, which turns noiselessly on its hingers, you are at once in the presence of two or three hundred of the hard-working ranks, all as quiet ast least as a class of young school-mates in the presence of the master, and all eating, drinking, reading, or sleeping, in an atmosphere which, be it winter or summer - for the season makes little difference - would send the thermometer up to eighty or beyond. Coffee, hot and hot, of an honest piquant brewst - for the workmen won't stand any trifling in this respect - is served at a penny the cup, or three half-pence the pint; while two thick slices of bread anad butter go to the penny, and eggs, rashers of bacon, chops, kidneys and cold beef and ham are dispensed, when called for, at rates proportionately reasonable. At the same time, while the outer man is fed thus cheaply, the mind is regaled still more cheaply, as every man who is awake has soom publication or other, or  at least a portion of one in his hand, and is devouring the news of the day - the last cruel murder, the last prize fight, the coming content for the belt, the exciting romance, the comic story, or the jokes from "Punch." Few of the readers have a whole publication, unless it be an old one - the subdivision of the newspapers and periodicals into sections of four pages being dound more economical by the proprietor, who is thus enabled to restrict his outlay in the literary department.

Leisure Hour, 1863

[NB. Timbs gives a long list of cofee-shops, but many are pre-Victorian and no longer exist at time of his writing; the following seem to have survived into Victoria's reign, but the book does not really make this clear in every case, ed.]

BAKER'S COFFEE-HOUSE, 1, Change-alley, Lombard-street, was originally for the sale of coffee, but has been for nearly half a century noted for its chops and steaks, broiled in the coffee-room, and eaten hot from the gridiron.

BALTIC COFFEE-HOUSE, 58 Threadneedle-street, is the rendevous of merchants and brokers connected with the Russian trade, or that in tallow, oil , hemp and seeds. The supply of news to the subscription-room is, with the exception of the chief London, Liverpool and Hull papers, confined to that from the north of Europe and the tallow-producing countries on the South American coast. In the upper part of the Baltic Coffee-house is the auction sale-room for tallow, oils, &c.


GEORGE'S COFFEE HOUSE (now a hotel), 213 Strand, near Essex-street, is mentioned by Foote in his Life of A..Murphy, as an evening meeting-place of the town wits of 1751. Shenstone was a frequenter of George's, where, for a shilling subscription he read "all pamphlets under a three shilling's dimension." It was closed in 1843.


GARRAWAY'S COFFEE HOUSE, 3 Change-alley, Cornhill ... burnt in the fire in Cornhill in 1748; and again rebuilt, and finally closed August 18, 1866. The basement, used as wine vaults, was ancient, of fourteenth and sixteenth century architecture, of ecclesiastical character, and had a piscina.

GRAY'S INN COFFEE-HOUSE, eastern corner of Gray's-inn Gate Holborn: here was formerly held the Commissions De Luncatico inquirendo. It was closed in 1865.


JAMAICA COFFEE-HOUSE, 1 St. Michael's-alley, Cornhill, is noted for the accuracy and fulness of its West India intelligence. The subscribers are merchants trading with Madeira and the West Indies. It is the best place for information as to the mail-packets on the West India station, or the merchant vessels making these voyages.

JERUSALEM COFFEE-HOUSE, 1, Cowper's-court, Cornhill, is one of the oldest of the City news-rooms, and is frequented by merchants and captains connected with the commerce of China, India and Australia:
    "The subscription room is well furnished with files of the principal Canton, Hong Kong, Macao, Penang, Singapore, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Sydney, Hobart Town, Launceston, Adelaide and Port Philip papers, and Prices Current; besides shipping-lists and papers from the various intermediate stations or ports touched at, as St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, &c. The books of East India shipping include arrivals, departures, casualties, &c. The full business is between two and three o'clock P.M. In 1845, John Tawell, the Slough murderer, was captured at the Jerusalem, which he was in the habit of visiting, to ascertain information of the state of his property in Sydney." The City, 2nd edit., 1848.


LANGBOURN COFFEE-HOUSE, Ball-alley, Lombard-street, rebuilt in 1850, has a broiling-stove in the coffee-room, whence chops and steaks are served hot from the gridiron; and here is a wine and cigar room, embellished in handsome old French taste.


There are in the metropolis about 1000 Coffee-shops or Coffee-rooms; the establishment of the majority of which may be traced to the cheapening of coffee and sugar, and to the increase of newspapers and periodicals. About the year 1815, the London Coffee-shops did not amount to 20, and there was scarcely a Coffee-house where coffee could be had under 6d. a cup; it may now be had at Coffee-shops at from 1d. to 3d. Some of these shops have from 700 to 1600 customers daily; 40 copies of the daily newspapers are taken in, besides provincial and foreign papers, and magazines. Cooked meat is also to be had at Coffee-shops, at one of which three cwt. of ham and beef are sometimes sold weekly.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867



Q. What is a Coffee-Shop?
The opprobrium of the London thoroughfares.
Q. May I ask you to particularise a little?
It is difficult in a few words to define so curious a combination of many nastinesses as the London Coffee-Shop. It can only be described, and that in considerable detail.
Q. Is it not, as its name implies, a shop for the sale of Coffee?
That would, in most cases, be an imperfect and misleading definition. Firstly, because most Coffee-Shops sell other things than Coffee. Secondly, and most importantly, because most Coffee- Shops do not sell Coffee at all.
Q. But does not this singular carrying out of the lucus a non lucendo principle lead to difficulties with would-be customers?
Not at all.
Q. How, then, do the keepers of Coffee-Houses avoid such difficulties?
By substituting various dirty and dismal decoctions whtch they vend under the name of the genuine produce of Mocha.
Q. How are these decoctions composed?
Of ingredients as numerous, and often as unpleasant, as the constituents of the Witches' broth in Macbeth, among the more innocent of which are chicory, horse-beans, and fig-refuse.
Q. By what devices are these decoctions rendered palatable to the purchaser?
They are not rendered palatable at all. On the contrary, the muddy and tepid draught from the clumsy and unclean Coffee-House cup is as unpleasant to all the senses as can well be imagined.
Q. Are, then, the Coffee-Shops of London little used?
On the contrary, they are largely patronised by the lower and even the middle classes. The Coffee-House is, indeed, in many eases the restaurant of poor respectability, and to no small extent the home of such persons as labourers, cabmen, and the poorer grades of shopmen and clerks.
Q. What appearance do these curiously-conducted shops present?
Externally they are generally characterised by a sort of surface smartness, so far as this can be produced by paint, French-polish, gold-lettering, and gleaming lamps. Internally they are almost invariably frowsy, foetid, and -fly-blown. Particularly the latter; the Coffee-House fly being an insect which, for plentifulness and pertinacity, surpasses even his fellows of the Butcher's or Confectioner's Shop.
Q. Will you describe the average Coffee-House interior a little more in detail?
In entering it, you probably plunge down an unseen and treacherous step, or steps, into a dingy, stall-divided, low-ceiling'd apartment, with an aspect of misty gloom, and an atmosphere of steamy unsavouriness. The "stalls," consisting of narrow tables and hard seats, are of wood, grimy mahogany, or grubby sham-oak, the whole confined, unclean, and dismally uncomfortable. If there be any cloth at all upon the table, it is invariably smutty and egg-stained into a sort of Whistlerian arrangement in soot and gamboge. Most commonly there is no cloth at all, but the grease-coated and coffee-ringed board is left bare to sight and to touch. The ceiling is low and smoke-darkened exceedingly; the walls are steamy, and decorated with hat-pegs and battered advertisements. The murky air of the apartment is resonant with a dull, yet fretful and irritating booming. It is the co-operative buzzing of myriads of flies, whose bodies, or whose traces are on and over everything, ceilings, walls, clumsy cups and saucers, the mysterious decoctions served therein, the coarse sugar in the shattered glass bowl, the dirty milk in the dirtier mug, the rickety cruet-stand, and the odd and fractured castors, the greasy bread-and-butter, and the equivocal egg.
Q. And what are the attendants upon the unhappy customer in this dreary den?
Commonly depressed men in shirt-sleeves and aprons, or blowsy and bare-armed women in caps or curl-papers, who have to be summoned from dim and mystic interiors, by rapping on the table with a "copper" or a cup-bottom.
Q. What about the edibles and potables sold in these places?
They are generally quite in keeping with the places and their appointments; that is to say, they are nasty without necessarily being cheap. The-so-called-Coffee I have already described. It is a dreadful draught, served up in dirty crockery, accompanied by huge slabs of brown-crusted bread smeared with a yellow deposit of oily butter. Tea, too, is forthcoming upon call,-a long-stewed, dingy-tinted potion of uncertain origin, flat as stale soda-water, nauseous as a sarsaparilla drench. Eggs which are musty, bacon which is rusty, steaks which are tough, and chops which are tainted, even sodden cuts from half-cooked joints, and wedges of flabby pastry, may be procured at the more pretentious Coffee-Houses, while at the humbler ones the sense is regaled with the strong savour of red-herrings and smoked haddocks.
Q. You say that certain classes of the community freely patronise these dismal houses of entertainment?
A. They are the only resource of persons who will not stoop to the Cookshop and cannot rise to the Restaurant or Hotel.
Q. Would not clean, comfortable, and fairly cheap Coffee-Houses be a boon to these multitudes? A. Assuredly.
Q. What the obstacles in the way of their establishment?
A. The same that militate against all improvements whatever - self-interest and stupidity; especially, in this case, the latter. Bright and cleanly Coffee-rooms, where people, seated in comfort, could obtain wholesome refreshment at reasonable rates, would brighten the daily lives of large sections of the public, plump the pockets of enterprising caterers, and be no inconsiderable auxiliaries the cause of Temperance.
Q. Have no efforts been made in this direction?
A. Yes; mostly ill-directed, and not generally successful.
Q. Why is this?
A. Mainly from want of sympathy and imagination.
Q. Are these commonly regarded as the qualities essential to success in so practical a matter?
A. No. They are generally looked upon, and laughed at, as mere poetical equipments. They are nevertheless prime necessities in dealing on a large scale with the wants of the poorer community.
Q. Will you explain your seemingly transcendental position?
A. It needs wide and intimate sympathy to realise the requirements of the great, varied but unvocal throng of what may be called the Hand-to-Mouth classes. It needs imagination and inventive enterprise to devise that which will meet at once their necessities and their tastes. Caterers for the convenience and the amusement of these classes, who possessed in the requisite degree these qualities would go far to transform Society. They would at least provide, what at present are nearly non-existent, places where common people could partake of common fare in common comfort, amidst surroundings which were commonly cheerful, and at rates which were commonly cheap.

Punch, August 19, 1882