Victorian London - Food and Drink - Night Houses and Supper Rooms - Song-and-Supper Rooms


ARE pleasant places of general resort, having for their object the promotion of social harmony and relief of domestic ennui. On entering the rooms, the first impression is that some one has been smoking therein; which supposition is found to be correct as soon as the smokers are discovered through the surrounding clouds. The chief productions of these spots are comic songs, kidneys, glees, and roast potatoes; and the comestibles derive additional goût from the period employed in cooking them, which averages as follows, dating from the moment of giving the order:-
    For two poached eggs - Twenty minutes
    Two broiled kidneys - Half-an-hour
    A chop of steak - Forty-five minutes
and so on in proportion.
    It is generally advisable to catch your stout flying as it goes round the room supported by two waiters - a tin and a human one; and goes of gin, whiskey or brandy, may be captured in the same manner; but a quick eye and sure aim is necessary. 
    Payment is tendered at the door as you go out, with the exception of cigars which are settled for on delivery, the proprietors having found the ostensible consumption of these luxuries frequently ended in smoke. It  is somewhat singular that the amount of damage never comes to even be money, but always leaves some change to be received which can never be found in any of the waiters' pockets. Instances are recorded of a singular mental delusion existing among some of the visitors upon taxing their memories with what they have had, when they have called a grilled fowl "a welch-rabbit" and several glasses of grog "a pint of stout".

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1842

Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 55 - Manners and Customs of Ye Englyshe in 1849 No.1 

A Cydere Cellar Duryng A Comyck Songe

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1849

Any gentleman who approves of the converse of the venerable principle "No song no supper," will do well to look in some evening at this above of Supper and of Song. Any gentleman, observe, because blackguards, if known, are not admitted; and the fair sex, as in the House of Commons, are excluded from the floor of the house, although there is no ground of objection to the presence of ladies in the gallery.     . . . its interior has undergone a process of very elegant decoration - architecture, painting, carving, gilding, and MR. FINCH HILL, having conspired to produce a banqueting hall worthy of the palace of KING COLE. The walls of a certain ancient city were built at the sound of a lyre, to what air we do not know, but that to which those of the apartment in question have been adorned and beautified is, we believe, the tune of five thousand pounds.    . . . the entrance to this musical refectory is effected by a descent from the western extremity of the Piazza, Covent Garden, and is gratuitous. If you want simply supper, or supper with conversation, you had better seat yourself, alone or with your companions, at one of the little round marble tables, near the door, where you will hear the singing mellowed by distance, which will also mellow your discourse, so as to prevent it from annoying the listeners and putting the singers out.
    But, music as well as refreshment being your object, you take a higher position, and get as near as you like, or can, to the performers; who stand on a raised platform, whereupon they emerge from the centre of a curtained door, in what answers to the backflat of a theatre. A civil waiter is immediately at your side, and politely inquires what refreshment you desire? Your order is obeyed with expedition; in a few moments your kidneys, your sausage, your poached eggs, your chop, your steak, your baked potatoes, or your toasted cheese, are smoking before you. Or you are smoking yourself, having accept a cigar at the hands of HERR VON JOEL.
    . . . 
    To the speedy and diligent execution of your order, your assiduous waiter adds the careful attention of placing before you a book of the songs, which are numbered; and the number of each song about to be sung is given out, according to the practice customary in other congregations.
    Your ears are then regaled, perhaps, with a good old madrigal or glee - perhaps with a good modern song or chorus, or with both, from a favourite opera - perhaps with a sentimental ballad - perhaps with a comic song. You may be enraptured by a selection from Euryanthe, or you may be transported with the AEthiopian serenaders.  .
     . . Anybody wanting to hear a little good music, sup, and get to bed betimes, will be precisely suited at this place.  Singing commences at eight. Any country curate, now, or indeed, rector, being in  town under those circumstances, would find it just answer his purpose. . . . A resort where unobjectionable amusement is provided for the youthful bachelor - the student of law - of medicine - nay, of divinity - offers an attraction in the right direction which is powerful to counteract a tendency to the wrong; and a glass of grog, with the accompaniment of good singing, may have a moral value superior to that of a teetotal harangue and a cup of Twankay.

Punch, June 21, 1856

Saturday, 17 March. Went into Evans's on my way home & supped there, in a hubbub of nigger howlings, such as are in vogue in these times. I went, not so much for the supper, however, as to try and dispose of a song of mine, 'My Mother-in-law'. In this I was of course unsuccessful; but it gave me an opportunity of observing a kind of man whom one chiefly knows through Thackeray. The comic singer, to whom I addressed myself read through the song in a businesslike manner, praised it, but remarked that he was 'full of matter' for the next two months, and added, apologising for his professional language, that the 'tag' was not strong enough. 'You see Sir,' said he, 'I look to have something at the end that I can rely on to raise a laugh: now there's that song of mine "The Temptations of S. Anthony" (I wrote it myself, I generally write my songs); the audience keep looking for a hit, and at the last it comes, & then they burst out, and I make my bow and go off with a round of applause. That's what we chiefly look to - a good tag. And then there's the mildly virtuous style, like that song about Opinions, you heard me sing just now: I take care to put 'em in a good humour at the end, by saying "I hope we shan't quarrel, though we differ in opinion;" and then they feel pleased and applaud, and away I go - don't you see Sir? Oh, we have to consider all these things, I assure you,' said the man, with a grave businesslike civility. So there is a philosophy of comic singing, also. . .  so to the parson his sermon, to the painter his picture, to the musician his oratorio, is half 'tag' and business, and only those who know nothing of the machinery can purely enjoy the result. The poet, thank goodness, can scarcely as such be professional. This being so, it would seem better to choose some occupation, such as law for instance, which cannot possibly have any real value or interest. .. . Yet here again one thinks, why waste so much of life on that which is both distasteful in itself, and deadening to those very tastes which we seek to cherish by its aid? . . .  My 'comic' friend suggested that I should apply to certain 'niggers', who had just bowed themselves off the stage through that magnificent portal with the gilded cornices and the twelve-foot mirrors. Accordingly, stooping through a low door and half creeping under the stage, I found a wretched dingy stair, leading to the miserable den into which that gilded portal opened. In this den were two or three men with blackened faces, taking off their shabby nigger costume. The bare floor was littered with old 'properties', and scraps, and slops of beer; and the plaster walls were scrawled over with chalks and smeared with candle smoke. This was the apartment out of which those elegant persons in evening dress had emerged to sing and play. The niggers at once said that they sang only songs of their own making: but they said it most civilly and courteously, and I left them with a feeling of pathetic sympathy that was worth coming for. . . 

Arthur Munby, Diary, 1860

The most popular places of resort for such young men as kept late hours were, however, the supper-and-singing taverns, which were always respectably conducted, though in my early days there was an element of ribaldry in the amusement provided which was afterwards suppressed. The best known of these were the Coal Hole, the Cider Cellars, and Evans's. The Coal Hole was in a court out of the Strand, near the Cigar Divan, Fountain Court I think it is called. It has long since been appropriated to other purposes, and is now the Occidental Tavern. The landlord was one John Rhodes, a burly fellow with a bass voice, who sat at the head of the singers' table and joined in the glees, which were sung without instrumental accompaniment. From my recollection of Rhodes and his room, I imagine that he was Hoskins, the landlord of the Cave of Harmony, where Costigan sang the outrageous song which caused Colonel Newcome to rate the company. It is certain that "little Nadab, the improvisatore," of whom Thackeray speaks, was a certain Mr. Sloman, who called himself "the only English improvisatore, who used to sing at the Coal Hole, and the outpourings of whose improvisations were remarkably like the specimens given in Tke Newcomes. Only, in my time at least, the singing at the Coal Hole was confined to professionals, and no visitor would have been allowed to volunteer a song, as did the Colonel. The celebrities of the place were Rhodes himself; a young fellow called Cave - the first, I believe, to introduce to England the American banjo as an accompaniment for the voice; and a dreadful old creature called Joe Wells, who used to sing most disgusting ditties. The Coal Hole never had the reputation or the position of either of its rivals, and was the first to succumb to the alteration in public taste.
    The Cider Cellars, next to the stage-door of the Adelphi in Maiden Lane, now converted into a Jewish synagogue, had deservedly a far wider renown. It was described, under its own name, by Albert Smith in the Medical Student and Mr. Ledbury, and was the prototype of the Back Kitchen, immortalised in Pendennis. Thus Thackeray chronicles its company: "Healthy country tradesmen and farmers in London for their business came and recreated themselves with the jolly singing and suppers of the Back Kitchen; squads of young apprentices and assistants - the shutters being closed over the scene of their labours - came hither, for fresh air doubtless; rakish young medical students, gallant, dashing, what is called loudly dressed, and, must it be owned? somewhat dirty, came here, smoking and drinking and vigorously applauding the songs; young University bucks were to be found here too, with that indescribable simper which is only learned at the knees of Alma Mater; and handsome young guardsmen, and florid bucks from the St. James's Street clubs; nay, senators - English and Irish - and even members of the House of Peers." Thackeray goes on to say that all these sorts and conditions of men assembled to hear a bass singer named Hodgen, who had made an immense hit with his song of the "Body-snatcher." The singer from whom Hodgen was drawn was a man named Ross, and the song which he sang and which had the enormous success which Thackeray describes was called "Sam Hall," the chant of a murderous chimney-sweep of that name just before his execution. It was a good bit of realistic acting : the man, made up with a ghastly face, delivered it sitting across a chair, and there was a horrible anathematizing refrain. The effect produced was tremendous, and for months and months, at the hour when it was known that "Sam Hall" would be sung, there was no standing-place in the Cider Cellars. When I first knew the place its landlord was William Rhodes, brother of the Coal Hole proprietor; but he died before the "Sam Hall" mania, and the person who profited by that was his widow, a clever managing woman, who conducted the general business with great success. The entertainment provided was of the same class as at the Coal Hole: in the early days I remember a comic singer named Pennikeft, another named Labern; later on, a man named Moody, who sang well and gave excellent imitations.
    But of all these places the most celebrated, undoubtedly, in -,its time, and the most likely to be remembered hereafter, was Evans's, at the western corner of the Covent Garden Piazza, under the building which was then an hotel and is now the New Club. This room, as well as the Coal Hole, has figured as the "Cave of Harmony" in Thackeray's writings; to it little Grigg conducts Mr. Spec - "So we went through the Piazza, and down the steps of that well-remembered place of conviviality "- in the course of their "night's pleasure," and there they encounter Bardolph of Brasenose. "Evans's late Joy's" was the unintentionally punning inscription on the lamp when I first knew it; but even then Evans had departed, and the presiding spirit was John, better known as "Paddy," Green - a worthy fellow, who had been a chorus-singer at the Adelphi, and whose courtesy and good temper won him vast popularity. For the first few years of my acquaintance with it the concert-room was small and low-pitched, with a bit added on at right angles at its extreme end. But even then it had a good reputation for music. John Binge the tenor, S. A. Jones the basso, the host himself, were well known as singers; Herr von Joel- a queer old German, who sang jodling ditties, played tunes on what he called a "vokingshteeck," and gave capital imitations of the birds and beasts of a farmyard-was a great attraction while the comic element, as supplied by Sharp and Sam Cowell, was unapproachable elsewhere. No man in my recollection, as a broadly comic vocalist, has been such a favourite as was J. W. Sharp: at Vauxhall and Cremorne in the summer, at public dinners in the winter, and at Evans's always, he was fully employed. But he fell into bad ways, took to drinking, lost his engagements, and was finally found dead from starvation on a country road. Cowell was an actor as well as a singer, and had a certain amount of success on the stage.
    It was in this small room that Bardolph of Brasenose signalled his desire for more drink by whack-whacking with the pewter noggin, and that Thackeray heard the sentimental and the piratical ballad which he parodied so deliciously. After a time a change took place in the style of entertainment: all ribald songs - and often Evans's had been quite as profane as its rivals - were stopped for ever,, and the choruses were sung by trained young lads, whose sweet fresh voices were heard with charming effect in the old glees and madrigals. The little room was too small for the audience; it was pulled down, and a vast concert-room built on its site, with a stage where the singers stood, and an annexe - a comfortable kind of hall, hung with theatrical portraits, etc - where conversation could be carried on, and it was by no means necessary to listen to the music.
    The public thronged to the concert-room-there was a private supper-room in the gallery, looking down on the hail through a grille, where ladies could hear the songs and could see without being seen - and the annexe became, and continued for several years, a popular resort for men-about-town. Thackeray was constantly there; Serjeant Murphy, Serjeant Ballantine, Jerrold, Lionel Lawson; sometimes Sala, Hannay, and some of the younger men; Albert and Arthur Smith, fresh from the "Show "; Horace Mayhew, very occasionally Leech. Chops and potatoes - never to be equalled - were the ordinary supper; as Mrs. Prig says, "the drinks was all good ;" and some of the smartest talk in London was to be heard at Evans's about the years '53 to '60, when the old night clubs had ceased to be, and the present ones had not been thought of. Through concert-room and annexe Paddy Green wandered, snuff-box in hand, God-blessing his "dear boys" - i.e., every one to whom he spoke - and getting more and more maudlin as the night wore on. He prospered for many years and ought to have made a fortune; but he did not, and the introduction of music-halls, where women formed the larger portion of the audience, was the signal for his downfall.
    A favourite resort for young men was "Gliddon's Divan," next door to Evans's, a tobacconist's with a large smoking-room attached, kept by one Tom Kilpack, a quiet little man who, in those days, sold a very decent cigar for 3d. An American bowling alley was afterwards established here.
    One other place of public entertainment, though neither singing nor supper house, must be mentioned here. The Garrick's Head was a large tavern in Bow Street, facing Covent Garden Theatre; its landlord was one Renton Nicholson, a clever, versatile, wholly unprincipled fellow, who had been connected with the turf, connected with the stage, had owned and edited an atrociously blackguard weekly journal called The Town, and at the Garrick's Head had instituted a new kind of dramatic performance, in which he played the principal character. The entertainment was called "The Judge and Jury Society," and was a parody on the proceedings in those law-courts where actions of a certain character were tried ; was presided over by Nicholson himself as the Lord Chief Justice, in full wig and gown; the case being argued out by persons dressed as, and in some instances giving also imitations of, leading barristers, and the witnesses being actors of more or less versatility and mimetic ability. The whole affair was Written and arranged by Nicholson, who deported himself on the bench with the most solemn gravity, the contrast between which and his invariable speech on taking his seat- "Usher! get me a cigar and a little brandy-and-water" - was the signal for the first laugh. The entertainment was undoubtedly clever, but was so full of grossness and indecency, expressed and implied, as to render it wholly disgusting. In the window of the tavern was a large painting representing the mock trial, with Nicholson on the bench, and all the celebrities of the day ranged round the room : underneath this picture was a set of verses, supposed to have been written in honour of the place by Tom Moore, and beginning, as I recollect:
    "O, where can you better enjoy your late glasses
    Than under that fane, where the genius of wit
    Illumines each grain of our sand as it passes?" etc.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London, 'The Cave of Harmony' - click here

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London, 'The Cyder Cellars' - click here

see also George Sala in Twice Round the Clock - click here

  In the palmy days of Paddy Green, Evan's provided perhaps the only tavern where a weary sojourner might sit in peace and realise that he was surrounded by comfort and tone. Hovering near the door was the genial old proprietor, with white hair and rubicund face, a smile for every one, and capable of passing anywhere for a chairman of directors at least. Around the walls were the priceless oil painting belonging to the Garrick, desposited temporarily after the fire that made havoc with that historical building; whilst covering the entire floor were tables where the best (and the best only) of chops, steaks, mealy potatoes, and welsh rabbits, with wines of heaven knows what age, beer and spirits were procurable.
    Nor must the old establishment be confounded with the modern fungus that continued its name under the pilotage of an enterprising Jew, and eventually got closed by the police for developing into an ordinary night house.
    To see a genuine English waiter crumble a huge potato with a spotless napkin creates a pang when one thinks of his German and Italian prototype asking "'Ow many breads you have?" and on being told "one," looking as if he could swear you had had two. 
    And no accounts were discharged at the time - sit, as one might, from 10 to 2am, and eat and drink variously, and as often as one pleased - all the reckoning was one's own as one imparted it on leaving to the most courteous of butlers at the door.
    And then the stage, what compartment is possible between the healthy singing of glees and solos one then heard and the elephantine wit of the modern serio-comic? And poor old Van Joel, who, as the programme explained, was retained on accout of past services, retailing cigars in the hall and obtaining fancy prices for "Auld Lang Syne" - how a lump comes into one's knotty, hoary old throat a the recollections of these long-agos!
    Monotonous as all this may well sound to the modern up-to-date sightseer, there was homeliness and an indescribable delight assocated with Evan's that surely the recording angel will not fail to remember when he sums up the sins of the sixties. 

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908