Victorian London - Food and Drink - Coffee Houses / Coffee Rooms - Garraway's



CHANGE ALLEY, which leads, by a short but rather devious and intricate route, from Lombard Street to Cornhill, has a history of its own, which, if it could be faithfully chronicled, would record some most extraordinary instances of human industry, activity, enterprise, and prosperity, on the one hand and of dishonesty, treachery, and delusion on the other. So far back as two hundred years ago, this confined and central spot was the nucleus of the financial transactions and of the rising commerce of England. It owed in a great measure its popularity among men of business to the conveniences it offered them in the three great coffee-houses, Robins's, Jonathan's, and Garway's, where the then new and luxurious beverages of coffee and tea were always at hand for refreshment, and where private subscription- rooms were set apart for consultation and the transaction of affairs. Of these three coffee-houses, Robins's was the resort of the foreign speculators, merchants, bankers, and money- changers ; Jonathan's was the retreat of the stock-brokers, and closed, like the Stock Exchange of the present day, against non-subscribers ; and Garways, since called, for what reason does not appear, Garraway's, was the rendezvous of numbers of the upper classes, whom Mr. Garway was the first person in England to regale with tea, then a most expensive luxury.
     Thomas Garway was by profession a tobacconist ; but being an enterprising man, he added the fragrant Chinese leaf to his stock in trade, and became the first tea-dealer that London ever saw. Before his time, tea had been sold at the price of six to ten guineas a pound by the importers, who made a mystery of their transactions. and sold it only by stealth as a great favour. He was the first shopkeeper who offered it to the general pdublic, and he not only sold it by weight at from sixteen to fifty shillings a pound, but dispensed it largely in the shape of an infusion under the name of "tea drink," to the company who frequented his coffee-house to drink it. His shop-bill, which has come down to us, informs us that "very many noblemen, physicians, merchants, and gentlemen of quality" resorted to his house for that purpose, and that he was in the habit of supplying them with the leaf for their private use.
    It is likely that Thomas Garway had vanished from the world long; before Change Alley became the central focus of the great Mississippi delusion; at any rate, by that time "Garway's" had been changed, in popular parlance, into "Garraway's," and the coffee-house had grown into a degree of importance it had not assumed before, and was the resort of a legion of infatuated speculators, all hoping and expecting to become suddenly rich by Law's captivating scheme.
    In Ward's celebrated picture, which the reader may see among the Vernon collection in Marlborough House, the scene which the Change Alley of that day presented is characteristically portrayed, and in a most masterly style. The place, although since materially altered, is not so much changed but that the locality may be still recognised. Among those who rushed in flocks to pluck the fruit of the golden tree which was destined to change into bitter ashes, was the celebrated Dr. Radcliffe, who invested five thousand pounds in the bubble, and lost it all consoling himself With the remark, that it was but mounting so many pairs of stairs, and he should recover his capital again. A good story, the scene of which is Garraway's coffee-house, is told of that dry humourist. A certain Dr. Hannes, a pretentious physician pushing for a practice, had instructed his footman to inquire everywhere for Dr. Hannes, in order to spread the notion that he, the doctor, was in immense request. The man performed his part to admiration stopping every fine carriage that he met, and inquiring anxiously whether it contained Dr. Hannes then rushing into taverns and assembly-rooms, and shouting his name as though life and death depended on finding him. One day the fellow burst into Garraway's upper room, where Dr. Radcliffe was sitting, and shouted as usual for Dr. Hannes. "Who wants him?" asked Radcliffe.
    "My lords So-and-so, and So-and-so, and So- and-so," said the man. " No, no, my good fellow," said Radcliffe, " you are mistaken : it is Hannes who wants those lords."
    Thus much must suffice at present for reminiscences of the early days of Master Garway's coffee-house, and the notable and ever-memorable Change Alley in which it is situated. We have neither space nor inclination to ferret out and record all the changes which Garraway's has undergone, from the days when "The Spectator " was a struggling periodical to the present time. When it first began to flourish as an auction-mart for the sale of substantial properties, we are not precisely aware. It stands on record, however, in the "Tatler," that auctions were part of its business, and that French wines were knocked down there at the price of £20 a hogshead, or about six shillings a gallon - a state of things which, for the sake of the temperance cause, we should be glad to see revived in our own day.
    On approaching Garraway's in this present year of ours, 1856, with a view to a glance at what is going forward now, we find Change Alley a comparatively cool, quiet, and secluded spot, retired from the hum of the multitude and the din of wheels. Garraway's stands yet where it has stood so long, at one of the many corners which characterise the tortuous series of avenues of which the old Alley forms a part ; but it is no longer a coffee-house in the old and literal sense. The house itself is remarkably unpretentious in aspect, approaching to the dingy, and would cut no figure at all were it not that, on the day we visit it, its exterior has been converted into an al-fresco picture-gallery, and covered to the height of some ten feet with landscapes, dog-pieces, and portraits, of a very humble order of merit, exposed for sale by a wandering artist, who takes up his rest, when he is weary, at any hospitable nook which, like the sheltered corner of Garraway's, offers the opportunity for an exhibition of his wares.
    The eastern front of the building exhibits a gallery of a different kind, consisting of a quire or two at least of placards in bold type, advertising to that portion of mankind who have money to invest, the sales which will take place within for a month to come. The property to be disposed of comprises lands, tenements, freeholds, leaseholds and copy-holds, reversions, annuities, bonds, timber felled and felled, and various other items more or less substantial and speculative. Several of the sales, we remark, are appointed to take place on the same day, and one, consisting of a London suburban estate of houses at a pepper-corn-rent for four-score years, is about to commence in a few minutes. The money-making faces begin to defile past us as we stand conning the announcements, and already we hear the tramp of feet gathering in the room above.
    We enter with the rest, and, leaving the bar to our right, ascend at the heels of a well-known city bidder, to the auction-room, which a notice at the foot of the stairs informs us is the second room to the left. The place is small, and bears no resemblance to an ordinary auction-room ; in fact, one would rather take it for a lecture-room of a professor and his private class. There are seats for forty to fifty visitors, and between the seats are long narrow tables, supplied with pens and ink. There is a rostrum at one end, and by its side are desks for the use of the owner, or his agent or lawyer, whose property is to be sold. The agent is already in his place, and is busy in answering questions of intending bidders as to particulars not set down in the catalogue or the conditions of sale ; but the auctioneer has not yet appeared. We remark that nearly all assembled have passed the middle age of life ; and we know the face of your well-to-do man of the world well enough to be aware that most of then. too are conscious of a comfortable account at the banker's. Still there are some exceptions in either category young men, and men not young, upon whom fortune has not smiled, and struggling men whose energies are their fortune, and who look for no success which they shall not achieve for themselves. The room is nearly full, and sonorous with the crackle of papers and buzz of talk, when the auctioneer makes his appearance. He loses no time, but after a brief word to the agent, proceeds to address the audience, which he does with praiseworthy tact and terseness, hardly to be excelled. The property, he tells them, is of a kind rarely brought under the hammer - is unrivalled as an investment, the title being unimpeachable - the buildings nearly all new, and the ground-rent nominal. He then proceeds to read the conditions of sale, upon which he animadverts at considerable length, questions the agent, and gives explanations as they are demanded by individuals among the company. These preliminaries being all settled, the first lot is put up to competition, and in the course of a few minutes is knocked down for eight hundred guineas.
    We have accidentally taken a seat by the side of a man of about five-and-forty, whose flattened thumbnails and horny hands tell us that he gains his living by manual labour. As the sale goes on, and one lot after another is knocked down, he gets into a state of nervous excitement, which he has not the power to suppress. He wriggles on his seat he opens and shuts his catalogue he rises to his feet and drops down again abashed by the number of eyes turned upon him he pulls out a canvas bag, and then buttons it again in his breast pocket—he pretends to make a memorandum then he fixes a suspicious glance upon us, as though we were an enemy, and plainly has misgivings about us. What these are we at length learn ; for, unable to contain himself any longer, he asks us anxiously what lot we are going to bid for, and is wonders fully calmed when he hears that we shall not bid against him. But now the lot on which all his anxieties are centred is put up in its turn. Somebody bids two hundred, on which our friend advances ten ; and it goes on climbing up by tens, our friend nodding alternately, till it has risen to three hundred, by which time he is dripping with perspiration, and the big drops sparkle on his brown face. Still he has the spirit to advance by tens, and at last the lot is his at three hundred and seventy. He beans a broad smile and heaves a deep sigh together, as he rises and sidles to the desk to pay the deposit money of ten per cent. His canvas bag is quite collapsed when he returns, but he sits down with such an expression of happiness on his hard features as one rarely sees in this unsympathizing London. In the fulness of his heart he can't hold his tongue, but proceeds to tell us that he has bought the house that lie has lived in for nineteen years, during which he had paid its value twice over in rent.  "I've worked, and my wife and boys have worked, night and day to scrape up the money and won't they be glad !" The man dug his hard knuckles into his eyes, and buried his face in a cotton handkerchief, and laughed mechanically, while the honest tears brimmed over among the crow's-feet that time had printed on his cheeks.
    A dozen lots made up the sale, which was over in an hour and a half; and then the bidders resorted in a body to the counter, where the refreshment was doubly acceptable after the hot close atmosphere of the sale-room. On passing out, we beheld our friend of the canvas bag in antagonistic treaty with the wandering artist for one of Peter Fanners slap-dash landscapes. He had made choice of a monstrous moonlight, a seductive mixture of chalk and blue-bag, with a wide staircase of reflected light in the water and was cheapening it valiantly with the vendor. We could only hope that he had exercised more judgment in the purchase of his house, than in the selection of the picture that was to adorn its walls.  

The Leisure Hour, 1856

Garraway's was, in our time, the earliest house opened and the latest of its class closed, the business of refection going on from ten A.M. till nine P.M. in the lower room. The accommodation in the boxes was of rather a primitive kind; but the great business was the stand-up luncheons at the bar, where the consumption of sandwiches, sherry, and pale-ale was prodigious. The house was formerly noted for its punch, which has now become an old-fashioned drink. To the last the coffeeroom was hung over with bills of auction-sales, the sight of which might make a man melancholy in his cups, and set him reflecting upon the mutability of all human affairs. Twenty or thirty property-sales sometimes took place in one day in the sale-rooms up-stairs; here also sales of drugs, mahogany, and timber were periodically held. The sales of shares in public companies were also very numerous.
    In special times the scene below was one of great excitement. Five-and-twenty years ago, when the teaspeculation was at its height, and prices were fluctuating 6d. and 8d. per pound on the arrival of every mail, Garraway's, we are told in The City, or the Physiology of London Business, " was frequented every night by a host of the smaller fry of dealers, when there was more excitement than ever occurred on 'Change when the most important intelligence arrived. Champagne and anchovy-toast were the order of the night, and every one came, ate and drank, and went as he pleased, without the least question concerning the score; yet the bills were discharged, and this plan continued for several months."
    In this "sensation scene" of mixed business and pleasure, not a few philanthropic frequenters of the house enjoyed the luxury of doing good. The volume just quoted has this redeeming picture: " The members of the little coterie who take the dark corner under the clock have for many years visited this room. They number two or three old steady merchants, a solicitor, and a gentleman who almost devotes the whole of his time to philanthropic objects—for instance, the getting up of a ball for shipwrecked mariners and their families, or the organisation of a dinner for the benefit of the distressed needlewomen of the metropolis. They are a very quiet party, and enjoy the privilege of their stance uninterrupted by visitors." There are many such worthies who work together for good, and thus are something better than coffee-house politicians.
    The Garraway's of our time held its own bravely, and enormous has been the consumption of sandwiches, muffins, and luncheon-snacks, to say nothing of stout, pale-ale, sherry, and punch, within its old precincts. A feeling of fellowship seemed to come over even the competitors in the sale-room; and a sale at Garraway's was unlike a sale anywhere else. " It was really a cheerful sight," says the author of London Scenes, " entering the low wide-roofed room from the fog and cold of a November afternoon, to find all so genial; a capital sea-coal fire, red and blazing; a curious arrangement of dwarf spits, or rather polyform forks, all armed with muffins, twirling round and round most temptingly, and implying with dumb eloquence, Come eat us. Guests imbibing wine, sipping coffee, or munching toast, and casting at intervals a satisfied glance over the catalogues of the sales just due. The warmth and the good cheer have smoothed the wrinkles from every man's face; they are just in the humour to bid liberally. A bell rings, and they ascend the broad centre stairs to the antiquated sale-room, containing a small rostrum for the seller, and a few commonly-grained settles for the buyers. Every body appeared to know everybody, and the auctioneer was so cordially greeted on ascending his rostrum, that you might have fancied the wood was to be had as a gift. Large and small lots were knocked down with startling celerity. The buyers formed quite a happy family, and the competition, when any arose touching some log with an unusually fine curl, was of the politest and blandest character." Although these timber-sales were a feature of Garraway's, its sales were not confined to that ponderous speciality. It was equally notable for its sales of life-annuities and reversionary interests, and many a fair estate has been knocked down in the old rostrum in Change-alley.

John Timbs, City and Suburb, 1868