THE COFFEE HOUSES OF LONDON. BY ANGUS B. REACH in 1844.
Here and there in our most crowded thoroughfares — where ‘ever pours, the live long day, the vast traffic of a principal London street — putting forth modest claims to notice for themselves and their wares, amid the glare and flaunting pretensions of their rivals and enemies, the gin-palaces, you may see the London Coffee houses. They are in general quiet, almost sombre-looking places: they do not ape the gaudy brass work, gingerbread gilding, and coloured glass of the gin-shops. They rejoice not in such ornaments as huge yellow casks, labelled with slang inscriptions to tempt the wayfarer (easy task!) into the belief that he is thirsty when he is not. They disclaim all attempts at gaud and show, at vugar slang-gentility; they offer not to the eye a mass of flaunting colours, glittering metal, and massive plate-glass: but, in return, their occupants are seldom ragged—starving. Men and women, squalid and poverty-stricken, with hands trembling, and eyes bleared and blood-shot, do not crowd them; pushing, fighting, almost ready to lay down their despised rotten lives, for what has brought them to what they are — gin. The coffee-houses have no flash inscriptions to catch the eye; but they have books, magazines, newspapers, strewed thickly around. They are schools where instruction is meted out, as well as coffee sold. They are the public-houses of temperance. They are reading rooms as well as drinking rooms; and what you do in the one way happily does not interfere with the other.
The London coffee-houses are a class quite sui generis. You may easily distinguish them in the streets: they generally boast of «n enormously broad window — as big as half-a-dozen common windows rolled into one; upon the sill are arranged some dozen tea-cups, presided over at each end by a tea and coffee-pot; while a plate or two of raw chops or steaks delicately intimate that something more substantial than coffee and bread-and butter is to be had within. Backing the symbols of eatables and drinkables, there is usually arranged a perfect curtain of play-bills – for coffee house windows and tobacconists’ shops are favourite places for theatrical announcements. There you have them all- comedy, tragedy, opera, and farce — from the bill of fare at Drury Lane to the crowded affiche of the suburban saloon, in which, besides the cast of the play, you are generally treated to a history of the plot, and a picturesque description of the scenery. Take them all in all, and you will have a very good afternoon’s play-bill reading; and poring over the announcements of all the theatres in London is surely almost as good as going to one! But let us enter. We are in a large, not very high, but generally very long room, pardoned off into little boxes with a table in each. Upon the walls -stuck upon hat-pins—you have more play-bills, and the eye is caught by a long list of the good things ready almost at a moment’s notice, with the price of each attached, The whole place has an air of stillness and repose, yet perhaps a hundred people are seated in the different boxes, conning over books and newspapers, and sipping their coffee at the same time. Orders are given in as different a tone, from the loud bullying demand you hear in the public-house, as is the quiet, modest appearance of the damsel who executes them from the flaunting air of the ringleted, flushy young lady who stands behind the bar in a gin-palace. There is no quarrelling, no scuffling, no demands for the police. There is indeed little conversation further than an occasional—” The Times after you, if you please, Sir,” “When you’ve done with that magazine, I’ll trouble you,” passing from one box to another. Everybody is civil to his neighbour, and yet the company is made up of a class who, were they at a public-house instead of a coffe-house, in all probability, would be brawling and bullying, or deeply immersed in such edifying discussions as to what four-legged brute is to win the next Derby, or what two legged brute is to win the next prize-fight.
You see at a glance that the majority of the guests are working men; fustian jackets are plentiful; and here and there you see laid on the bench the straw basket containing the tools of their notations. There are no ” sporting characters” evidently; no “gents,” with cut-away Newmarket coats, and slang conversation.
They would be above going to such places, of course. Such atmospheres are not favourable for the sparkle of Lowther Arcade Jewellery. But there are respectable men; hard-working and long headed fellows, who think while they hammer, and read when the hammering is over; who have an opinion of their own, and can express it; who can feel deeply, as well as think clearly, and who bring a homely philosophy to the forge and the loom. We love to see hard horny hands — not very white perchance, or Byronic in their formation—turn over the leaves of books and newspapers; and eyes, although heavy with the labours of the day, light up as they pore over their contents. The working man, at least in towns, is becoming more and more a reading man. He has his political faith, and he can give a reason for the faith that is in him. The times are passing away when senators said, “What have low fellows, vulgar mechanics, to do with the laws, but to obey them?” Cheap schools, cheap publications, cheap lectures, and last, not least, cheap coffee and reading rooms, have worked wonders, and will work still more.
Look at the number of publications spread about in lavish confusion in our ideal coffee-house. There are imaginative works, critical work, political and philosophical works; newspapers fly about like autumn leaves, and like them they enrich the soil on which they are cast. Here we have them of all shades of politics indeed, urging all manner of social theories, differing from each other in almost every respect but in the most important respect — that of conveying knowledge: under different shapes they all do that. The reviews and magazines are now a formidable host; embracing matter to suit every taste; enriched, as we have seen them, with the most brilliant essays, and the most rare fictions in the language. Here you have them all. Almost every sheet which issues from the metropolitan periodical press you find in the coffee-house; and for reading them (and you may read from morning until night if you please) you pay nothing.
In many coffee-houses, besides periodicals, a small library is kept, consisting principally of works of fiction, and of entertaining and useful information. The books may sometimes be a little greasy, to be sure, the paper stained and thumbed, and the leaves dog-eared. But what of that? We respect a stained dog-eared book. It is a veteran who has seen service — not a mere gilt ornament to an unread library. It has fulfilled its mission among books. The marks it bears are the scars of honourable service. It has been read, and re-read; pored over pensively or joyously. It has excited high aspirations; rendered forth golden stores of wisdom; it has delighted, or instructed — or both. It has charmed away idle hours, or soothed sad ones; and many, perchance, have risen from its pages better and wiser men. We would not give your old, thumbed, half-worn-out tome, for the dandy, gilt and purpled volume, virgin in its un-read purity. The dog’s-ears show that the midnight oil has not been wasted. The more worn we find a book in the cottage window, or on the humble reading-table, the greater is sure to be its author.
But let us proceed with our coffee-room. We take a seat in one of the boxes, and order coffee. It is brought — a good bouncing cup-full, flanked by two minniken milk and sugar dishes, about the size of the inkstand before us. Certainly the milk is not cream, and there is the slightest suspicion of sky-blue about it; but after all water is a pure beverage. And the coffee? Not quite like the liquor you sip from china at Verey’s, to be sure; but not to be sneered at, nevertheless—an honest, wholesome beverage, toothsome and nourishing. And with your coffee, you may have what you please as regards solids. Over your head is an emblazoned and permanent bill of fare; the pleasant associations called up by the items, heightened in their flavour by that ingredient, so desirable in bills of fare and so appetizing to people in general, but so seldom found—cheapness.
Well, you have your coffee ; you are in a warm, comfortable, well-lighted room; a library is at your beck and bidding: newspapers and periodicals, native and foreign, are contesting each other’s claims to your notice. You may sit as long as you like, and read as much as you like, and one or two pence is all the recompense demanded! Why at home you would pay double the amount for one night’s reading, of one book or periodical, from the circulating library. Here is knowledge, literary instruction, refined intellectualising pleasure, brought within the reach of all who love its teaching. For what a man pays for a glass of gin, or a pint of porter at the public-house, he can have a more wholesome draught, a more comfortable place to enjoy it in, and a mental banquet, if he chooses, into the bargain.
Seeing, then, the mission which coffee-houses are performing amongst us — the amount of knowledge they are spreading — the gradual refinement of mind and manner which they are working — we cannot wish to see too many of them. They arc rapidly effecting a change in the condition and tastes of the working-men. Their introduction has had as great an influence, and perhaps a better one, upon the state of one class of society, as the establishment of clubs has had upon that of another. But the humble coffee and the stately club-house work so far on the same principle. They are reasonable in their charges — trusting to the number of their frequenters—and they provide what hotels and taverns have never yet done, means of mental as well as bodily enjoyment.
The influence, too, which coffee-houses must exercise upon the cheaper classes of periodicals is by no means to be underrated. They furnish a very considerable market for one species of literature, as circulating libraries do for another, and they are the means of diffusing a taste for reading and intellectual enjoyment where it never before existed. Cheapness in the supply of all our wants, physical and mental, is one of the great features of the age; and no more striking example of the fact exists, perhaps, than the rate at which London coffee-houses combine to furnish their frequenters at once with sustenance, instruction, and amusement.
These establishments, too, are of quite modern growth, and they have opened up a new and extensive trade. Twenty-five years ago there were not above ten or twelve coffee-houses in London, that is, houses devoted exclusively to the sale of coffee. Now, there are upwards of two thousand; and for several years back the rate of increase has been about one hundred per annum. Twenty-five years ago, you could not get a cup of coffee, to say nothing of contingent advantages, under the charge of a sixpence. Now, coffee — not of course very exquisitely flavoured, but still very drinkable — can be had from three-halfpence to three-pence per cup! There are many coffee-houses in London charging these low rates, which are visited by 700 or 800 people a day, at an average; and in the vicinity of the Haymarket, there is an establishment of the kind which entertains from 1500 to 1600 people daily; the charge there is three-halfpence per cup for coffee; tea is somewhat dearer; forty-three papers are taken in daily, seven country papers, six foreign papers, twenty-four magazines per month, four quarterly reviews, and eleven weekly periodicals.
Altogether about £400 a-year is expended in periodicals, which are circulated, be it remembered, generally among a class, who, if they had not opportunities of reading them at the exceedingly cheap rates at which they are furnished there, and in similar establishments, would probably never see them at all. Besides the periodicals, also, there is a tolerably extensive library provided, and this important auxiliary to the light forces of the newspapers and magazines is becoming more and more general.
Some curious information relative to coffee-houses, and their effects upon the middle and lower classes of society, is supplied by the evidence taken a few years ago before the Import Duties’ Committee. A number of landlords were examined, and they all concurred in representing as immense the gradual improvement worked by these establishments in the tastes and habits of the working-men, their frequenters. The class of publications taken in, in many of them, underwent a gradual but steady improvement. Periodicals, which were at first in vogue, fell below par as taste improved by cultivation, and others, which at first were never thought of, came into great demand. Benefit clubs and provident institutions were formed, and are forming, at coffee-houses, for another purpose than mere convivial meetings, and literary and debating societies meet in many of them.
How different is all this from the tavern life of old — to which every one whose business or whose inclination forced him to seek refreshment away from home was obliged to adapt himself! “Tom and Jerry” tastes are fast wearing out; the vulgar roystering and practical joking — beating infirm old watchmen used to be considered very capital joking — have had their day; and, in all classes of society, more refined and more humanising notions are growing up. Country gentlemen are not now-a-days Squire Westerns, and Mr. Windham would hardly have dared to praise bull-baiting in the present House of Commons. No doubt one would have gone a long way to have heard “words spoke at the Mermaid;” and, in later days, it must have been very delightful to have had the privilege of listening in a tavern, as did young Pope, reverently, to the voice of Dryden; or, to come still nearer to our own times, to have seen Dr. Johnson at the Mitre, pompously bantering poor Goldsmith upon his peach-blossom-coloured coat; but the general tavern life of our ancestors was coarse, sensual, and degrading. A witness examined before the Import Duties Committee naively remarked that when he saw the crowds who resorted daily to an extensive coffee-house, he could not help wondering where all those people could have got refreshment before the establishment of such places. And so it is with the means now happily in operation of spreading knowledge and information among working men. Without the cheap lecture, then the mechanics’ institutes, the libraries, the scientific galleries, the coffee and reading rooms, one can hardly imagine the toiling operative in possession of any knowledge above that of his handicraft But the aristocracy of literature and science is destroyed. Knowledge is abroad over the world. It no longer sits enthroned it gilded saloons, apart from vulgar gaze. It is in the cottage, in the manufactory, shedding bright moral gleams over the dwellers in crowded smoky streets and alleys. It is brought within the reach of all; and, although dandies may turn up their noses at the vulgarity of the cheap coffee-house, or philosophic pedants sneer at what they consider the quackery of the cheap scientific gallery, both the one and the other are doing their good work—fostering taste—encouraging and directing energy — sowing seeds which will one day spring up in rich harvests.
— From Illuminated Magazine.