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Buttons coffee house : London coffee houses and taverns

A historical site about early London coffee houses and taverns and will also link to my current pub history site and also the London street directory

BUTTON'S COFFEE-HOUSE, Russell street.

Will's was the great resort for the wits of Dryden's time, after whose death it was transferred to Button's. Pope describes the houses as "opposite each other, in Russell-street, Covent Garden," where Addison established Daniel Button, in a new house, about 1712; and his fame, after the production of Cato, drew many of the Whigs thither. Button had been servant to the Countess of Warwick. The house is more correctly described as " over against Tom's, near the middle of the south side of the street."

Addison was the great patron of Button's ; but it is said that when he suffered any vexation from his Countess, he withdrew the company from Button's house.
His chief companions, before he married Lady Warwick, were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them in St. James's-place, dine at taverns with them, then to Button's, and then to some tavern again, for supper in the evening ; and this was the usual round of his life, as Pope tells us, in Spencers Anecdotes ; where Pope also says : " Addison usually studied all the morning, then met his party at Button's, dined there, and stayed five or six hours; and sometimes far into the nigbt. I was of the company for about a year, but found it too much for me : it hurt my health, and so I quitted it." Again :
" There had been a coldness between me and Mr. Addison for some time, and we had not been in company together for a good while anywhere but at Button's Coffee-house, where I used to see him almost every day."

Here Pope is reported to have said of Patrick, the lexicographer, that "a dictionary-maker might know the meaning of one word, but not of two put together."

Button's was the receiving- house for contributions to The Guardian, for which purpose was put up a lion's head letter-box, in imitation of the celebrated lion at Venice, as humorously announced. Thus : —

" N.B. — Mr. Ironside has, within five weeks last past, muzzled three lions, gorged five, and killed one. On Monday next the skin of the dead one will be hung up, in terrorem, at Button's Coffee-house, over against Tom's in Covent Garden."*
" Button's Coffee-house, —

" Mr. Ironside, I have observed that this day you make mention of Will's Coffee-house, as a place where people are too polite to hold a man in discourse by the button. Everybody knows your honour frequents this house, therefore' they will take an advantage against me, and say if my company was as civil as that at Will's. You would say so. Therefore pray your honour do not be afraid of doing me justice, because people 'would think it may be a conceit below you on this occasion to name the name of your humble servant, Daniel Button. — The young poets are in the back room, and take their places as you directed/'*

* The Guardian, No. 71. VOL. II. F

" I intend to publish once every week the roarings of the Lion, and hope to make him roar so loud as to be heard over all the British nation.

" 1 have, I know not how, been drawn into tattle of myself, more majorum, almost the length of a whole Guardian. I shall therefore fill up the remaining part of it with what still relates to my own person, and my correspondents. Now I would have them all know that on the 20th instant it is my intention to erect a Lion's Head, in imitation of those I have described in Venice, through which all the private commonwealth is said to pass. This head is to open a most wide and voracious mouth, which shall take in such letters and papers as are conveyed to me by my correspondents, it being my resolution to have a particular regard to all such matters as come to my hands through the mouth of the Lion. There will be under it a box, of which the key will be in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the publick. This head requires some time to finish, the workmen being resolved to give it several masterly touches, and to represent it as ravenous as possible. It will be set up in Button's Coffee-house, in Covent Garden, who is directed to shew the way to the Lion's Head, and to instruct any young author how to convey his works into the mouth of it with safety and secrecy."*

* The Guardian, No. 85.

" I think myself obliged to acquaint the publick, that the Lion's Head, of which I advertised them about a fortnight ago, is now erected at Button's Coffee-house, in Russell-street, Covent Garden, where it opens its mouth at all hours for the reception of such intelligence as shall be thrown into it. It is reckoned an excellent piece of workmanship, and was designed by a great hand in imitation of the antique Egyptian lion, the face of it being compounded out of that of a lion and a wizard. The features are strong and well furrowed. The whiskers are admired by all that have seen them. It is planted on the western side of the Coffee-house, holding its paws under the chin, upon a box, which contains everything that he swallows. He is, indeed, a proper emblem of knowledge and action, being all head and paws."

" Being obliged, at present, to attend a particular affair of my own, I do empower my printer to look into the arcana of the lion, and select out of them such as may be of publick utility ; and Mr. Button is hereby authorized and commanded to give my said printer free ingress and egress to the lion, without any hindrance, lest, or molestation whatsoever, until such time as he shall receive orders to the contrary. And, for so doing, this shall be his warrant." J

11 My Lion, whose jaws are at all times open to intelligence, informs me that there are a few enormous weapons still in being ; but that they are to be met with only in gaming-houses and some of the obscure retreats of lovers, in and about Drury-lane and Covent Garden.""*

# The Guardian, No. 93. f The Guardian, No. 114.
X The Guardian, No. 142.

This memorable Lion's Head was tolerably well carved : through the mouth the letters were dropped  into a till at Button's ; and beneath were inscribed these two lines from Martial : —

" Cervantur magnis isti Cervicibus ungues :
Non nisi delicta pascitur ille fera."

The head was designed by Hogarth, and is etched in Ireland's Illustrations. Lord Chesterfield is said to have once offered for the Head fifty guineas. From Button's it was removed to the Shakspeare's Head Tavern, under the Piazza, kept by a person named Tomkyns ; and in 1751, was, for a short time, placed in the Bedford Coffee-house immediately adjoining the Shakspeare, and  there employed as a letter-box by Dr. John Hill, for his Inspector. In 1769, Tomkyns was succeeded by his waiter, Campbell, as proprietor of the tavern and lion's head, and bv him the latter was retained until Nov. 8, 1804, when it was purchased by Mr. Charles Richardson, of Richardson's Hotel, for £17. 10s., who also possessed the original sign of the Shakspeare's Head. After Mr. Richardson's death in 1827, the Lion's Head devolved to his son, of whom it was bought by the Duke of Bedford, and deposited at Woburn Abbey, where it still remains.

Pope was subjected to much annoyance and insult at Button's. Sir Samuel Garth wrote to Gay, that everybody was pleased with Pope's Translation, " but a few at Button's;" to which Gay adds, to Pope, "I am confirmed that at Button's your character is made very free with, as to morals, etc."

* The Guardian, No. 171.

Cibber, in a letter to Pope, says: — "When you used to pass your hours at Button's, you were even there remarkable for your satirical itch of provocation ; scarce was there a gentleman of any pretension to wit, whom your unguarded temper had not fallen upon in some biting epigram, among which you once caught a pastoral Tartar, whose resentment, that your punishment might be proportionate to the smart of your poetry, had stuck up a birchen rod in the room, to be ready whenever you might come within reach of it ; and at this rate you writ and rallied and writ on, till you rhymed yourself quite out of the coffee-house." The " pastoral Tartar " was Ambrose Philips, who, says Johnson, "hung up a rod at Button's, with which he threatened to chastise Pope."

Pope, in a letter to Craggs, thus explains the affair : —
" Mr. Philips did express himself with much indignation against me one evening at Button's Coffee-house, (as I was told,) saying that I was entered into a cabal with Dean Swift and others, to write against the Whig interest, and in particular to undermine his own reputation and that of his friends, Steele and Addison ; but Mr. Philips never opened his lips to my face, on this or any like occasion, though I was almost every night in the same room with him, nor ever offered me any indecorum. Mr. Addison came to me a night or two after Philips had talked in this idle manner, and assured me of his disbelief of what had been said, of the friendship we should always maintain, and desired I would say nothing further of it. My Lord Halifax did me the honour to stir in this matter, by speaking to several people to obviate a false aspersion, which might have done me no small prejudice with one party. However, Philips did all he could secretly to continue the report with the Hanover Club, and kept in his hands the subscriptions paid for me to him, as secretary to that Club. The heads of it have since given him to understand, that they take it ill ; but (upon the terms I ought to be with such a man,) I would not ask him for this money, but commissioned one of the players, his equals, to receive it. This is the whole matter; but as to the secret grounds of this malignity, they will make a very pleasant history when we meet/'

Another account says that the rod was hung up at the bar of Button's, and that Pope avoided it by remaining at home — "his usual custom." Philips was known for his courage and superior dexterity with the sword : he afterwards became justice of the peace, and used to mention Pope, whenever he could get a man in authority to listen to him, as an enemy to the Government.

At Button's the leading company, particularly Addison and Steele, met in large flowing flaxen wigs. Sir Godfrey Kneller, too, was a frequenter.

The master died in 1731, when in the Daily Advertiser }
Oct. 5, appeared the following : — " On Sunday morning, died, after three days' illness, Mr. Button, who formerly kept Button's Coffee-house, in Russell-street, Covent Garden; a very noted house for wits, being the place where the Lyon produced the famous Tatlers and Spectators, written by the late Mr. Secretary Addison and Sir Richard Steele, Knt., which works will transmit their names with honour to posterity." Mr. Cunningham found in the vestry-books of St. Paul's, Covent Garden :
" 1719, April 16. Received of Mr. Daniel Button, for two places in the pew No. 18, on the south side of the north Isle, — 21. 2s." J. T. Smith states that a few years after Button, the Coffee-house declined, and Button's name appeared in the books of St. Paul's, as receiving an allowance from the parish.

Button's continued in vogue until Addison's death and Steele's retirement into Wales, after which the house was deserted ; the coffee-drinkers went to the Bedford Coffee-house, the dinner-parties to the Shakspeare.

Among other wits who frequented Button's were Swift, Arbuthnot, Savage, Budgell, Martin Folkes, and Drs. Garth and Armstrong. In 1720, Hogarth mentions " four drawings in Indian ink" of the characters at Button's Coffee-house. In these were sketches of Arbuthnot, Addison, Pope, (as it is conjectured,) and a certain Count Viviani, identified years afterwards by Horace Walpole, when the drawings came under his notice. They subsequently came into Ireland's possession."

Jemmy Maclaine, or M f Clean, the fashionable highwayman, was a frequent visitor at Button's. Mr. John Taylor, of the Sun newspaper, describes Maclaine as a tall, showy, good-looking man. A Mr. Donaldson told Taylor that, observing Maclaine paid particular attention to the bar-maid of the Coffee-house, the daughter of the landlord, he gave a hint to the father of Maclaine's dubious character. The father cautioned the daughter against the highwayman's addresses, and imprudently told her by whose advice he put her on her guard ; she as imprudently told Maclaine. The next time Donaldson visited the Coffee-room, and was sitting in one of the boxes, Maclaine entered, and in a loud tone said, "Mr. Donaldson, I wish to spake to you in a private room." Mr. D. being unarmed, and naturally afraid of being alone with such a man, said, in answer, that as nothing could pass between them that he did not wish the whole world to know, he begged leave to decline the invitation. "Very well," said Maclaine, as he left the room, " we shall meet again." A day or two after, as Mr. Donaldson was walking near Richmond, in the evening, he saw Maclaine on horseback ; but, fortunately, at that moment, a gentleman's carriage appeared in view, when Maclaine immediately turned his horse towards the carriage, and Donaldson hurried into the protection of Richmond as fast as he could. But for the appearance of the carriage, which presented better prey, it is probable that Maclaine would have shot Mr. Donaldson immediately.

* From Mr. Sala's vivid "William Hogarth;" Cornhill Magazine, vol. i. p. 428.

Madame' s father was an Irish Dean ; his brother was a Calvinist minister in great esteem at the Hague. Maclaine himself has been a grocer in Welbeck-street, but losing a wife that he loved extremely, and by whom he had one little girl, he quitted his business with two hundred pounds in his pocket, which he soon spent, and then took to the road with only one companion, Plunket, a journeyman apothecary.

Maclaine was taken in the autumn of 1750, by selling a laced waistcoat to a pawnbroker in Monmouth-street, who happened to carry it to the very man who had just sold the lace. Maclaine impeached his companion, Plunket, but he was not taken. The former got into verse :
Gray, in his Long Story, sings :

" A sudden fit of ague shook him ;
He stood as mute as poor M'Lean."

Button's subsequently became a private house, and here Mrs. Inchbald lodged, probably, after the death of  her sister, for whose support she practised such noble and generous self-denial. Mrs. InchbakPs income was now 172/. a year, and we are told that she now went to reside in a boarding-house, where she enjoyed more of the comforts of life. Phillips, the publisher, offered her a thousand pounds for her Memoirs, which she declined. She died in a boarding-house at Kensington, on the 1st of August, 1821 ; leaving about 6000/. judiciously divided amongst her relatives. Her simple and parsimonious habits were very strange. " Last Thursday," she writes, " 1 finished scouring my bedroom, while a coach with a coronet and two footmen waited at my door to take me an airing."

" One of the most agreeable memories connected with Button's," says Leigh Hunt, "is that of Garth, a man whom, for the sprightliness and generosity of his nature, it is a pleasure to name. He was one of the most amiable and intelligent of a most amiable and intelligent class of men — the physicians."

It was just after Queen Anne's accession that Swift made acquaintance with the leaders of the wits at Button's. Ambrose Philips refers to him as the strange
clergyman whom the frequenters of the Coffee-house had observed for some days. He knew no one, no one knew him. He would lay his hat down on a table, and walk up and down at a brisk pace for half an hour without speaking to any one, or seeming to pay attention to anything that was going forward. Then he would snatch up his hat, pay his money at the bar, and walk off, without having opened his lips. The frequenters of the room had christened him "the mad parson." One evening, as Mr. Addison and the rest were observing him, they saw him cast his eyes several times upon a gentleman in boots, who seemed to be just come out of the country. At last, Swift advanced towards this bucolic gentleman, as if intending to address him. They were all eager to hear what the dumb parson had to say, and immediately quitted their seats to get near him. Swift went up to the country gentleman, and in a very abrupt manner, without any previous salute, asked him, " Pray, Sir, do you know any good weather in the world ?" After staring a little at the singularity of Swift's manner and the oddity of the question, the gentleman answered, "Yes, Sir, I thank God I remember a great deal of good weather in my time." — " That is more," replied Swift, " than I can say ; I never remember any weather that was not too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry ; but, however God Almighty contrives it, at the end of the year 'tis all very well."

Sir Walter Scott gives, upon the authority of Dr. Wall, of Worcester, who had it from Dr. Arbuthnot himself, the following anecdote — less coarse than the version generally told. Swift w r as seated by the tire at Button's : there was sand on the floor of the coffee-room, and Arbuthnot, with a design to play upon this original figure, offered him a letter, which he had been just addressing, saying at the same time, " There — sand that." — " I have got no sand," answered Swift, " but I can help you to a little gravel" This he said so significantly, that Arbuthnot hastily snatched back his letter, to save it from the fate of the capital of Lilliput.

References :  Lots of references are made to two sources on the internet archive :
Edward Callows, Old London Taverns &
John Timbs, Club life of London Volume 2

And Last updated on: Tuesday, 26-Apr-2022 01:16:18 BST
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