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
THE LONDON TAVERN,
Situated about the middle of the western side of Bishopsgate street Within, presents in its frontage a mezzanine-storey, and lofty Venetian windows, reminding one of the old - fashioned assembly-room facade.
The site of the present tavern was previously occupied by the White Lion Tavern, which was destroyed in an extensive fire on the 7th of November, 1765 ; it broke out at a peruke-maker's opposite ; the flames were carried by a high wind across the street, to the house immediately adjoining the tavern, the fire speedily reaching the corner ; the other angles of Cornhill, Gracechurch- street, and Leadenhall-street, were all on fire at the same time, and fifty houses and buildings were destroyed and damaged, including the White Lion and Black Lion Taverns.
Upon the site of the former was founded " The London Tavern," on the Tontine principle; it was commenced in 1767, and completed and opened in September, 1768; Richard B. Jupp, architect. The front is more than 80 feet wide by nearly 70 feet in height.
The Great Dining-room, or " Pillar-room," as it is called, is 40 feet by 33 feet, decorated with medallions and garlands, Corinthian columns and pilasters. At the top of the edifice is the ball-room, extending the whole length of the structure, by 33 feet in width and 30 feet in height, which may be laid out as a banqueting-room for 300 feasters ; exclusively of accommodating 150 ladies as spectators in the galleries at each end. The walls are throughout hung with paintings ; and the large room has an organ.
The London Tavern.
On the west side of Bishopsgate Street Within, close to the corner of Cornhill, where the Standard Bank of Scotland and several other institutions of a kindred character are now located, there once stood a very well-known and celebrated building called the London Tavern.
It was, however, as unlike a tavern in appearance as it could well be. It varied from all other taverns not only in appearance but in the fact that it had neither a coffee-room nor a bar. So sedate and important, and so eminently respectable was its appearance, that it was frequently mistaken by strangers and provincials for the Bank of England ; and well it might be, for it was designed by Mr. Richard B. Jupp, the architect of that august corporation and of the Honourable East India Company, whose directors held their symposiums and dined with their Oriental guests and friends in its stately rooms. The building was commenced in 1767, and opened in September of the following year.
It was founded and built on the Tontine principle: an invention of Lorenzo Tonti, an Italian banker, and suggested by him to Cardinal Mazarin in 1653 to raise the wind to pay off a state debt of frs. 1,500,000. The Tontine principle had quite a boom in this country for a time, but Inns fallen into disuse almost, if not altogether, entirely. Syndicates and limited companies have supplanted it.'
An old Scotch lady, a Mistress Dodd, when asked to take a share in a hotel to be built on the plan of Lorenzo Tonti, said, " Nae ! " and proceeded to describe it as a plan for people " to sinkit aw their breaths of lives, whilk are in their nostrils, on end of ilk other, like a string o' wild geese; and the langest liver breeick a', which is sinful presumption."
The word tavern, by the way, is said to be derived originally from tabula — a table. The ancients, when they ceased to dine al fresco, built themselves huts, houses, or other habitations, and so covered their tabulas, and the buildings were called taberna — hence tabernacle and tavern.
The words hotel and inn were in old days applied to the town mansions and residences of the nobility and wealthy classes — a custom not altogether fallen into disuse in France and other continental countries.
The London Tavern was par excellence the City temple of gastronomy, where a man hardly dared to say "he had had his dinner," but with unctuous respect would tell you " he had dined."
There is a wonderful difference between the two. Indeed, with some people dining is regarded as a fine art. Having one's dinner or tea is merely feeding.
Had anyone entered those respectable portals in Bishopsgate Street and asked for a chop or steak, the hall porter, if he survived the shock and recovered his power of speech, would have directed him to Joe's or Simpson's.
The greatest men of the age have dined there, and in this respect it stood only second to Guildhall or the Mansion House. The father of the present Duke of Cambridge was quite a stock chairman at the numerous charity dinners that took place at London's greatest tavern.
The cellars were prodigious in extent, reaching not only beneath the building itself, but intruding under its neighbours on either side, besides the very street in front, and goodness only knows priceless quality. At one time no fewer than 4300 dozens of port lay snugly in their bins there, perfecting their beeswing, and waiting patiently their time to be uncorked, with all due care, and to make their appearance upon the table after the turtle and venison had performed their respective duties in well satisfying the appetites of the happy individuals who dined there.
Of the quality of the port wine I can speak from experience, having very pleasant and lively reminiscences of being a guest at two great dinners in the " forties."
Another great function of the London Tavern was the holding of meetings of shareholders in railway and other public companies, and sales by auction of high-class landed property. Yet another use was made of the place ; the meetings of several charitable institutions were held there, and I well remember having seen the mild excitement among the many anxious faces of persons attending the elections of children to the yearly vacancies of the several Orphan Asylums.
It was no uncommon thing for a meeting of shareholders or others to be held in one of the large dining-rooms, and immediately after they had dispersed, and almost before the last one had left the room, for it to be invaded by some thirty or forty men, who removed all the benches and paraphernalia of the meeting, swept the Turkey carpets with which the floor was covered, and speedily erected and laid the tables for a banquet by a quarter to six o'clock, all ready for the guests to arrive at six sharp. People dined earlier then than now.
It was here that on attending a meeting of shareholders in the then called Eastern Counties Railway, now much more favourably known as the Great Eastern, I heard the chairman, no other person than Mr. George Hudson, the Railway King, inform the shareholders that he deemed it quite the right thing to pay dividends out of capital — " it made matters pleasant."
Since the demolition of the London Tavern its name has been appropriated by the proprietors of the King's Head in Fenchurch Street, which, considering the historical associations of Ye Olde King's Head, seems to be not only a pity but a mistake.
The Turtle is kept in large tanks, which occupy a whole vault, where two tons of turtle may sometimes be seen swimming in one vat. We have to thank Mr. Cunningham for this information, which is noteworthy, independently of its epicurean association, — that "turtles will live in cellars for three months in excellent condition if kept in the same water in which they were brought to this country. To change the water is to lessen the weight and flavour of the turtle." Turtle does not appear in bills of fare of entertainments given by Lord Mayors and Sheriffs between the years 1761 and 1766 ; and it is not till 1768 that turtle appears by name, and then in the bill of the banquet at the Mansion House to the King of Denmark. The cellars, which consist of the whole basement storey, are filled with barrels of porter, pipes of port, butts of sherry, etc.
Then there are a labyrinth of walls of bottle ends, and a region of bins, six bottles deep 1 ; the catacombs of Johannisberg, Tokay, and Burgundy. " Still we glide on through rivers of sawdust, through embankments of genial wine. There are twelve hundred of champagne down here; there are between six and seven hundred dozen of claret ; corked up in these bins is a capital of from eleven to twelve thousand pounds ; these bottles absorb, in simple interest at five per cent., an income amounting to some five or six hundred pounds per annum/' * " It was not, however, solely for uncovering these floods of mighty wines, nor for luxurious feasting that the London Tavern was at first erected, nor for which it is still exclusively famous, since it was always designed to provide a spacious and convenient place for public meetings. One of the earliest printed notices concerning the establishment is of this character, it being the account of a meeting for promoting a public subscription for John Wilkes, on the 12th of February, 1769, at which 3000/. were raised, and local committees appointed for the provinces. In the Spring season such meetings and committees of all sorts are equally numerous and conflicting with each other, for they not unfrequently comprise an interesting charitable election or two ; and in addition the day's entertainments are often concluded with more than one large dinner, and an evening party for the lady spectators.
" Here, too, may be seen the hasty arrivals of persons for the meetings of the Mexican Bondholders on the second-floor ; of a Railway assurance ' up-stairs, and first to the left;' of an asylum election at the end of the passage ; and of the party on the ' first-floor to the right/ who had to consider of " the union of the Gibbleton line to the Great-Trunk-Due-Eastern- Junction"
" For these business meetings the rooms are arranged with benches, and sumptuously Turkey-carpeted ; the end being provided with a long table for the directors, with an imposing array of papers and pens,
" The morn, the noon, the day is passed' in the reports, the speeches, the recriminations and defences of these parties, until it is nearly five o' clock. In the very same room the Hooping Cough Asylum Dinner is to take place at six ; and the Mexican Bondholders are stamping and hooting above, on the same floor which in an hour is to support the feast of some Worshipful Company which makes it their hall. The feat appears to be altogether impossible ; nevertheless, it must and will be most accurately performed.
The Secretary has scarcely bound the last piece of red tape round his papers, when four men rush to the four corners of the Turkey carpet, and half of it is rolled up, dust and all. Four other men with the half of a clean carpet bowl it along in the wake of the one displaced. While you are watching the same performance with the remaining half of the floor, a battalion of waiters has fitted up, upon the new half carpet, a row of dining-tables and covered them with table-cloths.
While in turn you watch them, the entire apartment is tabled and table-clothed. Thirty men are at this work upon a system, strictly departmental. Rinse and three of his followers lay the knives ; Burrows and three more cause the glasses to sparkle on the board. You express your wonder at this magical celerity. Rinse moderately replies that the same game is going on in other four rooms ; and this happens six days out of the seven in the dining-room.
When the Banquet was given to Mr. Macready in February, 1851, the London Tavern could not accommodate all the company, because there were seven hundred and odd ; and the Hall of Commerce was taken for the dinner. The merchants and brokers were transacting business there at four o' clock ; and in two hours, seats, tables, platforms, dinner, wine, gas, and company, were all in. By a quarter before six everything was ready, and a chair placed before each plate. Exactly at six, everything was placed upon the table, and most of the guests were seated.
For effecting these wonderful evolutions, it will be no matter of surprise that we are told that an army of servants, sixty or seventy strong, is retained on the establishment; taking on auxiliary legions during the dining season.
The business of this gigantic establishment is of such extent as to be only carried on by this systematic means. Among the more prominent displays of its resources which take place here are the annual Banquets of the officers of some twenty- eight different regiments, in the month of May. There are likewise given here a very large number of the annual entertainments of the different Charities of London. Twenty-four of the City Companies hold their Banquets here, and transact official business. Several Balls take place here annually.
Masonic Lodges are held here ; and almost innumerable Meetings, Sales, and Elections for Charities alternate with the more directly festive business of the London Tavern. Each of the departments of so vast an establishment has its special interest. We have glanced at its dining-halls, and its turtle and wine cellars."* To detail its kitchens and the management of its stores and supplies, and consumption, would extend beyond our limit, so that we shall end by remarking that upon no portion of our metropolis is more largely enjoyed the luxury of doing good, and the observance of the rights and duties of goodfellowship, than at the London Tavern.
# The usual allowance at what is called a Turtle-Dinner, is 6 lb. live weight per head. At the Spanish-Dinner, at the City of London Tavern, in 1808, four hundred guests attended, and 25001b. of turtle were consumed.
For the Banquet at Guildhall, on Lord Mayor's Day, 250 tureens of turtle are provided.
Turtle may be enjoyed in steaks, cutlets, or fins, and as soup, clear and puree, at the Albion, London, and Freemasons', and other large taverns. " The Ship and Turtle Tavern," Nos. 129 and 130, Leadenhall street, is especially famous for its turtle;
and from this establishment several of the West-end Club-houses are supplied.
The 1829 Robsons directory places Bleaden & Co, at the London Tavern, Bishopsgate within
Lots of references are made to two sources on the
Edward Callows, Old London Taverns &
John Timbs, Club life of London Volume 2