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Rainbow 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


The Rainbow, in Fleet-street, appears to have been the second Coffee-house opened in the metropolis.

" The first Coffee-house in London/' says Aubrey (MS. in the Bodleian Library), "was in St. Michaels alley, in Cornhill, opposite to the church, which was set up by one Bowman (coachman to Mr. Hodges, a Turkey merchant, who putt him upon it), in or about the yeare 1652. 'Twas about four yeares before any other was sett up, and that was by Mr. Farr." This was the Rainbow.

Another account states that one Edwards, a Turkey merchant, on his return from the East, brought with him a Ragusian Greek servant, named Pasqua Rosee, who prepared coffee every morning for his master, and with the coachman above named set up the first Coffee-house in St. Michaels alley ; but they soon quarrelled and separated, the coachman establishing himself in St. Michael's churchyard. — (See pp. 2 and 4, ante.)

Aubrey wrote the above in 1680, and Mr. Farr had then become a person of consequence. In his Lives, Aubrey notes : — " When coffee first came in, Sir Henry
Blount was a great upholder of it, and hath ever since been a great frequenter of coffee-houses, especially Mr. Farre's, at the Rainbowe, by Inner Temple Gate."

Farr was originally a barber. His success as a coffee-man appears to have annoyed his neighbours ; and at the inquest at St. Dunstan's, Dec. 21st, 1657, among the presentments of nuisances were the following: —

" We present James Farr, barber, for making and selling of a drink called coffee, whereby in making the same he annoyeth his neighbours by evill smells ; and
for keeping of fire for the most part night and day, whereby his chimney and chamber hath been set on fire, to the great danger and affrightment of his neighbours." However, Farr was not ousted; he probably promised reform, or amended the alleged annoyance :
he remained at the Rainbow, and rose to be a person of eminence and repute in the parish. He issued a token, date 1666 — an arched rainbow based on clouds, doubtless, from the Great Fire — to indicate that with him all was yet safe, and the Rainbow still radiant. There is one of his tokens in the Beaufoy collection, at Guildhall, and so far as is known to Mr. Burn, the Rainbow does not occur on any other tradesman's token. The house was let off into tenements : books were printed here at this very time for Samuel Speed, at the sign of the Rainbow, near the Inner Temple Gate, in Fleet-street."
The Phoenix Fire Office was established here about 1682. Hatton, in 1708, evidently attributed Farr's nuisance to the coffee itself, saying : ' ( Who would have thought London would ever have had three thousand such nuisances, and that coffee would have been (as now) so much drank by the best of quality, and physicians?" The nuisance was in Farr's chimney and carelessness, not in the coffee. Yet, in our statute-book anno 1660 (12 Car. II. c. 24), a duty of 4d. was laid upon every gallon of coffee made and sold. A statute of 1663 directs that all Coffee-houses should be licensed at the Quarter Sessions. And in 1675, Charles II. issued a proclamation to shut up the Coffee-houses, charged with being seminaries of sedition ; but in a few days he suspended this proclamation by a second. The Spectator No. 16, notices some gay frequenters of the Rainbow : — " I have received a letter desiring me to he very satirical upon the little muff that is now in fashion ; another informs me of a pair of silver garters buckled below the knee, that have been lately seen at the Rainbow Coffee-house in Fleet street."

Mr. Moncrieff, the dramatist, used to tell that about 1780, this house was kept by his grandfather, Alexander Moncrieff, when it retained its original title of " The Rainbow Coffee-house." The old Coffee-room had a lofty bay-window, at the south end, looking into the Temple : and the room was separated from the kitchen only by a glazed partition : in the bay was the table for the elders. The house has long been a tavern ; all the old rooms have been swept away, and a large and lofty dining-room erected in their place.

In a paper read to the British Archaeological Association, by Mr. E. B. Price, we find coffee and canary thus brought into interesting comparison, illustrated by the exhibition of one of Farr's Rainbow tokens; and another inscribed " At the Canary House in the Strand, Id., 1665," bearing also the word "Canary " in the monogram. Having noticed the prosecution of Fair, and his triumph over his fellow-parishioners, Mr. Price says : —
"The opposition to coffee continued; people viewed it with distrust, and even with alarm : and we can sympathize with them in their alarm, when we consider that they entertained a notion that coffee would eventually put an end to the species; that the genus homo would some day or other be utterly extinguished. With our knowledge of the beneficial effect of this article on the community, and its almost universal adoption in the present day, we may smile, and wonder while we smile, at the bare possibility of such a notion ever having prevailed.
That it did so, we have ample evidence in the "Women's Petition against Coffee" in the year 1674, cited by D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature, vol. iv., and in which they complain that coffee "made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought: that the offspring of our mighty ancestors would dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies" etc. The same authority gives us an extract from a very amusing poem of 1663, in which the writer wonders that any man should prefer Coffee to Canary, terming them English apes, and proudly referring them to the days of Beaumont and Fletcher and Ben Jonson. They, says he,

" Drank pure nectar as the gods drink too
Sublimed with rich Canary ; say, shall then
These less than coffee's self, these coffee-men,
These sons of nothing, that can hardly make
Their broth for laughing how the jest does take,
Yet grin, and give ye for the vine's pure blood
A loathsome potion — not yet understood,
Syrup of soot, or essence of old shoes,
Dasht with diurnals or the book of news"

One of the weaknesses of  "rare Ben" was his penchant for canary. And it would seem that the Mermaid, in Bread-street, was the house in which he enjoyed it most :
" But that which most doth take my muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid's now, but shall be mine."

Granger states that Charles I. raised Ben's pension from 100 marks to 100 pounds, and added a tierce of canary, which salary and its appendage, he says, have ever since been continued to poets laureate.

Reverting to the Rainbow (says Mr. Price), "it has been frequently remarked by l tavern-goers/ that many of our snuggest and most comfortable taverns are hidden
from vulgar gaze, and unapproachable except through courts, blind alleys, or but half- lighted passages" Of this description was the house in question. But few of its many nightly, or rather midnightly patrons and frequenters, knew aught of it beyond its famed " stewed cheeses," and its " stout," with the various " etceteras" of good cheer. They little dreamed, and perhaps as little cared to know, that, more than two centuries back, the Rainbow nourished as a bookseller's shop ; as appears by the title-page of Trussell's History of England, which states it to be " printed by M.D., for Ephraim Dawson, and are to bee sold in Fleet Street, at thesigne of the Rainbowe, neere the Inner-Temple Gate, 1636."

The upper part of his house Farr let off. One of his tenants was Samuel Speed, a printer, many of whose books are yet extant, and bear the notice of having been printed by him at the sign of the Rainbow, near Inner Temple Gate, Fleet Street.

In or about 1682, the promoters of the Phoenix Fire Insurance Company became tenants of Farr, and that prosperous old fire office was established at the sign of the Rainbow in the first instance.

The general public, those of the humbler and ignorant classes, did not exactly take to coffee " like mother's milk," and its introduction met with great opposition, combined with ridicule. People got it into their heads that its use would eventually put an end to the human race, or, at any rate, the English portion of it, and that it was a devilish invention of the Turks and Moslems in other parts to poison and exterminate the Christians.

The elder D'Israeli, in his " Curiosities of Literature," cites some very quaint and amusing verses of the latter quarter of the seventeenth century.' which compare coffee-drinkers to English apes, and express surprise that anyone should prefer it to Canary Wine. Referring to the days of Beaumont, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson, they said —

At a later period the Rainbow was frequently visited by Dr, Johnson, Boswell, and others of that coterie. It was, in fact, one of the great Samuel's houses of call.

When first I knew the Rainbow, in 1845, one Isaac Argent was the landlord.

So far from all the attempts to crush coffee-drinking proving a success, not long after the opening of the Rainbow another coffee-house was started, close by, at the eastern corner of Inner Temple Lane, then No. 17, Fleet Street, and called Nando's, which is not to be confounded with yet another temple of the fragrant berry —
Groom's, at No. 16, next door.

The Rainbow is still a Bodega as late as 1934. The 1829 Robsons directory places William Colls, at the Rainbow Coffee house & hotel, 15 Fleet street

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: Friday, 15-Sep-2023 12:28:03 BST
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