Wills coffee house : London coffee houses and taverns

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WILL'S COFFEE-HOUSE, Russell street.

Will's, the predecessor of Button's, and even more celebrated than that Coffee-house, was kept by William Urwin, and was the house on the north side of Russell street at the end of Bow-street — the corner house — now  occupied as a ham and beef shop, and numbered twenty-three. " It was Dryden who made Will's Coffee-house the great resort of the wits of his time." (Pope and Spence) .  The room in which the poet was accustomed to sit was on the first floor ; and his place was the place of honour by fire-side in the winter ; and at the corner of the balcony, looking over the street, in fine weather; he called the two places his winter and his summer seat. This was called the dining-room floor in the last century. The company did not sit in boxes, as subsequently, but at various tables which were dispersed through the room. Smoking was permitted in the public room : it was then so much in vogue that it does not seem to have been considered a nuisance. Here, as in other similar places of meeting, the visitors divided themselves into parties ; and we are told by Ward, that the young beaux and wits, who seldom approached the principal table, thought it a great honour to have a pinch out of Dryden's snuff-box.

* Will's Coffee-house first had the title of the Red Cow, then of the Rose, and, we believe, is the same house alluded to in the pleasant story in the second number of the Tatler : —

" Supper and friends expect we at the Rose."

The Rose, however, was a common sign for houses of public entertainment.

Dean Lockier has left this life-like picture of his interview with the presiding genius at Will's : — " I was about seventeen when I first came up to town/' says the Dean, " an odd-looking boy, with short rough hair, and that sort of awkwardness which one always brings up at first out of the country with one. However, in spite of my bashfulness and appearance, I used, now and then, to thrust myself into Will's, to have the pleasure of seeing the most celebrated wits of that time, who then resorted thither. The second time that ever I was there, Mr. Drydenwas speaking of his own things, as he frequently did, especially of such as had been lately published. ' If anything of mine is good, says he, ' 'tis Mac-Flecno ; and I value myself the more upon it, because it is the first piece of ridicule written in heroics.' On hearing this I plucked up my spirit so far as to say, in a voice but just loud enough to be heard, ' that Mac-Flecno was a very fine poem, but that I had not imagined it to be the first that was ever writ that way.' On this, Dryden turned short upon me, as surprised at my interposing ; asked me how long  I had been a dealer in poetry ; ' and added, with a smile, ' Pray, Sir, what is it that you did imagine to have been writ so before ? ' — I named Boileau's Lutrin, and Tassoni's Secchia Rapita, which I had read, and knew Dryden had borrowed some strokes from each. * 'Tis true, said Dryden, ' I had forgot them.' A little after, Dryden went out, and in going, spoke to me again, and desired me to come and see him the next day. I was highly delighted with the invitation ; went to see him accordingly ; and was well acquainted with him after, as long as he lived"

Will's Coffee-house was the open market for libels and lampoons, the latter named from the established burden formerly sung to them : —

"Lampone, lampone, camerada lampone."

There was a drunken fellow, named Julian, who was a characterless frequenter of Will's, and Sir Walter Scott has given this account of him and his vocation : —

" Upon the general practice of writing lampoons, and the necessity of finding some mode of dispersing them, which should diffuse the scandal widely while the authors remained concealed, was founded the self-erected office of Julian, Secretary, as he calls himself, to the Muses. This person attended Will's, the Wits' Coffee-house, as it was called ; and dispersed among the crowds who frequented that place of gay resort copies of the lampoons which had been privately communicated to him by their authors.  He is described,' says Mr. Malone, ' as a very drunken fellow, and at one time was confined for a liable.' Several satires were written, in the form of addresses to him as well as the following.
There is one among the State Poems beginning —

" ' Julian, in verse, to ease thy wants I write,
Not moved by envy, malice, or by spite,
Or pleased with the empty names of wit and sense,
But merely to supply thy want of pence :
This did inspire my muse, when out at heel,
She saw her needy secretary reel ;
Grieved that a man, so useful to the age,
Should foot it in so mean an equipage ;
A crying scandal that the fees of sense
Should not be able to support the expense
Of a poor scribe, who never thought of wants,
When able to procure a cup of Nantz.'

Another, called a 'Consoling Epistle to Julian' is said to have been written by the Duke of Buckingham.

" From a passage in one of the Letters from the Dead to the Living, we learn, that after Julian's death, and the madness of his successor, called Summerton, lampoon felt a sensible decay ; and there was no more that brisk spirit of verse, that used to watch the follies and vices of the men and women of figure, that they could not start new ones faster than lampoons exposed them."

How these lampoons were concocted we gather from Bays, in the Hind and the Panther transversed : — "'Tis a trifle hardly worth owning; I was Mother day at Will's, throwing out something of that nature ; and, i' gad, the hint was taken, and out came that picture; indeed, the poor fellow was so civil as to present me with a dozen of 'em for my friends ; I think I have here one in my pocket. . . . Ay, ay, I can do it if I list, tho' you must not think I have been so dull as to mind these things myself; but 'tis the advantage of our Coffee-house, that from their talk, one may write a very good polemical discourse, without ever troubling one's head with the books of controversy."

Tom Brown describes " a Wit and a Beau set up with little or no expense. A pair of red stockings and a sword-knot set up one, and peeping once a day in at Will's, and two or three second-hand sayings, the other."

Pepys, one night, going to fetch home his wife, stopped in Covent Garden, at the Great Coffee-house there, as he called Will's, where he never was before : " Where," he adds, " Dryden, the poet (I knew at Cambridge), and all the Wits of the town, and Harris the player, and Mr. Hoole of our College. And had I had time then, or could at other times, it will be good coming thither, for there, I perceive, is very witty and pleasant discourse. But I could not tarry ; and, as it was late, they were all ready to go away."

Addison passed each day alike, and much in the manner that Dryden did. Dry den employed his mornings in writing, dined en familk, and then went to Will's, " only he came home earlier o' nights."

Pope, when very young, was impressed with such veneration for Dryden, that he persuaded some friends to take him to Will's Coffee-house, and was delighted that he could say that he had seen Dryden. Sir Charles Wogan, too, brought up Pope from the Forest of Windsor, to dress a la mode, and introduce at Will's Coffee-house. Pope afterwards described Dryden as " a plump man with a down look, and not very conversible ; " and Cibber could tell no more " but that he remembered him a decent old man, arbitor of critical disputes at Will's."

Prior sings of —

" the younger Stiles,
Whom Dryden pedagogues at Will's !"

Most of the hostile criticisms on his Plays, which Dryden has noticed in his various Prefaces, appear to have been made at his favourite haunt, Will's Coffee-house.

Dryden is generally said to have been returning from Will's to his house in Gerard street, when he was cudgelled in Rose-street by three persons hired for the purpose by Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the winter of 1679. The assault, or " the Rose-alley Ambuscade," certainly took place ; but it is not so certain that Dryden was on his way from Will's, and he then lived in Long Acre, not Gerard street.

It is worthy of remark that Swift was accustomed to speak disparagingly of Will's, as in his Rhapsody on Poetry : —

" Be sure at Will's the following day
Lie snug, and hear what critics say ;
And if you find the general vogue
Pronounces you a stupid rogue,
Damns all your thoughts as low and little ;
Sit still, and swallow down your spittle."

Swift thought little of the frequenters of Will's : he used to say, " the worst conversation he ever heard in his life was at Will's Coffee-house, where the wits (as they were called) used formerly to assemble ; that is to say, five or six men, who had writ plays or at least prologues, or had a share in a miscellany, came thither, and  entertained one another with their trifling composures, in so important an air as if they had been the noblest efforts of human nature, or that the fate of kingdoms depended on them."

In the first number of the Tatler, Poetry is promised under the article of Will's Coffee-house. The place, however, changed after Dryden's time : " you used to see songs, epigrams, and satires in the hands of every man you met ; you have now only a pack of cards ; and instead of the cavils about the turn of the expression, the elegance of the style, and the like, the learned now dispute only about the truth of the game." " In old times, we used to sit upon a play here, after it was acted, but now the entertainment's turned another way."

The Spectator is sometimes seen " thrusting his head into a round of politicians at Will's, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in these little circular audiences." Then, we have as an instance of no one member of human society but that would have some little pretension for some degree in it, " like him who came to Will's Coffee-house upon the merit of having writ a posie of a ring." And, " Robin, the porter who waits at Will's, is the best man in town for carrying a billet : the fellow has a thin body, swift step, demure looks, sufficient sense, and knows the town."

After Dryden's death in 1701, Will's continued for about ten years to be still the Wits' Coffee-house, as we see by Ned Ward's account, and by that in the Journey through England in 1722.

Pope entered with keen relish into society, and courted the correspondence of the town wits and coffee-house critics. Among his early friends was Mr. Henry
Cromwell, one of the cousinry of the Protector's family; he was a bachelor, and spent most of his time in London ; he had some pretensions to scholarship and literature, having translated several of Ovid's Elegies, for Tonson's Miscellany. With Wycherley, Gay, Dennis, the popular actors and actresses of the day, and with all the frequenters of Will's, Cromwell was familiar. He had done more than take a pinch out of Dryden's snuff-box, which was a point of high ambition and honour at Will's, he had quarrelled with him about a frail poetess, Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, whom Dryden had christened Corinna, and who was also known as Sappho. Gay characterized this literary and eccentric beau as

" Honest, hatless Cromwell, with red breeches ;" it being his custom to carry his hat in his hand when walking with ladies. What with ladies and literature, rehearsals and reviews, and critical attention to the quality of his coffee and Brazil snuff, Henry Cromwell's time was fully occupied in town. Cromwell was a dangerous acquaintance for Pope at the age of sixteen or seventeen, but he was a very agreeable one. Most of Pope's letters to his friend are addressed to him at the Blue Ball, in Great Wild-street, near Drury-lane; and others to " Widow Hambledon's Coffee-house at the end of Princes-street, near Drury-lane, London." Cromwell made one visit to Binfield ; on his return to London, Pope wrote to him, " referring to the ladies in particular," and to his favourite coffee :

* The Spectator, No. 398.

" As long as Mocha's happy tree shall grow,
While berries crackle, or while mills shall go ;
While smoking streams from silver spouts shall glide
Or China's earth receive the sable tide,
While Coffee shall to British nymphs be dear,
While fragrant steams the bended head shall cheer,
Or grateful bitters shall delight the taste,
So long her honours, name, and praise shall last."

Even at this early period Pope seems to have relied for relief from headache to the steam of coffee, which he inhaled for this purpose throughout the whole of his life.*

The Taverns and Coffee-houses supplied the place of the Clubs we have since seen established. Although no exclusive subscription belonged to any of these, we find by the account which Colley Gibber gives of his first visit to Will's, in Covent Garden, that it required an introduction to this Society not to be considered as an impertinent intruder. There the veteran Dryden had long presided over all the acknowledged wits and poets of the day, and those who had the pretension to be reckoned among them. The politicians assembled at the St. James's Coffee-house, from whence all the articles of political news in the first Tatlers are dated. The learned frequented the Grecian Coffee-house in Devereux-court. Locket's, in Gerard-street, Soho, and Pontac's, were the fashionable taverns where the young and gay met to dine : and White's and other chocolate houses seem to have been the resort of the same company in the morning. Three o'clock, or at latest four, was the dining-hour of the most fashionable persons in London, for in the country no such late hours had been adopted. In London, therefore, soon after six, the men began to assemble at the coffee-house they frequented if they were not setting in for hard drinking, which seems to have been much less indulged in private houses than in taverns. The ladies made visits to one another, which it must be owned was a much less waste of time when considered as an amusement for the evening, than now, as being a morning occupation.

* Carruthers : Life of Pope.

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 (C 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."

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 01:16:46 BST