London’s coffee connections

EAS_4101As it is International Coffee Day today (National Coffee Day in the US), let’s have a look at coffee and London. Coffee follows on nicely from our last post on London’s singleton street names, as 1652 saw London’s first coffee house open in St Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill. Coffee was advertised as “a very good help to digestion, quickens the spirits, and is good against sore eyes”.Cornhill, according to London historian John Stow, takes its name “of a corn market, time out of mind there holden”. The street has literary connections including Charlotte Bronte, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Gray. It was also once a place dear to the hearts of fences and drinkers.

EAS_4102One of London’s strongest coffee connections, at Change Alley in the City of London, the name of which is an abbreviation of ‘Exchange Alley’ – from the Royal Exchange. Towards the end of the 17th century, the Exchange was so crowded that many of the brokers transacted their business in local coffee houses, Jonathan’s Coffee House in particular. Jonathan’s was also the scene of the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors.

Samuel Pepys (who pre-dated the Bubble) mentions the coffee house in his diary: “At noon by coach to the ’Change with Mr. Coventry, thence to the Coffee-house with Captain Coeke”.

Another coffee connection lies in Dean Street, where Number 33 was the site of a coffee house known as Jack’s, which was frequented by artists and writers such as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, and Oliver Goldsmith. It later became Walker’s hotel, where it is alleged that Nelson slept the night before he sailed to the battle of Trafalgar.

In the 18th century, part of St John’s Gate was a coffee house run by Richard Hogarth, father of the painter William Hogarth. It was also the base for the Gentleman’s Magazine, a publication edited by Edward Cave and which provided the first use of the word ‘magazine’ as we know it today. Some of the more frequent visitors of the time (and contributors to the magazine) were Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick.

And, last but not least, the inn at La Belle Sauvage Yard once also served as a coffee house.

Incidentally, there is, alas, no Coffee Street, Lane, Yard or anything else in London, though there are many scattered about the US.

Penny Post, Docwra, and St John’s Gate

PO regs penny postThis day in London history: on 10 January 1840, the Uniform Penny Post was introduced in the UK, allowing letters not exceeding half an ounce in weght to be sent anywhere in the country for one penny if prepaid. If the recipient had to pay, it cost two pence. On 1 May that year, the world’s first postage stamp for a public postal system – the Penny Black – was issued.

In 1680, though the Post Office had a monopoly on the collection and delivery of letters between post towns, there was no delivery system. Enter William Dockwra and Robert Murray, who established the London Penny Post, which cost one penny for delivery of letters and packets, weighing up to one pound, within the cities of Westminster and London as well as Southwark.

Penny Black cancelledThe name Dockwra, with variant spellings, comes from the village of Dockray in Cumberland; the word derives either from the old Norse ‘dokk – a ‘valley’ or the Old English ‘docce’ (dock, or sorrel), and ‘ra’, a corner.

There is a Docwras Buildings in Islington, which was built in about 1857 by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. With all due respect to these Docwras, however, there was a far more famous Thomas Docwra in the 16th century.

Thomas Docwra
Sir Thomas Docwra

The Priory of Clerkenwell, which was founded in the early 1140s, was the administrative centre of the property of the Knights of St John. Sir Thomas Docwra was the prior from 1502 until his death in 1527. (His successor was said to have died of grief on Ascension Day in 1540 when the religious order of St John was dissolved in Britain by Henry VIII.)

Sir Robert Hales, prior of the order in the 14th Century, was also Chancellor of the Realm and responsible for collection of the poll tax that sparked the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Wat Tyler and his rebels set fire to the priory and beheaded Hales. (A rather more extreme reaction to a poll tax than centuries later when the Tory government reintroduced it to the UK.)

The priory was quickly rebuilt and then, in 1504, Docwra was responsible for having it refurbished. Stow says that it was like a palace, though it is questionable if Docwra would have expended so much energy had he known that the order was soon to be suppressed.

St John's Gate
Docwra’s coat of arms can be seen on the north side of St John’s Gate.

The gatehouse – St John’s Gate – is the only priory building still in existence. It was, in Elizabethan times, the office of the Master of the Revels – that era’s equivalent of a censorship board. All plays had to pass through the office for approval, and it is therefore more than likely that William Shakespeare would have been a visitor there.

The gatehouse had a chequered career, including service as a watch-house (where people under temporary arrest were held); a tavern – the Old Jerusalem Tavern; the offices of a masonic order; and the meeting place for various societies. By 1845 it was under threat of demolition because of its dilapidated and dangerous state. A local architect and antiquarian, one William Griffith, came to its rescue by starting a restoration fund and ensuring that it was saved.

St John’s Gate is now the headquarters and museum of the Most Venerable Order of St John, or Order of St John, which directs St. John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.