Street View: 77
Address: 26-27 Cockspur Street
The British Coffee-House in Cockspur Street, Charing Cross, became the cultural and social centre of the Scots in London and as such, an easy target for mockery. Daniel Defoe is usually credited with saying “the Scots go generally to the British”, but it was in fact John Macky who, in 1714, wrote in his Journey through England in familiar letters from a gentleman here, to his friend abroad that particular phrase when explaining that the various coffee houses had their own clientele. In 1764, the publication of the anonymous The British Coffee-House. A Poem was announced. It was a satire, mocking the Scots in London who tended to stick together, easily recognised by their dress and accent. In the poem, a young uncouth Scot named Sawney makes his way to London and is directed to the British coffee-house via various other establishments, such as Will’s and Tom’s, until he reaches his destination, “My journey’s done – and thank the happy hour / See, Sawney enters at the British door”. A mirror on the wall spooks the young man and he lashes out at his own reflection, “Then to the bar with bleeding fingers reel’d, / And told, elated, ‘how he’d bang’d the Chield‘” The proprietor is named as Mrs. D—-s in the poem, which must be Mrs Douglas, although the Survey of London has the Douglasses relinquish the coffee house in 1755 to the Andersons.(1)
Tallis lists John Element as the proprietor of the coffee house and hotel. With the help of the Survey and a few other sources, we can make a list of the managers since the earliest mention of the establishment in the 1710 Rate Book (a ? before a year means ‘probably earlier, but not certain’):
1710-1728: Sarah Fenwicke, otherwise Moreau, the widow of William Moreau
1729-1734: George Forrest
1735-1755: Archibald, Isabella and Jane Douglas
1756-1772: Robert Anderson
1773-1777: Helen Anderson
1777-1825: David and Atkinson Morley
1825-1841?: John Element
?1849-1854: Charles Heginbotham
?1861-1871: Nicolas Smith
?1877-1881: Augustus Frederick Christian Meyer
Robson’s Directory of 1842 tells us that the four coaches per day that came from Hampton and Hampton Court coming through Richmond, Twickenham and Teddingham stopped off at the British coffee house before continuing to their final destination, the White Hart, 296 Strand. In the one and three quarter century of its existence, the coffee-house and hotel saw innumerable visitors through its doors, some fortunately wrote about their shorter or longer stay in letters and diaries, others had their correspondence sent to the hotel, although that does not necessarily mean that they actually stayed there. They may just have used the place as a convenient post-office. I can only mention a few: James Boswell wrote that Samuel Johnson joined him and George Dempster for dinner at the British on Saturday, the 9th of May, 1772,(2) and Edward Gibbon dined there on 28 January, 1774, “with Garrick, Colman, Goldsmith, MacPherson, John Hume, &c”.(3) But not just private individual made use of the hotel. The National Conservative Association was launched by Lord Sandon at the British Hotel on 25 April, 1836(4) and on 21 March, 1843, the Society of British Authors held their first meeting at the hotel.(5)
Robert Adam re-designed the coffee house in 1770. According to The Survey, this new building “was considerably extended in 1817 by the addition of premises in the rear running along the north side of Red Lion Yard”. At some point in time, probably around 1810 when the Morleys were in charge, the adjacent no. 26 was added to incorporate the hotel business. In 1886, it was all over. The building was demolished and the contents sold off.
There appear to be two versions of the Grand Architectural Panorama of London. The illustration above comes from the one available at the British Library (here) and Oberlin College (here). The other one, from the Guildhall Library via Getty Images, can be seen here. Please note the figures in the foreground of the Guildhall one which are totally different from the ones in the picture above.
UPDATE AND QUESTION 10 Sept. 2015: One of my readers sent me a message that she had found a decorative plate amongst her mother’s belongings which seemed to come from the British Hotel, see picture below. Was it a commemorative plate or, more likely in my opinion, a plate that was used every day in the hotel and somehow managed to escape destruction in 1886? Anyone any thoughts on the pottery/factory that made the plate? Anyone recognise the small marks on the back of the plate? Anyone any thoughts on the value of the plate? Were they made in their hundreds with different hotel names on the back, or were they exclusively made for the British Hotel? Or any other thoughts ….? Please leave a comment and I will pass them on to the owner of the plate.
(1) Survey of London, Volume 16, St Martin-in-The-Fields I: Charing Cross (1935).
(2) James Boswell, The life of Samuel Johnson (1792), p. 60.
(3) Miscellaneous works of Edward Gibbon, Esquire. With memoirs of his life and writings, composed by himself: illustrated from his letters (1796), p.7.
(4) Philip Salmon, Electoral Reform at Work: Local Politics and National parties, 1832-1841 (2002), p. 48.
(5) Catherine Seville, The Internationalisation of Copyright Laws (2006), p. 257.