Thursday, 21 March 2013

Are you clubbable?

The club became a Georgian institution, and it grew from the other great institution, the coffee house. Originally introduced into Britain during the Restoration period, the coffee house was a place for gentlemen to enjoy coffee or tea, gossip and do business.
Something it’s easy for us to overlook is that it wasn’t safe to drink the water. Not until modern times could we pour a glass of water and drink it. Water had to be boiled or otherwise treated before people could be sure it was safe. And boiled water tastes awful. Truly nasty. Unless it’s turned into something tasty like tea, coffee or chocolate.
Before the advent of a comforting hot drink, everybody drank a form of alcohol, because the process rendered the water safe. Not because everybody was a lush! Even children drank small beer with their meals, because there wasn’t much else for them.
But the growing popularity of tea and coffee led to the institutions that spawned a thousand romance novels. The coffee houses clustered around the City of London, although most provincial towns of a reasonable size had them, too. But as Johnson often claimed, there was nowhere quite like London.
Covent Garden had coffee houses in the day time, and at night, when they were closed, the whorehouses plied their trade, together with the theaters. Close by was the magistrate’s court and prison in Bow Street. It’s not until you visit London and walk those streets do you realise how snug they actually were. The first accredited coffee house in London, Tom’s, was recently demolished to make way for an extension for Covent Garden Opera House, which is now a gargantuan enterprise. Vandalism, if you ask me.
However, there are still some sites left, if you know where to look for them. A cluster existed in the City, like Lloyds Coffee House, which became the Stock Exchange, where men met to exchange information and business deals. Every man carried a small book with him at all times, and he recorded all the deals in the book, transcribing them and giving them to his legal people later. But a man’s word was his bond, and thousands (millions in today’s money) could be exchanged in a handshake. That was why it was so important to be able to trust the person you were doing business with. So if the man did something doubtful, like marrying an unsuitable partner, it affected his credibility. And unlike France, where the nobility were forbidden to engage in commerce, many an aristocrat had substantial investments in City institutions. Even more in the merchant ships that left the Pool of London every day.
Slowly the coffee houses became places where the people gathered there specialised in one thing or another. Lloyds became an insurance house. The Cocoa-Tree was a political one, particularly for Whigs, the aristocratic party, more sympathetic to the French and to international concerns. The county, the Tory party, didn’t trust tea or coffee for a long time, claiming that small beer and ale was good enough for an Englishman, but eventually they came around, too.
Note that I keep saying “men,” for the coffeehouse was a male preserve. The pictures show exclusively men, with women serving them the drinks and taking the money at a desk at the end of the house. They had no part in the social interaction.
However women had their own equivalent – the tea-drinking in the afternoon. As the interval between breakfast and dinner lengthened, it became necessary for another ritual, and that became tea. The ladies held salons of various kinds, but these were always necessarily more exclusive, being held in their homes.
Since the literary salons were fascinating places, I’ll probably come back to them in a different entry.
However, as the eighteenth century progressed, the coffeehouse became something more exclusive, to which membership was required—the gentleman’s club. The eighteenth century gentleman was extremely clubbable, and a fashionable man might belong to several, but frequent one. White’s is the best known one these days, but there were many more, and they continue to be. I’m a member of a London club, since the institution has long been used by women as well.
However, the hustle and busyness of the London coffeehouse was the first point at which I fell in love with the eighteenth century. And I’ve never fallen out of love with it.

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