Old Slaughter’s Coffee House
Old Slaughter’s is perhaps the most famous of all the Georgian coffee houses. From the band of intellectuals and artists who congregated there, William Hogarth formed the St Martin’s Lane Academy (which became the Royal Academy).
Covent Garden had long been a haunt for the artistic: it was full of noble houses in the mid 17C, yet there were still cheap lodgings for the tutors and artists who hung on the coat tails of the nobility. The residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales in Leicester Square was to become a meeting place for those who patronized the arts, and it was the clever artist who was on hand to be called upon. There was a topsy-turvy food market, theatres, whores and plenty of cheap drink. When coffee became the thing, rather than early morning small beer or thin wine, the houses which served it proliferated. It was no surprise that Old Slaughter’s became the focus of so many creative and intellectual types as soon as it opened in 1692 at numbers 74 and 75, St Martin’s Lane.
Coffee houses had advantages over taverns, although they did also serve wine and food. Firstly, they were a bit more civilized, and there were no women. Taverns had become the focus for whoring, like theatres. Coffee houses were places men could go to be together and talk, with no ‘distractions’. The interiors were bare, almost like offices, with plain tables and chairs. Furthermore, the proprietors were quick to cater to the prevailing taste within the establishment. ’Running boys’ were employed to dart between offices, businesses and other places, gathering news relevant to the clientele, which was then chalked up behind the counter. The clearest example of this is the Baltic Coffeehouse in Threadneedle Street, specifically opened to cater for the traders to the Baltic. Stock prices, and news of the coming and going of each vessel was chalked up at hourly intervals.
The news on the board at Old Slaughter’s is lost to us, more’s the pity, but details of those who patronized it are not. One of the most valuable sources are letters addressed to particular individuals at the coffee houses, which acted as both post boxes, and post drops. Many of the artists and intellectuals who patronized Old Slaughter’s, and Rainbow’s around the corner, lived in lodgings or boarding houses, and would move often. The coffee house provided a safe place to send and receive mail. For one or two of the more seditious clients, it was a good way to avoid letting anyone know where they lived. The Huguenot journalist Pierre Des Maizeaux received most of his mail (including a good deal of international correspondence) at the Rainbow.
One of the reasons Old Slaughter’s is the most famous is its spectacular list of regular visitors, including:
William Hogarth, English artist and engraver
William Kent, English artist and designer
Hubert Gravelot, French engraver
François Roubiliac, French sculptor
Francis Hayman, English artist
Thomas Gainsborough, English artist
George Moser, Swiss enameller
Richard Yeo, English medallist
Isaac Ware, English architect
James Paine, English architect
Henry Cheere, English sculptor
Thomas Hudson, English artist
Johann Muller, German engraver
Louis and Joseph Goupy, French miniaturists
Abraham de Moivre, French Huguenot mathematician
Robert Adam, architect and designer
William Hallett, cabinetmaker (although he made chairs, mostly)
John Linnell, cabinetmaker
Two famous residents of St Martin’s Lane never joined the St Martin’s Lane Academy, but I think it unlikely they did not visit Old Slaughter’s. Thomas Chippendale took the lease opposite the coffee house in 1753, and made them his premises for the rest of his working life. Matthew Lock, engraver of the majority of Chippendale’s Director, gave competing life drawing classes from the premises Chippendale later took over.
Old Slaughter’s is just one of the coffee houses in Georgian London, each based around its own speciality. Any student of this aspect of Georgian life owes a great debt to Mark Girouard, as do I.