Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Don Saltero's Coffee House


Among the curiosities of Old Chelsea, almost as well known as its china, was the Coffee-house and Museum, No. 18, Cheyne Walk, opened by a barber, named Salter, in 1695. Sir Hans Sloane contributed some of the refuse gimcracks of his own collection; and Vice-Admiral Munden, who had been long on the coast of Spain, where he had acquired a fondness for Spanish titles, named the keeper of the house Don Saltero, and his coffee-house and museum, Don Saltero's.

The place, however, would, in all probability, have enjoyed little beyond its local fame, had not Sir Richard Steele immortalized the Don and Don Saltero's in The Tatler, No. 34, June 28, 1700; wherein he tells us of the necessity of travelling to know the world by his journey for fresh air, no further than the village of Chelsea, of which he fancied that he could give an immediate description, from the five fields, where the robbers lie in wait, to the Coffee-house, where the literati sit in council. But he found, even in a place so near town as this, there were enormities and persons of eminence, whom he before knew nothing of.

The Coffee-house was almost absorbed by the Museum. "When I came into the Coffee-house," says Steele, "I had not time to salute the company, before my eyes were diverted by ten thousand gimcracks round the room, and on the ceiling. When my first astonishment was over, comes to me a sage of thin and meagre countenance, which aspect made me doubt whether reading or fretting had made it so philosophic; but I very soon perceived him to be of that sort which the ancients call 'gingivistee,' in our language 'tooth-drawers,' I immediately had a respect for the man; for these practical philosophers go upon a very practical hypothesis, not to cure, but to take away the part affected. My love of mankind made me very benevolent to Mr. Salter, for such is the name of this eminent barber and antiquary."

The Don was famous for his punch and his skill on the fiddle; he also drew teeth, and wrote verses; he described his museum in several stanzas, one of which is—

"Monsters of all sorts are seen:

Strange things in nature as they grew so;

Some relicks of the Sheba Queen,

And fragments of the fam'd Bob Crusoe."

Steele then plunges into a deep thought why barbers should go further in hitting the ridiculous than any other set of men; and maintains that Don Saltero is descended in a right line, not from John Tradescant, as he himself asserts, but from the memorable companion of the Knight of Mancha. Steele then certifies that all the worthy citizens who travel to see the Don's rarities, his double-barrelled pistols, targets, coats of mail, his sclopeta, and sword of Toledo, were left to his ancestor by the said Don Quixote, and by his ancestor to all his progeny down to Saltero. Though Steele thus goes far in favour of Don Saltero's great merit, he objects to his imposing several names (without his licence) on the collection he has made, to the abuse of the good people of England; one of which is particularly calculated to deceive religious persons, to the great scandal of the well-disposed, and may introduce heterodox opinions. [Among the curiosities presented by Admiral Munden was a coffin, containing the body or relics of a Spanish saint, who had wrought miracles.] "He shows you a straw hat, which," says Steele, "I know to be made by Madge Peskad, within three miles of Bedford; and tells you 'It is Pontius Pilate's wife's chambermaid's sister's hat.' To my knowledge of this very hat, it may be added that the covering of straw was never used among the Jews, since it was demanded of them to make bricks without it. Therefore, this is nothing but, under the specious pretence of learning and antiquities, to impose upon the world. There are other things which I cannot tolerate among his rarities, as, the china figure of the lady in the glass-case; the Italian engine, for the imprisonment of those who go abroad with it; both of which I hereby order to be taken down, or else he may expect to have his letters patent for making punch superseded, be debarred wearing his muff next winter, or ever coming to London without his wife." Babillard says that Salter had an old grey muff, and that, by wearing it up to his nose, he was distinguishable at the distance of a quarter of a mile. His wife was none of the best, being much addicted to scolding; and Salter, who liked his glass, if he could make a trip to London by himself, was in no haste to return.

Don Saltero's proved very attractive as an exhibition, and drew crowds to the coffee-house. A catalogue was published, of which were printed more than forty editions. Smollett, the novelist, was among the donors. The catalogue, in 1760, comprehended the following rarities:—Tigers' tusks; the Pope's candle; the skeleton of a Guinea-pig; a fly-cap monkey; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists' heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco's tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots' pincushion; Queen Elizabeth's prayer-book; a pair of Nun's stockings; Job's ears, which grew on a tree; a frog in a tobacco-stopper; and five hundred more odd relics! The Don had a rival, as appears by "A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Adams's, at the Royal Swan, in Kingsland-road, leading from Shoreditch Church, 1756." Mr. Adams exhibited, for the entertainment of the curious, "Miss Jenny Cameron's shoes; Adam's eldest daughter's hat; the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn with Lawyer Carr, January 18, 1736-7; Sir Walter Raleigh's tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray's clogs; engine to shell green peas with; teeth that grew in a fish's belly; Black Jack's ribs; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob's head with; Wat Tyler's spurs; rope that cured Captain Lowry of the head-ach, ear-ach, tooth-ach, and belly-ach; Adam's key of the fore and back door of the Garden of Eden, &c., &c." These are only a few out of five hundred others equally marvellous.

The Don, in 1723, issued a curious rhyming advertisement of his Curiosities, dated "Chelsea Knackatory," and in one line he calls it "My Museum Coffee-house."

In Dr. Franklin's Life we read:—"Some gentlemen from the country went by water to see the College, and Don Saltero's Curiosities, at Chelsea." They were shown in the coffee-room till August, 1799, when the collection was mostly sold or dispersed; a few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premises, they were thrown away! The house is now a tavern, with the sign of "The Don Saltero's Coffee-house."

The success of Don Saltero, in attracting visitors to his coffee-house, induced the proprietor of the Chelsea Bun-house to make a similar collection of rarities, to attract customers for the buns; and to some extent it was successful.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. II
London, 1866