Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 St James's Coffee House


This was the famous Whig Coffee-house from the time of Queen Anne till late in the reign of George III. It was the last house but one on the south-west corner of St. James's-street, and is thus mentioned in No. 1 of the Tatler: "Foreign and Domestic News you will have from St. James's Coffee-house." It occurs also in the passage quoted at page 39, from the Spectator. The St. James's was much frequented by Swift; letters for him were left here. In his Journal to Stella he says: "I met Mr. Harley, and he asked me how long I had learnt the trick of writing to myself? He had seen your letter through the glass case at the Coffee-house, and would swear it was my hand." The letters from Stella were enclosed under cover to Addison.

Elliot, who kept the coffee-house, was, on occasions, placed on a friendly footing with his guests. Swift, in his Journal to Stella, Nov. 19, 1710, records an odd instance of this familiarity: "This evening I christened our coffee-man Elliot's child; when the rogue had a most noble supper, and Steele and I sat amongst some scurvy company over a bowl of punch."

In the first advertisement of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Town Eclogues, they are stated to have been read over at the St. James's Coffee-house, when they were considered by the general voice to be productions of a Lady of Quality. From the proximity of the house to St. James's Palace, it was much frequented by the Guards; and we read of its being no uncommon circumstance to see Dr. Joseph Warton at breakfast in the St. James's Coffee-house, surrounded by officers of the Guards, who listened with the utmost attention and pleasure to his remarks.

To show the order and regularity observed at the St. James's, we may quote the following advertisement, appended to the Tatler [*] , No. 25:—"To prevent all mistakes that may happen among gentlemen of the other end of the town, who come but once a week to St. James's Coffee-house, either by miscalling the servants, or requiring such things from them as are not properly within their respective provinces; this is to give notice that Kidney, keeper of the book-debts of the outlying customers, and observer of those who go off without paying, having resigned that employment, is succeeded by John Sowton; to whose place of enterer of messages and first coffee-grinder, William Bird is promoted; and Samuel Burdock comes as shoe-cleaner in the room of the said Bird."

But the St. James's is more memorable as the house where originated Goldsmith's celebrated poem, Retaliation. The poet belonged to a temporary association of men of talent, some of them members of the Club, who dined together occasionally here. At these dinners he was generally the last to arrive. On one occasion, when he was later than usual, a whim seized the company to write epitaphs on him as "the late Dr. Goldsmith," and several were thrown off in a playful vein. The only one extant was written by Garrick, and has been preserved, very probably, by its pungency:—

"Here lies poet Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll;

He wrote like an angel, but talked like poor Poll."

Goldsmith did not relish the sarcasm, especially coming from such a quarter; and, by way of retaliation, he produced the famous poem, of which Cumberland has left a very interesting account, but which Mr. Forster, in his Life of Goldsmith, states to be "pure romance." The poem itself, however, with what was prefixed to it when published, sufficiently explains its own origin. What had formerly been abrupt and strange in Goldsmith's manners, had now so visibly increased, as to become matter of increased sport to such as were ignorant of its cause; and a proposition made at one of the dinners, when he was absent, to write a series of epitaphs upon him (his "country dialect" and his awkward person) was agreed to and put in practice by several of the guests. The active aggressors appear to have been Garrick, Doctor Bernard, Richard Burke, and Caleb Whitefoord. Cumberland says he, too, wrote an epitaph; but it was complimentary and grave, and hence the grateful return he received. Mr. Forster considers Garrick's epitaph to indicate the tone of all. This, with the rest, was read to Goldsmith when he next appeared at the St. James's Coffee-house, where Cumberland, however, says he never again met his friends. But "the Doctor was called on for Retaliation," says the friend who published the poem with that name, "and at their next meeting, produced the following, which I think adds one leaf to his immortal wreath." "Retaliation," says Sir Walter Scott, "had the effect of placing the author on a more equal footing with his Society than he had ever before assumed."

Cumberland's account differs from the version formerly received, which intimates that the epitaphs were written before Goldsmith arrived: whereas the pun, "the late Dr. Goldsmith," appears to have suggested the writing of the epitaphs. In the Retaliation, Goldsmith has not spared the characters and failings of his associates, but has drawn them with satire, at once pungent and good-humoured. Garrick is smartly chastised; Burke, the Dinner-bell of the House of Commons, is not let off; and of all the more distinguished names of the Club, Thomson, Cumberland, and Reynolds alone escape the lash of the satirist. The former is not mentioned, and the two latter are even dismissed with unqualified and affectionate applause.

Still, we quote Cumberland's account of the Retaliation, which is very amusing from the closely circumstantial manner in which the incidents are narrated, although they have so little relationship to truth:—"It was upon a proposal started by Edmund Burke, that a party of friends who had dined together at Sir Joshua Reynolds's and my house, should meet at the St. James's Coffee-house, which accordingly took place, and was repeated occasionally with much festivity and good fellowship. Dr. Bernard, Dean of Derry; a very amiable and old friend of mine, Dr. Douglas, since Bishop of Salisbury; Johnson, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund and Richard Burke, Hickey, with two or three others, constituted our party. At one of these meetings an idea was suggested of extemporary epitaphs upon the parties present: pen and ink were called for, and Garrick, off-hand, wrote an epitaph with a good deal of humour, upon poor Goldsmith, who was the first in jest, as he proved to be in reality, that we committed to the grave. The Dean also gave him an epitaph, and Sir Joshua illuminated the Dean's verses with a sketch of his bust in pen-and-ink, inimitably caricatured. Neither Johnson nor Burke wrote anything, and when I perceived that Oliver was rather sore, and seemed to watch me with that kind of attention which indicated his expectation of something in the same kind of burlesque with theirs; I thought it time to press the joke no further, and wrote a few couplets at a side-table, which, when I had finished, and was called upon by the company to exhibit, Goldsmith, with much agitation, besought me to spare him; and I was about to tear them, when Johnson wrested them out of my hand, and in a loud voice read them at the table. I have now lost recollection of them, and, in fact, they were little worth remembering; but as they were serious and complimentary, the effect upon Goldsmith was the more pleasing, for being so entirely unexpected. The concluding line, which was the only one I can call to mind, was:—

"'All mourn the poet, I lament the man.'

This I recollect, because he repeated it several times, and seemed much gratified by it. At our next meeting he produced his epitaphs, as they stand in the little posthumous poem above mentioned, and this was the last time he ever enjoyed the company of his friends."[12]

Mr. Cunningham tells us that the St. James's was closed about 1806; and a large pile of building looking down Pall Mall, erected on its site.

The globular oil-lamp was first exhibited by its inventor, Michael Cole, at the door of the St. James's Coffee-house, in 1709; in the patent he obtained, it is mentioned as "a new kind of light."

[*] Mr Maurice Brenner informs me that Timbs is mistaken here, and the reference comes from The Spectactor, not the Tatler. Ed

[12] Cumberland's Memoirs, vol. i.

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