Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Wittinagemot of the Chapter Coffee-House


The Chapter Coffee-house, at the corner of Chapterhouse Court, on the south side of Paternoster-row, was, in the last century, noted as the resort of men of letters, and was famous for its punch, pamphlets, and good supply of newspapers. It was closed as a coffee-house in 1854, and then altered to a tavern. Its celebrity, however, lay in the last century. In the Connoisseur, January 31, 1754, we read: "The Chapter Coffee-house is frequented by those encouragers of literature, and (as they are styled by an eminent critic) 'not the worst judges of merit,' the booksellers. The conversation here naturally turns upon the newest publications; but their criticisms are somewhat singular. When they say a good book, they do not mean to praise the style or sentiment, but the quick and extensive sale of it. That book is best which sells most; and if the demand for Quarles should be greater than for Pope, he would have the highest place on the rubric-post."

The house was much frequented by Chatterton, who writes to his mother: "I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffee-house, and know all the geniuses there;" and to Mr. Mason: "Send me whatever you would have published, and direct for me, to be left at the Chapter Coffee-house, Paternoster-row." And, writing from "King's Bench for the present," May 14th, 1770, Chatterton says: "A gentleman who knows me at the Chapter, as an author, would have introduced me as a companion to the young Duke of Northumberland, in his intended general tour. But, alas! I spake no tongue but my own."

Forster relates an anecdote of Oliver Goldsmith being paymaster at the Chapter, for Churchill's friend, Lloyd, who, in his careless way, without a shilling to pay for the entertainment, had invited him to sup with some friends of Grub-street.

The Club celebrity of the Chapter was, however, the Wittinagemot, as the box in the north-east corner of the coffee-room was designated. Among its frequenters was Alexander Stevens, editor of the Annual Biography and Obituary, who died in 1824, and who left among his papers, printed in the Monthly Magazine, as "Stephensiana," his recollections of the Chapter, which he frequented in 1797 to 1805, where, he tells us, he always met with intelligent company. We give his reminiscences almost in his own words.

Early in the morning it was occupied by neighbours, who were designated the Wet Paper Club, as it was their practice to open the papers when brought in by the newsmen, and read them before they were dried by the waiter; a dry paper they viewed as a stale commodity. In the afternoon, another party enjoyed the wet evening papers; and (says Stephens) it was these whom I met.

Dr. Buchan, author of Domestic Medicine, generally held a seat in this box; and though he was a Tory, he heard the freest discussion with good humour, and commonly acted as a moderator. His fine physiognomy, and his white hairs, qualified him for this office. But the fixture in the box was a Mr. Hammond, a Coventry manufacturer, who, evening after evening, for nearly forty-five years, was always to be found in his place, and during the entire period was much distinguished for his severe and often able strictures on the events of the day. He had thus debated through the days of Wilkes, of the American war, and of the French war, and being on the side of liberty, was constantly in opposition. His mode of arguing was Socratic, and he generally applied to his adversary the reductio ad absurdum, creating bursts of laughter.

The registrar or chronicler of the box was a Mr. Murray, an episcopal Scotch minister, who generally sat in one place from nine in the morning till nine at night; and was famous for having read, at least once through, every morning and evening paper published in London during the last thirty years. His memory being good, he was appealed to whenever any point of fact within the memory of man happened to be disputed. It was often remarked, however, that such incessant daily reading did not tend to clear his views.

Among those from whom I constantly profited was Dr. Berdmore, the Master of the Charterhouse; Walker, the rhetorician; and Dr. Towers, the political and historical writer. Dr. B. abounded in anecdote; Walker, (the Dictionary-maker,) to the finest enunciation united the most intelligent head I ever met with; and Towers, over his half-pint of Lisbon, was sarcastic and lively, though never deep.

Among our constant visitors was the celebrated Dr. George Fordyce, who, having much fashionable practice, brought news which had not generally transpired. He had not the appearance of a man of genius, nor did he debate, but he possessed sound information on all subjects. He came to the Chapter after taking his wine, and stayed about an hour, or while he sipped a glass of brandy-and-water; it was then his habit to take another glass at the London Coffee-house, and a third at the Oxford, before he returned to his house in Essex-street, Strand.

Dr. Gower, the urbane and able physician of the Middlesex, was another pretty constant visitor. It was gratifying to hear such men as Fordyce, Gower, and Buchan in familiar chat. On subjects of medicine they seldom agreed, and when such were started, they generally laughed at one another's opinions. They seemed to consider Chapter punch, or brandy-and-water, as aqua vitæ; and, to the credit of the house, better punch could not be found in London. If any one complained of being indisposed, the elder Buchan exclaimed, "Now let me prescribe for you without a fee. Here, John or Isaac, bring a glass of punch for Mr. ——, unless he likes brandy-and-water better. Take that, Sir, and I'll warrant you you'll soon be well. You're a peg too low; you want stimulus, and if one glass won't do, call for a second."

There was a growling man of the name of Dobson, who, when his asthma permitted, vented his spleen upon both sides; and a lover of absurd paradoxes, author of some works of merit, but so devoid of principle, that, deserted by his friends, he would have died for want, if Dr. Garthshore had not placed him as a patient in the empty Fever Institution.

Robinson, the king of the booksellers, was frequently of the party, as well as his brother John, a man of some talent; and Joseph Johnson, the friend of Priestley, and Paine, and Cowper, and Fuseli, came from St. Paul's Churchyard.

Phillips, then commencing his Monthly Magazine, was also on a keen look-out for recruits, and with his waistcoat pocket full of guineas, to slip his enlistment money into their hand. Phillips, in the winter of 1795-6, lodged and boarded at the Chapter, and not only knew the characters referred to by Mr. Stephens, but many others equally original, from the voracious glutton in politics, who waited for the wet papers in the morning twilight, to the comfortless bachelor, who sat till the fire was raked out at half-past twelve at night, all of whom took their successive stations, like figures in a magic lantern.

Alexander Chalmers, the workman of the Robinsons, and through their introduction editor of many large books, also enlivened the box by many sallies of wit and humour. He always took much pains to be distinguished from his namesake George, who, he used to say, carried, "the leaden mace," and he was much provoked whenever he happened to be mistaken for his namesake.

Cahusac, a teacher of the classics; M'Leod, a writer in the newspapers; the two Parrys, of the Courier, the organ of Jacobinism; and Captain Skinner, a man of elegant manners, who personated our nation in the procession of Anacharsis Clootz, at Paris, in 1793, were also in constant attendance.

One Baker, once a Spitalfields manufacturer, a great talker, and not less remarkable as an eater, was constant; but, having shot himself at his lodgings in Kirby-street, it was discovered that, for some years, he had had no other meal per day besides the supper which he took at the Chapter, where there being a choice of viands at the fixed price of one shilling, this, with a pint of porter, constituted his daily subsistence, till, his last resources failing, he put an end to himself.

Lowndes, the celebrated electrician, was another of our set, and a facetious man. Buchan the younger, a son of the Doctor, generally came with Lowndes; and though somewhat dogmatical, yet he added to the variety and good intelligence of our discussions, which, from the mixture of company, were as various as the contents of the newspapers.

Dr. Busby, the musician, and an ingenious man, often obtained a hearing, and was earnest in disputing with the Tories. And Macfarlane, the author of the History of George the Third, was generally admired for the soundness of his views; but this worthy man was killed by the pole of a coach, during an election procession of Sir Francis Burdett, from Brentford. Mr. W. Cooke, author of Conversation, constantly exemplified his own rules in his gentlemanly manners and well-timed anecdotes.

Kelly, an Irish school-master, and a man of polished manners, kept up warm debates by his equivocating politics, and was often roughly handled by Hammond and others, though he bore his defeats with constant good humour.

There was a young man named Wilson, who acquired the distinction of Long-bow, from the number of extraordinary secrets of the haut ton, which he used to retail by the hour. He was an amusing person, who seemed likely to prove an acquisition to the Wittinagemot; but, having run up a score of thirty or forty pounds, he suddenly absented himself. Miss Brun, the keeper of the Chapter, begged me, if I met with Wilson, to tell him she would give him a receipt for the past, and further credit to any amount, if he would only return to the house; "for," said she, "if he never paid us, he was one of the best customers we ever had, contriving, by his stories and conversation, to keep a couple of boxes crowded the whole night, by which we made more punch and more brandy-and-water, than from any other single cause whatever."

Jacob, afterwards an alderman and M.P., was a frequent visitor, and then as remarkable for his heretical, as he was subsequently for his orthodox, opinions in his speeches and writings.

Waithman, the active and eloquent Common Councilman, often mixed with us, and was always clear-headed and agreeable. One James, who had made a large fortune by vending tea, contributed many good anecdotes of the age of Wilkes.

Several stockbrokers visited us; and among others of that description was Mr. Blake, the banker, of Lombard-street, a remarkably intelligent old gentleman; and there was a Mr. Paterson, a North Briton, a long-headed speculator, who taught mathematics to Pitt.

Some young men of talent came among us from time to time; as Lovett, a militia officer; Hennell, a coal merchant, and some others; and these seemed likely to keep up the party. But all things have an end: Dr. Buchan died; some young sparks affronted our Nestor, Hammond, on which he absented himself, after nearly fifty years' attendance; and the noisy box of the Wittinagemot was, for some years previously to 1820, remarkable for its silence and dulness. The two or three last times I was at the Chapter, I heard no voice above a whisper; and I almost shed a tear on thinking of men, habits, and times gone by for ever!

We shall have more to say of the Chapter Coffee-house in Vol. II.

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