It is hard to imagine now, but chocolate was once an exotic luxury, available only to the wealthy. It was taken as a drink, and in 17th century London chocolate houses opened to serve the rich and powerful. But these fashionable new establishments were often rowdy and scandalous places…
Chocolate Comes To London
Chocolate was introduced to Spain from the New World in the 16th century, and gradually spread across Europe. It arrived in London in the 1650s, and soon became popular at the court of King Charles II.
The new drink was initially served in the London coffee houses, but it wasn’t long before dedicated chocolate houses started to appear. The earliest was opened by a Frenchman in 1657, in Queen’s Head Alley off Bishopsgate.
Af first the cocoa was just mixed with water and spices, but sugar was later added to mask the bitter taste. Sir Hans Sloane, a London physician and naturalist, introduced the idea of adding milk following a visit to Jamaica in 1689.
Fashionable Meeting Places
Although chocolate was fashionable, and considered to have health-giving properties, it wasn’t the main reason to visit the chocolate houses. These were places for socialising and networking, and their patrons could be sure that anyone who could afford chocolate was as influential and wealthy as themselves.
Many of the chocolate houses were in the elite areas of London, particularly St James’s. They included White’s, established in 1693, and The Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall. The chocolate houses bought their cocoa from the shop of Berry Bros and Rudd on St James’s Street, which opened in 1698 to supply local businesses with chocolate and coffee. (You can still visit the shop, although today it is a wine and spirit merchant.)
Dens of Iniquity
The chocolate houses were an all-male environment. They were places to drink chocolate and have a meal, and to discuss business and politics. Unfortunately the debate was not always gentlemanly, and the atmosphere could become quite rowdy. Charles II tried (unsuccessfully) to have the establishments banned, because he considered them to be “hotbeds of sedition”.
Another popular activity – which contributed to their bad reputation – was gambling. Entire fortunes could be won and lost, and seemingly bizarre wagers were placed. On one infamous occasion the bet was on whether a sick man would live or die.
Public opinion was reflected in William Hogarth’s series of satirical pictures, “The Rake’s Progress”, where the gambling sequence shows a scene of debauchery in White’s gaming room. Elsewhere in contemporary culture, Jonathan Swift described White’s as “the bane of the English nobility”.
The chocolate houses fell out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. The Cocoa Tree became a private club, and its later members included Lord Byron. It is now a grand clubhouse for the RAC.
As for White’s, it burnt down and moved to its present location on St James’s Street in 1771. Today it maintains its status as the oldest gentleman’s club in London, an exclusive meeting place for the elite. In some ways not too different from its earliest clientele!Follow me on social media: