One midsummer’s day in 1750, a man had a seizure in front of the main gate to St James’s Palace and collapsed onto the pavement. Some passers-by promptly carried him into the nearest building which, unluckily for him, turned out to be White’s Chocolate House. For inside, through thick plumes of perfume, smoke, and chocolate steam, the rakish company of dukes, earls and lords showed scant concern for the man’s wellbeing. Instead, as Horace Walpole, who found the whole thing thoroughly entertaining, reported, they ‘immediately made bets whether he was dead or not.’ When some customers rushed to his assistance, ‘the wagerers for his death interposed, and said it would affect the fairness of the bet.’ The man died shortly afterwards. It was just an average day at White’s, ‘the most fashionable hell in London’, a hotbed of decadence, depravity, and destruction powered by a thick, luxuriant and exotically spiced glop called chocolate.
The first official shipment of cacao beans arrived in Europe from the New World in 1585 and by the early 17th century, it was all the rage in the palaces, mansions and monasteries of Baroque Europe, a mark of exquisite gentility. As the drink spread through the continent it became ever-more refined, being drunk hot, sweet, and mixed with cinnamon. Surviving recipes give us cause to lament the powdery, watery froth that passes for hot chocolate in so many of London’s cafés and restaurants today. The Third Duke of Tuscany, the gluttonous tyrant Cosimo de’ Medici, liked to take his chocolate infused with fresh jasmine flowers, amber, musk, vanilla and ambergris. No wonder chocolate was described in 1797 as ‘the drink of the gods’.
The impetus for London’s chocolate craze seems to have come from an unlikely quarter: France. In 1657, various newspapers were reporting that the public could sample, buy or learn how to make an ‘excellent West India drink’ called chocolate from a Frenchman, ‘the first man who did sell it in England’ at a chocolate house tucked away in Queen’s Head Alley in Bishopsgate Street, in the east of London’s business district.
For a city with little tradition of hot drinks (coffee had only arrived five years earlier), chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drunk associated with popery and idleness (i.e. France and Spain); a market had to be generated. Within the next decade, a slew of pamphlets appeared proclaiming the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, which would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing: a mere lick, it was said, would ‘make old women young and fresh, create new motions of the flesh’. For Samuel Pepys, chocolate was the perfect cure for a hangover, relieving his ‘sad head’ and ‘imbecilic stomach’ the day after Charles II’s bacchanalian coronation. The commonest claim, however — one inherited from the Aztecs and still perpetuated by chocolate companies the world over today — was that chocolate was a supremely powerful aphrodisiac.
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The public was sold on this mendacious publicity campaign. Unlike in Paris and Madrid, chocolate drinking was not confined to the social elite; it was available in many of London’s coffeehouses (albeit in a more rough-and-ready and milky form than Cosimo’s brew) but since it was more expensive, and less of a caffeine hit, it was never drunk as widely. It was only around St James’s Square that a cluster of super-elite self-styled ‘chocolate houses’ sprouted and flourished.
Envisaged by Henry Jermyn in 1661, St James’s Square was a self-contained aristocratic estate of ‘great and good houses’ for nobles and gentry within spitting distance of Charles II’s favourite London palace and replete with its own Christopher Wren church. The physical fabric of the area was revolutionary. It was an urban El Dorado of wide, paved streets (up to 60 feet wide in places, trouncing the Paris average of 30), a constellation of street lamps encased in crystal globes, fleets of sedan chairs, and a central terraced square of fine neoclassical townhouses fronting onto a communal garden renowned for its firework displays and perfumed sheep. Harvested in appalling conditions by African slaves in Jamaica, chocolate was thus consumed in one of the most exclusive addresses in Europe by the crème de la crème of British society, cementing chocolate’s association with decadence and luxury in the popular imagination.
The principal chocolate houses were Ozinda’s and White’s, both on St James’s Street, and the Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall. As befitted their location their interiors were a cut above the wooden, workmanlike interiors of the City coffeehouses, boasting Queen Anne sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire.
It can’t have been nice for George I, the new Hanoverian King, to know that mere yards from the entrance to his palace, crypto-Jacobites were huddled together, sipping chocolate, and plotting his downfall. At the height of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715, the king’s messengers burst into a packed Ozinda’s and dragged away its proprietor along with some of his customers as Jacobite traitors and incarcerated them in Newgate. Ostensibly the Cocoa Tree was more respectable — in the early 18th century, it was the informal headquarters of the Tory party where policy and parliamentary strategy were concerted over chocolate and newspapers. Yet a significant wing of the party were crypto-Jacobites and it’s no surprise to read in the Manchester Guardian of 1932 that workmen drilling into St James’s Street discovered a secret underground passage (or ‘bolt hole’) leading from the site of the Cocoa Tree to a tavern in Piccadilly for Jacobites to flee to safety.
For what we might term ‘kamikaze gambling’, though, nothing compared to White’s Chocolate House and few London venues can have had such opprobrium heaped upon them by satirists and moralists. ‘Hell’, the inner gaming room at White’s, is depicted in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress (pictured top) in all its debauched glory (fittingly, it is also on fire, though few customers seem to notice or care). It is a picture of greed and despair; the posture of the ruined rake, hands held high as though for divine intercession, seems oddly prescient of Gericault’s Raft of Medusa except in White’s, everyone is an author of their own destruction rather than cast adrift on the mercy of nature.
The legendary White’s betting book, an archive of wagers placed between 1743 to 1878, by which point the chocolate house had evolved into a club, lends credence to Hogarth’s attacks. Much of the time, it reads like a litany of morbid and bizarre predictions: ‘Mr Howard bets Colonel Cooke six guineas that six members of White’s Club die between this day of July 1818 and this day of 1819’, reads one typical entry (Colonel Cooke won). Elsewhere there are bets on which celebrities will outlive others; the length of pregnancies; the outcomes of battles; the madness of George III; the future price of stock; and whether a politician will turn up to the Commons in a red gown or not.
Yet middle-class moralists such as Hogarth were looking in on a world they didn’t understand and from which they were excluded. Just as Henry Jermyn’s St James’s Square was laid out in competition with the Earl of Southampton’s Bloomsbury Square, for the beau monde living in such close quarters, life was one big game of conspicuous consumption. To place the modern-day equivalent of £180,000 on the roll of a single die, as happened at the Cocoa Tree in 1780, may strike us as downright nihilistic today but for the Georgian nobility it was a brilliant way of projecting their status, giving every meaning to their frequently idle, chocolate-guzzling existence.
White’s still exists today as a super-exclusive private members’ club at 37 St James’s Street with 500 members and a nine-year waiting list; the only woman ever to have visited is a certain Elizabeth Windsor in 1991. Yet it's lost its association with chocolate and indeed in London as a whole, traditional chocolate houses for “drinking chocolate, betting and reading the newspapers”, as one American visitor to eighteenth-century London put it, are few and far between.
Dr Matthew Green is the co-founder of Unreal City Audio which produces historical tours of London as live events.