Mrs White’s Chocolate House
So everyday a thing is chocolate today it is hard to imagine a time when it was an exotic substance and even more surprising to learn what an influence (and generally for the worse) consumption of it had on people’s behaviour. But cacao beans were only first transported to Europe from the New World in 1585.
The craze for chocolate seems to have been imported to London from France. An advert in 1657 invited members of the public to sample, buy or learn to make an excellent drink from the West Indies called chocolate at an establishment in Queen’s Head Alley in Bishopsgate Street, run by a Frenchman.
In an era when hot drinks were only beginning to be consumed – our staple drinks of coffee and tea required trading links to be established – chocolate was proclaimed to have many startling medicinal benefits, boosting fertility, curing consumption, alleviating indigestion and reversing the ageing process.
Rather than the frothy confection we have today chocolate was often drunk hot, sweet and mixed with spices such as cinnamon or infused with fresh jasmine flowers, amber, musk, vanilla and amebergris . Although chocolate was available to the hoi polloi it was relatively more expensive than coffee and didn’t have the same hit as the more caffeine-dominated drink and so became more popular with the idle rich. A number of chocolate houses sprang up around the St James Square area.
Mrs White’s was originally established at 4 Chesterfield Street, just off Curzon Street in 1693 by an Italian immigrant by the name of Francesco Bianco, Mrs White, presumably, being his old Dutch. As well as selling chocolate Bianco developed a sideline of selling tickets for the nearby theatres and early in the 18th century his establishment transformed itself into an exclusive, members only establishment, the forerunner of what is now White’s Club.
Mrs White’s became synonymous with gambling and, indeed, gambling of the most frivolous and ruinous sort. Hogarth’s portrayal of Hell in his sixth panel of the Rake’s Progress is none other than the gambling room in White’s Chocolate House and members of the club were known as the gamesters of White’s. Jonathan Swift called it the bane of half of the English nobility.
A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate the kind of sport that was to be had. In 1750 a pedestrian had the misfortune to collapse close by the club and was carried into Mrs White’s. Rather than come to his rescue the members immediately struck bets as to whether he was dead or not. When some members sought to provide him with medical assistance those who had bet that the man would die cried foul and so the poor fellow was left there. Naturally, he died and many a gambler profited from his demise.
On another occasion a member called Alvanley wagered the princely sum of £3,000 on which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of a pane of a bow-window first – it is not reported whether he won or loss. All the bets struck between 1743 and 1878 were recorded in the club’s betting book.
In 1778 the Club moved to 37 – 38 St James’ Street where, from 1783, it became the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party and the club that it has become today.