The Wittinagemot of the Chapter Coffee House
At the south side of London’s Pasternoster Row in London in Chapterhouse Court stood the eponymous coffee house, opened around 1710, which was famed in the 18th century for its punch, pamphlets and goodly supply of newspapers. I assume coffee was also available. In the north east corner of the gaff was a box which was known as the Wittinagemot, named after a kind of public parliament which met annually in Saxon times.
In an area famed for its book selling trade it was no surprise to learn that at this box many of the capital’s men of letters could be found and lively conversation was guaranteed. What made for a good book in the estimation of many of those assembled was whether it would shift copy rather than its artistic merits. Nothing changes!
According to Alexander Stephens, a regular himself between 1797 and 1805, you could be guaranteed to find a certain Mr Hammond, a manufacturer from Coventry, who occupied the same spot every evening for forty five years. He was renowned for his severe and able commentaries on the events of the day and was famed for using a Socratic approach to disputation which often led his opponent down an alley sign-posted reduction ad absurdum, to the general amusement of all assembled.
Another stalwart was a Scottish episcopal minister, Mr Murray, who stayed in situ from 9 in the morning until 9 at night and was reputed to have read cover to cover every morning and evening newspaper published in London. His memory was so prodigious that he was often called upon to arbitrate upon any dispute as to facts. Stephens reported that one of his favourite companions was the political and historical writer, Dr Towers, who over a half pint of Lisbon, presumably a port, entertained with lively and sarcastic but never deep repartee.
From a club perspective, there was a loose grouping known as the Wet Paper Club who met in the early morning to receive the newspapers of the day hot off the press before the waiters had time to dry them. Another group, including the redoubtable Mr Murray, would seize on the evening editions as soon as the newsmen entered the premises.
For the fixed price of a shilling a supper could be had including a pint of porter. For one habitue, Baker, a manufacturer from Spitalfields and a great talker and eater, this was his only meal of the day. When he no longer could afford the shilling for his fare he shot himself.
Archetypal country mice, Charlotte and Emily Bronte together with their father, Patrick stayed there on a rare trip to the Smoke en route to Brussels in February 1842. Charlotte’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, described the Chapter as having low-beamed ceilings, wainscoted rooms and a broad, dark, shallow staircase. It had a few overnight guests who were mainly university men and country clergy and booksellers keen to hear some literary conversation. “The high, narrow windows looked into the gloomy Row” and whilst the sounds of the city could be heard in the distance like the roar of the ocean, footsteps echoed down the deserted street.
In 1854 the coffee house was converted into a tavern.