Think of the words ‘white’ and ‘chocolate’ and the images that come to mind are those of the ‘The Milky Bar Kid’ or that luxury white chocolate flecked with fine black vanilla seeds but White’s and chocolate in the 18th century meant something entirely different; gambling.

The impetus for London’s chocolate craze came from France, introduced as an ‘excellent west indian drink’ in the mid 17th century. A decade later pamphlets proclaimed the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, saying that it would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing: with a mere lick, it was said, it would ‘make old women young and fresh and create new motions of the flesh’.

Unlike in Paris and Madrid, chocolate drinking was not confined to the social elite in London however it was never as popular as coffee with its enlivening caffeine boost.. It was only around St James’s Square that a cluster of super-elite self-styled ‘chocolate houses’ flourished. 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 sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire. In fact Ozinda’s comfortable surroundings became a hot bed of Jacobite intrigue. On one occasion in 1715, Jacobite supporters were arrested there and taken off to Newgate prison.

White’s started life at 4 Chesterfield Street, off Curzon Street in Mayfair, in 1693; owned by an Italian immigrant named Francesco Bianco. It was later re-named Mrs. White’s Chocolate House with a side line in tickets for the King’s Theatre and Royal Drury Lane Theatre White’s quickly made the transition from cafe into an exclusive club. It was notorious as a gambling house; those who frequented it were known as “the gamesters of White’s.” The club gained a reputation for both its exclusivity and the often raffish behaviour of its members. Jonathan Swift referred to White’s as the “bane of half the English nobility.” In 1778 it moved to 37–38 St James’s Street and was from 1783 the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while the Whigs’ club Brooks’s was just down the road.

White’s had such a terrible reputation Hogarth depicted its inner gambling room as ‘Hell’, in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. The place is on fire but no one seems to notice. It is a picture of greed and despair so far removed from the images of chocolate we have today.

Illustration: Meissen Chocolate Cup and Saucer.

Julia Herdman is a novelist. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

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