Chocolate Drinking in St James’s

For a city with little tradition of hot drinks, chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drink associated with popery and idleness. 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. They boasted Queen Anne sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire.

The St James area was the invention of Henry Jermyn in 1661. St James’s Square was a self-contained aristocratic estate of ‘great and good houses’ for nobles and gentry. It was 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. St James’s was an urban paradise of wide, paved streets, lamps encased in crystal globes. Fleets of sedan chairs were carried around a central terraced square of fine neoclassical townhouses. The communal garden was renowned for its firework displays and perfumed sheep.

St James’s became the meeting place of crypto-Jacobites, secret supporters of the ‘King overseas’ who huddled together, sipping chocolate, and plotting the Hanoverian’s 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. They were taken the Newgate and charged as traitors.

The Cocoa Tree was thought to be more respectable. In the early 18th century, it was the informal headquarters of the Tory party. Policy and parliamentary strategy were concocted over chocolate and newspapers. However, it may not have been that respectable after all. 18th century Tories were always prone to a treachery. In 1932, The Manchester Guardian reported 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 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. Chocolate Houses, unlike the Coffee Houses, never took off except for around St James’s Square. Chocolate houses were for the super-elite, unlike the mercantile coffee houses. They became known for ‘kamikaze-style gambling.’

The inner room at White’s Chocolate House was depicted in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress in all its debauched glory. It is a picture of greed and despair; the posture of the ruined rake, hands held high as though pleading for divine intercession. White’s was depicted a man-made ‘Hell’ where the rich and reckless were the authors of their own destruction.

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; and the future price of stock.

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.

Source: Dr. Matthew Green, The Daily Telegraph, 11 March 2017