The surprising history of London’s lost chocolate houses

In Georgian times, London’s decadent chocolate houses were unexpected bastions of rowdy behaviour and aristocratic disorder

'In the club at White's Coffee House', a 1733 painting that formed part of William Hogarth's series The Rake's Progress
‘In the club at White’s Coffee House’, a 1733 painting that formed part of William Hogarth’s series The Rake’s Progress

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.

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.

By Dr Matthew Green



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