I love history and I love chocolate, so deciding to attend The Lost World of the Georgian Chocolate House was a no-brainer. This talk, which took place at Guildhall Library, was delivered by Dr Matthew Green, whose book London: A Travel Guide Through Time was released before Christmas and whose company, Unreal City Audio, organises immersive historical tours around London.
The talk covered the beginnings of chocolate’s popularity in the Western world: Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes found hot, spicy chocolate being drunk by South Americans and the popularity of the drink extended to Baroque Spain, and later Italy. Cosimo de Medici, an Italian nobleman, was possibly the first chocoholic, and the drink retained its aristocratic connotations as it travelled first to France, then to England. Chocolate at this time contained several unfamiliar ingredients: in South America it was often mixed with blood, but luckily this practice did not survive the journey across the ocean. In Europe, it often contained musk or ambergris; sometimes even gold.
Chocolate houses in London were heavily influenced by coffee houses and tobacco houses – in fact the first chocolate was sold in coffee houses. The first chocolate house in London was established either in Vine Court, Holborn, in 1652 (as evidenced in a contemporary tract, Chocolate, or An Indian Drinke) or on Bishopsgate Street in June 1657 (as advertised in the Publick Advertiser).
The popularity of chocolate in London is largely tied up with the St James area. St James’s Square was laid out by Henry Jermyn, and several chocolate houses were located there or nearby: Cocoa Tree, Ozinda’s and White’s. Chocolate houses became associated with gambling, with aristocrats losing fortunes in games of Hazard. Hogarth’s Rake’s Progess contains a scene in a chocolate house, showing the artist’s disapproval of such dissolute practices. There is an account of a man who collapsed in the street outside of White’s chocolate house: he was taken inside, but instead of seeking medical help, the chocolate drinkers began to place bets on whether he was dead or alive. Betting on all sorts of outcomes was common in chocolate houses: this period sees the beginnings of life insurance, as people would bet on how long they – and others – had left to live. Chocolate houses were largely the preserve of men: women would send their children into the houses to seek out their husbands and tell them to come home, but this backfired on at least one occasion, when a small child ran into the chocolate house, fell into a vat of chocolate, and drowned.
Like coffee houses, chocolate houses were connected with political activity. Cocoa Tree in particular was known as a Tory stronghold and a Jacobite centre. It was often raided, and even had an underground passage to a Piccadilly tavern to allow members to escape. Ozinda’s was known for its art auctions, but White’s, the most famous chocolate house, was the most notorious. It burned down in 1733, and White’s Club is now on the site. From the middle of the eighteenth century, most chocolate houses did evolve into private members’ clubs. To date, most British prime ministers have been members.
After our talk, we were given a chance to sample some eighteenth-century style chocolate. I’m not sure exactly what ingredients were used (although I’m pretty certain blood wasn’t one of them), but the chocolate was delicious, if not quite sweet enough for my taste, being thick, rich and full of flavour.
The talk was fascinating and I definitely want to go on the Chocolate House Tour, as well as other tours organised by Unreal City Audio!