‘There will meet some learned gentlemen’: Hogarth’s Coffee House at St. John’s Gate

Museum of the Order of St John Dr Roberto Rossi, Collections Volunteer

Richard Hogarth, father of the engraver and painter William, set up his coffee shop in 1704 at  St. John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. The aim was to provide a meeting place for those who spoke Latin and as an incentive for others to learn the language. Richard Hogarth had been a classicist and writer of Latin and Greek textbooks for students. This included works such as: Thesaurarium trilingue publicum: Being an introduction to English, Latin and Greek. In two parts. The first, teaching orthography, and the exactest way of pointing yet extant. The second, a method for the more speedy attaining the Greek tongue published in 1689, and was probably his most famous contribution to classical languages.

Not surprisingly, this had not led to any great riches on his part. Nevertheless, the classical languages had been his passion. Indeed, Richard’s lack of true success and poor treatment by booksellers, printers and patrons, was noted by William and gave the latter a thick skin, especially when William dealt with printers later in his career.

Nevertheless, Richard had one idea to improve his and his family’s circumstances. The coffee shop idea was not new, and he secured the room at the Gate in 1704. The concept was to provide a unique meeting spot for regular intellectual customers and to encourage students to improve their conversational Latin, and to attract new members to learn the classical languages. The coffee shop was advertised thus:

‘There will meet daily some learned gentlemen, who speak Latin readily, where any Gentleman that is either skilled in that Language, or desirous to perfect himself in speaking thereof will be welcome. The Master of the House, in the absence of others, being always ready to entertain Gentlemen in the Latin Tongue.’

Coffee shops had been imported as a concept from Venice. The first opened in Oxford in 1650 and in London in 1652 and they quickly spread. Despite their popularity, and the tax revenue they generated, King Charles II tried to ban them in 1686, as it was thought they spread anti-royalist ideas. He failed.

It is likely Richard kept to the coffee house tradition of charging a penny which covered both entry and coffee. This traditional price had given coffee shops the moniker of ‘Penny Universities’ due to their more learned clientele when compared to taverns. Coffee shops were largely thematic in nature. In some, only French or German could be spoken, others specialized in trade – the London Stock Exchange started at Jonathan’s Coffee House in 1698 – insurance matters, as at Lloyd’s Coffee shop, led to the formation of Lloyds of London, amongst others.

For Hogarth’s Coffee House these ambitions were too extreme for early eighteenth century Britain, where few could speak Latin except those who could afford a humanist education. Additionally, Richard was hardly businessman material. Credit was all too readily available at the time, covering up debts in the short term; but if called in, left the borrower exposed. The coffee house folded in 1707.

Now bankrupt, Richard had no alternative but to do time in debtors prison, alongside thousands of others at the time. There were many in London: The King’s Bench Prison, Marshalsea Prison, and especially the Fleet Prison on the east side of Farringdon Road. It was to the Fleet that Richard was sent to serve his time.

The Fleet prison was founded in 1197, at the very time the Priory at St John was still in its Hospitaller pomp. By Richard Hogarth’s day, the prison was in its third incarnation, the original had been destroyed by the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and the second time by the Great Fire in 1666. The third prison now held 300 debtors. Some, who still had some wealth as collateral, would live on the Master’s Side, those without any income lived on the common side with 30 or 40 inmates to a room.

Rather counterintuitively, the Fleet Prison would actually charge inmates for their stay. The wardens were not directly paid, so extorted income from the inmates and their relatives. It did provide the opportunity for inmates to try and work their way out, some would be able to live in property owned by the prison outside the gates called ‘Rules of the Fleet’. By selling everything he had, and borrowing from his brother Edmund, Richard and his family lived in the Rules. It seems Richard also earned some income by teaching Classics at a nearby school, and still wished to produce a Latin dictionary.

Grilles in the lower windows allowed inmates to beg for alms from passers-by. Yet, it was highly expensive for inmates and pretty grim too. Widespread corruption meant that inmates would have to bribe the wardens for a variety of tasks: food and lodging, to turn keys, or to be unshackled, each task had their own charge. It was seemingly designed as much to keep inmates in and to keep paying as to help them alleviate their debts. His wife, and now William, aged about fifteen, could also work and at least stop the situation deteriorating.

Richard Hogarth spent five years in the Fleet. A petition to Parliament calling for all debtors owing £50 or less to be freed by paying their creditors as much as could be afforded was passed in 1712. Richard died five years later.

It was Richard’s son, William who gave a visual account of life in the Fleet. His seventh painting in the series The Rake’s Progress (c. 1734) is set in the Fleet Prison. Tom Rakewell, the protagonist, has just lost his second fortune and is sitting in the Fleet. His wife, a hideous, elderly one eyed lady sits next to him insulting him; after all, it was her fortune he had squandered. Tom is surrounded by a gaoler tallying up Tom’s Bill, and a small boy is demanding money for a tankard of ale. Tom had tried to ease his debts by writing plays and on the table is a rejection letter by the, real life, theatre impresario John Rich, the man who gave us The Beggar’s Opera (c. 1728), set in Newgate Prison.

Hogarth, William; A Rake's Progress: 7. The Rake in Prison

Hogarth, William; A Rake’s Progress: 7. The Rake in Prison

Tom Rakewell, the protagonist, has just lost his second fortune and is sitting in the Fleet. His wife, a hideous, elderly one eyed lady sits next to him insulting him; after all, it was her fortune he had squandered. Tom is surrounded by a gaoler tallying up Tom’s Bill, and a small boy is demanding money for a tankard of ale. A man in the centre is trying to turn base metal into gold, and another, dressed as a lawyer has dropped his plan to pay off the National Debt, to assist a swooning Sarah Young, the young lady Tom Rakewell had unceremoniously dumped in favour of his frivolous life-style. The debtor trying to solve the National Debt (a big issue at the time, plus ça change) may have mimicked Richard, who tried the same thing with letters in effusive Latin to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Harley.

William Hogarth never spoke of his father’s time in prison. Therefore, the painting may well be William Hogarth exorcising certain demons relating to his father’s past, and by consequence, his own.

The failed coffee-shop was one of the many uses of St John’s Gate after the Dissolution of 1540. It could be argued the experience of the coffee shop had a strong effect on William Hogarth. His father’s treatment by printers and publishers gave William a healthy cynicism when it came to marketing his own works and in achieving the success that he gained. It is noteworthy that certain characters, such as lawyers, are treated with the utmost incredulity in many of his works. Consequently, the failure of the coffee house at St John’s Gate may have been negative for Richard, but it may have served to inspire William to produce some of his greatest works.

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