Bedford Coffee House: A Popular Spot

Located in the north-west corner, under the Piazza in Covent Garden, Bedford Coffee House was supposedly modeled on Button’s Coffee House. Bedford’s was also described as “a shrine sacred to wit, invariably crowded with its votaries, who uttered jokes and bon mots, criticised plays, players, and playwrights, books and pamphlets, preachers and politicians, leading the town in all matters of taste.”[1] It was crowded every night and extremely popular with the theater set, as well as a haunt for writers. Some of those who frequented Bedford’s included Samuel Foote (dramatist, actor, and theater manager), Charles Kemble and John Philip Kemble (brothers who were actors), Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan (an Irish playwright), Oliver Goldsmith (an Irish novelist, playwright and poet), David Garrick (actor), Charles Churchill (satirist), and William Hogarth (satirical artist).

Interior of a Coffee House Along the Lines of Bedford Coffee House

Interior of a Coffee House in London by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

Bedford Coffee House originated from two houses built in 1634 in the Piazza for Francis, 4th Earl of Bedford, with a lease given to Sir Edmund Verney that included “yardes, stables, coach-houses, and gardens.”[2] A century later Bedford Coffee House and Hotel were either the same premises or immediately adjoined the premise built for the Earl. At that time, the building had fixtures described as “curious,” and “enumerating every apartment.” A further description of the interior was given at the lease in the 1630s stating:

“Most of the rooms had casement windows, but the dining-room next [to] Russell-street, and other principal apartments, had ‘shutting windowes.’ The principal rooms were also ‘double creasted round for hangings,’ and were wainscoted round the chimney-pieces, and doors and windows … Most of the windows had ‘soil-boards’ attached; the room-doors had generally ‘stock locks,’ in some places ‘spring plate locks’ and spring bolts.”[3]

Francis, 4th Earl of Bedford, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Francis, 4th Earl of Bedford. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Dorset County Chronicle reported on the popularity of Bedford Coffee House during its heyday stating:

“No student from the universities launching himself on the world, no lawyer’s clerk clapping on a sword, no haberdasher’s ‘prentice donning a cue wig, but duly put in an appearance at the ‘Bedford’ by way of qualifying himself as a man about town. In the little boxes, ranged round like hives, men of every calling sipped their coffee nightly, discussing the affairs of the day, exchanging witticisms, and narrating stories more laughable than edifying.”[4]

Known for years as the “emporium of wit, the seat of criticism, and the standard of taste,”[5] there were some unique characters who patronized and stood out at the Bedford Coffee House. Of all the English wits, Sheridan was one of the most renown and unique. He married a well-known songstress, a Miss Elizabeth Ann Linley, of Bath, but before their marriage he dueled with his rival, a Captain Matthews, for her hand. Sheridan’s life was also rarely free from debt, which later caused him much embarrassment. Foote, another Bedford patron, was as extravagant in his dress as Sheridan had been with his finances, and Foote was once seen “dressed out in a frock suit of green and silver lace, bag-wig, sword, bouquet, and point-ruffles.”[6] A third interesting patron was Goldsmith who once paid for his passage to America but then became so engrossed in an excursion, he missed his ship.

Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan, Public Domain

Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan. Public domain.

The Bedford Coffee House was also the spot for several scandalous arguments. For example, once there was an argument between Churchill and Hogarth after “Hogarth used some very insulting language towards Churchill, who resented it … ‘Never,’ [said] Walpole, ‘did two angry men of their abilities throw mud with less dexterity.'”[7]

Charles Churchill, Public Domain

Charles Churchill. Public domain.

Another Bedford argument proved more threatening. This fight involved a bully nicknamed Tiger Roach. One Bedford patron described Roach in the following manner: 

“[He would] sit with a half-starved look, a black patch upon his cheek, pale with the idea of murder … a quivering look, and a downcast eye. In that manner he used to sit … all alone … interrupted now and then with faint attempts to throw off a little saliva.”[8]

Roach’s strange meditations would last for hours, until one night he suddenly “called a Mr. Bagnell out of the room, and most heroically stabbed him in the dark.”[9] Another Bedford patron then brandished a whip and commanded Roach to stop, which he did but only because Roach feared for his own safety.

Another interesting story linked to the Bedford Coffee House involves a Miss Martha Ray (or Reay) who John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, became enamored with and claimed as his mistress. Unfortunately, another man, a Captain James Hackman of the 68th Regiment of Foot, met Ray one day and was immediately smitten with her. He “offered her his hand, and she was not unwilling to accept it,”[10] but the amount of money he earned was so little, she did not. Therefore, to improve his chances, Hackman entered the church and obtained ordination. When he went to see Ray again, the Earl prevented it and informed Hackman that Ray “was quite indifferent to him.”[11]

Bedford Coffee House - John Montagu

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hackman was heartbroken and decided to act. One night when Ray attended the Covent Garden Theater he waited for her, during which time he flitted between the theater’s lobby and the Bedford Coffee House. When Ray finally exited the theater he was waiting:

“Without uttering a word Hack stepped forward, put a pistol to her temple, and shot her dead. He then fired another at himself with a less steady hand. The bullet grazed the scalp, but did no mortal injury. He fell to the ground, and in his mad desire to commit self-destruction beat himself violently about the head with the butt-end of his pistol, until it was wrenched from his hand.”[12]

James Hackman, Public Domain

James Hackman. Public domain.

Ray was entombed at Elstree, and, as for Hackman, he was tried and the same year that Eliza de Feuillide and her mother, Philadelphia Hancock, settled in France, Hackman was executed for murder. It happened on 19 April 1779.

References:

  • [1] The English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 5., 1888, p. 203.
  • [2] Timbs, John, Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis During the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, Vol. 2, 1866, p. 81.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 82.
  • [4] “Literary Notices,” in Dorset County Chronicle, 23 October 1884, p. 14.
  • [5] Memoirs of the Bedford Coffee-House, 1763, p. 1.
  • [6] Timbs, John, p. 78.
  • [7] Ibid. p. 80.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 77.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 78.
  • [10] Adams, William Henry Davenport, A Book About London, 1890, p. 270.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 271.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment