Thursday, 29 January 2015

London Life: Victorian Coffee Sellers

My youngest son is into Warhammer.  Apparently the hobby isn’t as popular in the US, and recently he overheard one American gamer explaining to another, how Warhammer outlets are: ‘In every town in the UK, they’re like Starbucks over there. ‘.
A game of  Warhammer in progress
When my son told me this I laughed. The idea seemed absurd. Then I realised how true it is, that there is a Warhammer shop in pretty much every major town. But also, what does that say about the popularity of Starbucks? Which leads us neatly onto the topic of today’s blog post – coffee shops, or more precisely – selling coffee.
If you’ve read my post on the EHFA blog about an enterprising Victorian photographer, you will know my current bedtime reading is Henry Mayhew’s book, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. First published in volumes during 1851-2, his great work chronicles everyday life as he saw it around him on London streets. Which leads me back to coffee selling.
A photograph of a typical street vendor selling coffee
Is that Queen Victoria herself  on the far left?
Mayhew writes evocatively about the barrows that popped up on street corners, selling tea and coffee to other traders, market goers, and the general public. But this was a relatively recent innovation, because 20 years previously the beverage on sale was ‘saloop’. This prompted a cross reference with a dictionary to find saloop was a hot drink made from sassafras with added milk and sugar. Of course, then I had to find out what sassafras is – turns out it’s an evergreen tree that likes hot humid conditions and looks a bit like laurel but with larger leaves.
Anyhow, inexplicably (or perhaps because tea and coffee taste nicer, and perhaps was being taxed less so was more affordable) saloop went out of fashion around about the time Victoria ascended to the throne, and beverages we still recognize today took over.
The illustration of a coffee seller taken
from Henry Mayhew's book.
Note the lamp for  night-time illumination
Mayhew records how these coffee vendors enhanced their profits by blending coffee beans with cheaper additives such as chicory, or cheaper still – baked carrots or saccharin root. Apparently 4,000 – 5,000 tons of chicory was grown each year, the majority of which all went to coffee adulteration.
The people running the stalls were often cabmen, policemen, artisans, or labourers not able to earn a living in the trade which they were apprenticed in. Some opened their stalls at midnight, specifically to cater for the ‘night-life’. The most lucrative pitch was said to be on the corner of Duke Street and Oxford Street, in London, with the best trade being done on market days.

A final thought. I wonder what the Victorians drank their street-bought coffee in? 
Cat coffee art

Presumably there were no disposable paper cups, and I wouldn’t have thought you’d take a mug wherever you went. This must mean the sellers leant out cups…hmmm…doesn’t sound terribly hygienic. 


  1. Grace, Sassafras is a sweeter root.... used to be widely used in America as a substitute for beer for children. Now Rootbeer is what most of us drink, but Sassafras can still be found and now considered a delicacy. I think either Louisa Mat Alcott or Laura Ingalls Wilder used to mention the cold or warm beverage frequently in their writing.

  2. Ohhh, I seeeee! Thank you for that - really interesting. I thought it seemed a bit odd people would make a drink out of laurel leaves. I wonder what i was looking at then - I'll have to go back and check. Thanks once again.
    G xxx

  3. What an interesting post. And I love the pictures. I'm already fascinated by anything to do with Victorian London and this deepens my sense of it. Yeah, I wonder how they handled the coffee cup aspect, too. If you find out, please post about it.


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