Can you tell history through a pint? Or a cup of coffee perhaps? According to Dr. Matthew Green you can. The historian and author turned his passion for history into Unreal City Audio: London Walking Tours, a group that is devoted to taking visitors and Londoners alike, back through time on immersive, fun, and interactive tours of London.
Green has been running walking tours in London for several years now and has three excellent mainstays under his belt: a Medieval Wine Tour, focused on post-plague 14th century London, a Coffeehouse tour set in the hustle and bustle of Pepys’ 17th century London, and a new Chocolate House tour taking you back in time to seedy, raucous Georgian London.
London in 7 Drinks comes off the back of these three tours, and also from inspiration Green found when he wrote his popular 2015 book, London: A Travel Guide Through Time, which that takes you through London’s history in a clever, first-hand narrative, time-hopping back and forth with a tour guide for each period. Green has taken some of the places in the book, and these three tours, and combined them into one colossal offering: London in 7 Drinks, tracing the impact of seven drinks in the course of London’s history: coffee, chocolate, wine, mead, ale, tea, and gin. The following is a sneak peak at some of my favourite tour points and what we learned along the way.
The tour kicks off with the more sobering drinks, starting with coffee at the place where it all began: St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. At the door of the current Jamaica Wine House, under the auspices of Pasqua Rosee, a Greek entrepreneur, London had its first coffeehouse in 1652.
Green explained how coffee came to England, it’s rapid popularity, its detractors and painted a vivid picture of life inside a 17th century coffeehouse. We were rewarded with a sample of what 17th century Londoners knew as, “bitter Mohammedan gruel”, and more fondly, “Soot coloured ninny broth, black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love”. It is truly vile stuff. People of the time thought it tasted disgusting as well, and routinely compared it to oil, ink, mud, soot and shit. This was not the smooth flat whites and foamy cappuccinos of today, this was gritty, strong, and oily. Its horrid taste should come as no surprize since Green informed us that it was made with a mixture of oil, mustard, eggshells, and spit, then boiled to oblivion.
So why were Londoners even touching the stuff? According to Green, it was popular because it was a sober drink. People spent quite a lot of time inebriated as water wasn’t really safe to drink. People drank weak ale and wine because the fermentation process killed the germs. Coffee was similar, the boiling process made it safe to consume, add to that its sobering effects, its relative cheapeness, and the convivial environment of the coffeehouse, made it the drink of choice in 17th century London. Within weeks, Rosee was selling 600 cups of coffee per day!
Political debate, empiricism, newspapers, insurance, and modern ideas flowed from coffeehouse conversations. Hence, why King Charles II detested coffeehouses and tried to ban them in 1677. He hated them because it was a place where common people voiced their opinions on affairs of high state, and he was concerned about political discussions spurring on sedition. Unfortunately for the King, his ban was unsuccessful. By 1700, there were 3,000 coffeehouses! Coffeehouses also had their share of female detractors, who railed against men spending the entire day in them debating and gossiping. They were snobbish places of “level headed debate”, so women were not welcome there. Unless you were a prostitute, serving girl, or owner, a respectable woman would not be found in a coffeehouse.
The end of the coffeehouse came when tea became affordable, along with the advent of the telegraph. You no longer needed to go to a coffeehouse for the latest news, since it could be beamed across the Atlantic. Fittingly, the last coffeehouse closed in 1866 a week after the first telegraph was successfully sent between England and America.
Green then moved onto a much tastier beverage: chocolate. This part of the tour had us drinking chocolate as it was enjoyed by well-to-do Georgians. Chocolate first discovered by Spanish Conquistadors under Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) who took it from the Aztecs. Chocolate wasn’t in the neat bar form that we are accustomed to today, it was drunk tepid, mixed with scorching hot chillies, and human blood. Yes, that’s right, HUMAN blood. Obviously, this mixture of Aztec sacrificial victims, and extreme chillies was unpalatable to the Europeans so they altered the recipe and mixed it with spices, like cinnamon and sugar, heated it up, and occasionally mixed with red wine.
If coffeehouses were the preserve of the common man, where anyone could come in and exchange information and ideas, the chocolate house was the preserve of the gentleman. There were fewer chocolate houses than coffeehouses because they catered to aristocratic clientele. It was more expensive to visit, at 2 pence vs the 1pence you’d pay to go to a coffeehouse. These were betting houses, decadent cess pools of dubious behaviour, favoured by gamblers and cut throat highway men robbing people inside. Chocolate house clientele bet horriblly high amounts, even betting their houses. While sipping chocolate, men bet on life expectancy, marriages, babies, and the future price of stock. Like coffeehouses, they were also male-only establishments. Chocolate houses, like their coffee counterparts, were known for political discussion but were more seditious – both Jacobite rebellions were plotted from chocolate houses. Sadly, there is no modern equivalent of the Chocolate house, the closest approximation would be a private members club, minus the chocolate, gambling, and the sedition.
The wine portion of the tour took us back to the Late Middle Ages where we enjoyed sipping red wine out of coconut shells in Cleary Gardens, while learning about the 40,000 souls who inhabited this fair city. This area was once the site of a former plague pit and the centre of medieval wine production. Unfortunately, there is very little left of medieval London. The guildhall, and the Tower of London, are a few of the remaining medieval structures. Prior to the Black Death, 14th century London had 80,000 inhabitants. It was a city that was almost entirely wooden, where a weary traveller would’ve been greeted by heads mounted on spikes as they entered one of London’s seven gates.
Our journey took us to Cheapside, the high street of medieval London. Cheapside was a seething chaotic mess, but spacious and advantageously located near St. Paul’s. Jousting was popular in Cheapside amongst all the stalls and market activity. The trades that used to go on here have left their modern mark in the form of street names like Milk street, Wood Street, Friday street (for fish on Fridays), and Ironmonger street. Southwark, now considered part of London, lay outside the jurisdiction of city administrators and hosted bear baiting, taverns and whorehouses. Green also mentioned that the smell of 14th century London was vile: stagnant water, human excrement, animal smells, and general refuse tossed into the streets. Danger lurked around every corner, in 1331 a stray pig snuck into a tailor’s and bit a baby to death. Wild pigs would ran amok and were such a nuisance and danger that the city hired swine herders to kill roaming pigs. London also had a strict curfew after dark because it was an extremely dangerous place rife with crime. It was also pitch black at night, not like the well lit streets we’re used to now, with litter, wells, and offal as hazards in your path after dark.
As for wine, the temperature in the medieval period was much balmier, making it good for wine production. Wine was imported to Queenhithe and then distributed to taverns and monasteries. It was mainly enjoyed by elites: monks, lawyers, and nobles.
People drank wine out of unusual items in the Middle Ages, sometimes a sheep’s bladder, or a gold-gilted coconut shell that had been imported from tropical climes and sold by Arab middlemen. Most wine was imported from Gascony and imbibed fresh, as wine was not preserved the way it is now, it had to be drunk almost immediately or it would go bad. Wine was also strictly regulated, if you sold shoddy wine or tried to water it down with nefarious additives, you could face steep fines.
One of our final stops was to enjoy gin, a drink of the poor and downtrodden in Georgian times, but then elevated to an upper class beverage in the Victorian period. Initially, gin was affordable in the 1730s. It was brought to England by King William III of Orange (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-1694) but soon became known as “the drink of oblivion”. Interesting fact: William Hogarth (1697-1764) was commissioned to paint an anti-gin campaign, to point out the horrors of excessive gin drinking, hence his famous depiction of Gin Lane.
St. Giles was the poorest part of London at this time, where 1 in 4 buildings were gin shops. Green told us how the poor drank gin with straws out of rusty wheelbarrows! It certainly wasn’t the cheapest drink, but it was the strongest; for half penny, you could get completely obliterated. Gin offered an a brief escape for the poor from a horrible life.
By the Victorian era, the propaganda campaign bore fruit, and gin experienced a “Gin-aisaance”. The government cranked up taxation on gin and returned it to being a gentrified drink. Another gin boom occurred in the 19th century with the rise of gin palaces, such as the Princess Louise, and the Viaduct in Holborn. Gin palaces were even equipped with “snob screens” so that customers didn’t have to look at the lowly bar staff serving them. According to eye witness accounts, they were akin to our modern day espresso bars, you drank your shots and left. Gin patrons didn’t linger, as one would over a pint, but instead would come back several times a day.
On the tour, we also enjoyed a pint of ale, took a trip to Samuel Johnson’s (1707-1794) house to hear a talk about tea, and enjoyed mead. It was a very fun-filled, fascinating afternoon.
There is a fair bit of walking as this tour is 4-5 hours long. Wear comfortable footwear, and bring an umbrella in case the weather changes. Another thing to note – there is quite a bit of alcohol, so eating beforehand is highly recommended as there isn’t food provided on the tour. We did manage to buy snacks in a pub during the ale portion of the tour but it is definitely wise to bring a snack to have something in your stomach to balance out all the walking and drinking.
Why You Should Go
There are dozens of walking tours in this city, but they move people about like sheep, holding up placards, and barking facts with little warmth or genuine interest. Green is not only knowledgable, but he’s charismatic, approachable and funny. This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill walking tour, and while less formal, it’s certainly more engaging. Alcohol, coffee, chocolate and tea, a wander around London, while learning remarkable things about this amazing city is a fine way to spend an afternoon.
Follow Dr. Matthew Green on Twitter: @drmatthewgreen
For more information about other tours, please visit: Unreal City Audio: London Walking Tours