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Barleycorn v. Sobersides

In "the notorious Seven Dials", St Giles, a report on a new temperance coffee-tavern - food, drink and clientele.

Published in The Railway Review, 10 September 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

Illustration: Seven Dials, from 'Old and New London', vol.3, [1878?], by Edward Walford.

Seven Dials, from 'Old and New London', vol.3, [1878?]

When it has been maturely resolved to make a good fight for it, there is nothing like a fearless advance straight to the enemy's stronghold, and those who are responsible for the recently originated coffee-tavern scheme have shown their appreciation of this military maxim by boldly setting up a large opposition establishment at the heart and centre of St. Giles's. Other temperance public-houses had already been opened in London; but although the ventures were attended with an encouraging amount of success, it could scarcely be said that they had served to conclusively dissipate the fallacy that the lower classes, say the very lowest, could not be brought to see their interest in giving countenance to the sweeping reform suggested to them. What was wanted was to submit the new idea to so severe a test that the question might be definitely settled whether it were or were not the case that those who rank lowest in the social scale were so fondly wedded to the beer-engine and the gin-tap that no counter-attraction could be introduced sufficiently seductive to wean them from the love of a lifetime, and one that had become so intimately identified and incorporated with the scheme of their existence.

A more eligible field for the experiment could not have been selected than that part of St. Giles's in which the coffee-tavern is situated. It is not in a back street. In that neighbourhood of evil repute there is a centre from which seven streets radiate — the notorious Seven Dials; and at two of the street corners stand spacious and old-established public-houses famous in the "trade" for the many hundreds of pounds that are taken within the month over their counters. The business done is purely local, and from the time these two gin palaces open in the morning until midnight, when they are closed, there is no single hour that the great space before the bars is not so crowded with men and women drinkers of the surrounding courts and alleys, that there is limited elbow-room for those who push to get their measures replenished. They are not of the lazy, habitual drunkard class. As a rule, their hands, faces, and clothes are defiled with the unavoidable grime of coarse labour, and it is evident that the majority, if they are hard drinkers, are hard workers as well. Cheek by jowl with these two highly-favoured drinking shops, as it were, and within hand-shaking distance of them, stands their sober antagonist. The latter does not affect modesty as regards its exterior. It is painted red from chimney-pots to threshold, and in order to lessen the shock and take from the uncomfortable sense of strangeness the public-house habitué might possibly feel on first venturing in, three-fourths shame-faced, and fortifying himself with the assurance that he merely wishes to see what the queer place is like by way of a joke, there are faithfully copied many of the familiar features of the ordinary tavern. The doors are kept ajar, the floor is neatly sawdusted, there is a broad, bright bar, with a clock over it, and no attempt is made to put out the pipe of any customer who chances to be smoking when he enters. Here, however, the likeness between the two houses of public entertainment ceases. One feature of the new order of things must strike the beer bar frequenter as being a vast improvement on the old. At the public-house the modern rule is to exclude seats. They were found to encourage profitless gossip, and to induce customers to forget where they were, and so the seats were banished. At the coffee-tavern there are seats and tables as well in abundance; and the most scrupulous cleanliness reigns everywhere. Say it is dinner time, and a man bringing his food with him requires a plate; he has but to ask for it. He requires a knife and fork; a nimble Waiter has the necessary implements placed for him in a moment, and the charge is - nothing, which is slightly different to the treatment he has formerly received at the Pewter Platter over the way, and where he has been in the habit of taking his dinner standing up and crowded in a corner, so that he found it necessary in feeding himself at the point of his clasp-knife to dexterously dodge the way to his mouth.

But are the clean plate and the knife and fork the greatest advantages these caterers for the comfort of the working classes have to offer? By no means. That they are not insignificant must be admitted, but they are really scarcely worth mentioning compared with other and more substantial advantages. It was just dinner time when the writer looked in at this St. Giles's novelty, and highly gratified was he to discover that the surrounding inhabitants were alert to avail themselves of the boon at their disposal. It is a vast bar space, affording room perhaps for 200 sitters at the tables, and there must have been at least 150 persons present. Of course it was not an elegant dinner party. Not one diner in half-a-dozen had done more than give his hands a dry rub from the job of drudgery he was engaged in, and patched corduroy and fustian was the common wear, denoting genuine hard-working labouring men, very glad indeed to make the most of the few halfpence set aside for the mid-day meal. There were a few present that, from a picturesque point of view, could have been spared — poor, ragged, outcast wretches, such as a not over-fastidious person might object to share a table with; but the manager very justly argued, "The publican over the way would not object to serve them, and how can I refuse?" And then, again, it would be unfair to publish a tariff such as might tempt a man with his last precious penny to spend, and then object to serve him on the ground that his clothes were too shabby. Such a list of prices was never before heard of, and it needed a repetition of the assurance of the manager that the affair was self-supporting, and would continue to be so if it met with popular patronage, and that that was all that was expected of it, or of the other branch establishments located elsewhere. For a cup of really excellent coffee, a third of a pint, the charge is one halfpenny. A cup of cocoa the same. A large cup of tea a penny. Bread and butter a halfpenny the hunch; to call it a slice would be a misnomer. A relish of cold ham twopence. Enough cold beef for a moderate man's luncheon the same, and everything to the end of the lengthy catalogue on an equally amazingly moderate scale. There is one treatment for all comers. To start with, there is the warm and well-lit space for company, and there are the seats and tables, and the plates and knives if required. It is quite optional the amount a customer may feel inclined to spend. A patron with money at his command may go in for ham as well as beef, with hot potatoes and bread, and his bill will be fivepence; or he may have, besides the poor materials for a meal he carries in his jacket pocket, only a halfpenny. One is just as welcome as the other, and the waiter will attend on him as promptly and as civilly. If he wishes to smoke his pipe after dinner he may do so quietly and at his ease, and should he in addition to that luxury desire to have a look at the newspaper, there it is for him; nor need he be strictly teetotal to enjoy those various privileges. Perhaps, as a matter of high principle, he, the hard working labourer, should not in any degree "hold with the hare and run with the hounds," as the proverb has it; but if he really feels that he requires half a pint of beer after or before his dinner, and his halfpennyworth of coffee, so long as he can reconcile the act with his conscience, he can have it, and no great harm done. He need not feel ashamed, even if he does so, to come back by-and-by and take his tea, or again after that, and while away the long winter evening warmly sheltered in gossip with a mate over a pipe or in reading, the outlay being perhaps a penny. It was even a more excellent sign than that afforded by the brisk stroke of business being done at dinner time to find that just as men having nothing better to do, and finding home irksome, resort to the public-house; so do they find their way to this harmless coffee-tavern of evenings. And this in the midst of brawling, low-lived St. Giles's! When the writer looked in at night, after he was there at dinner-time, he counted between fifty and sixty of all kinds of people there quite at their ease, and comfortable over the coffee and cocoa cups. The simple fact of their being there was proof that they were none of them of the stay-at-home-of-evenings sort, and if this, the third corner of "the Dials," was not open to give them wholesome and cheap entertainment, there can be no doubt that they would have passed the hours, as long as the money lasted, at all events, at one of the other corners, where, with the "fine old vatted rum of extra strength," and the "celebrated Old Tom," the as yet unconverted crew of ragged roysterers were keeping the game alive. It is estimated that since the opening of the establishment more than a thousand persons have each day patronised it. Maybe it would not be judicious — it certainly would be arbitrary and unjust — to put an end to the gin and beer taverns, even in such neighbourhoods as St. Giles's; but no man who has been at the pains of spending a few hours in investigating the matter could well be of any other opinion than that the influence of a few score of these coffee-taverns spread through London would be as immense as it would be beneficial.