Around three hundred years ago, give or take, a coffee house was rented in Covent Garden that was to become one of the most famous brothel houses in England.

Not that Tom King’s Coffee House was an actual brothel, in law, as it used a loophole to get around the ban on such establishments.

Tom King was born in 1694 to a decent family, educated at Eton, but for some reason fell on hard times, and ended up working in the fruit markets of Covent Garden, met his wife, Moll and was married in 1717.

It seems that they split up for a while, but having some savings, in 1720 they rented a shack from the Duke of Bedford’s estate on the western edge of Covent Garden.

Excerpt from William Hogarth’s Morning (The Four Times of Day), 1738

Hogarth placed the shack right in front of the church, probably for artistic reasons, as Henry Fielding and J T Smith both placed the coffee house(s) on the southern side of Covent Garden, near where the Transport Museum is today. The lack of buildings in front of the church is supported by this painting just a few years later.

Wherever it was actually located, it seems that they always intended their establishment to become rather notorious, for Moll knew many of the courtesans of the court, while Tom still had links to aristocracy from his youth.

The interior was also decorated with rather explicit paintings, including one scandalous depiction of a monk and a nun above the fireplace in a rather unbecoming activity. Within a couple of years, the coffee house was famous as a place to pick up some, ahem, nighttime entertainment, and had tripled in size — but how was it tolerated when such venues were illegal? They exploited a loophole in the law.

There were no beds in the coffee house, other than for Tom and Moll, so anyone who met up here had to wander off to another property for impropriety to take place. That distancing kept the coffee house just about on the right side of the law, and it was a place that was to be frequented by almost anyone famous at the time, and an awful lot more people not at all famous.

That gave it an air that was unusual at the time, of rich and poor mixing freely in the same venue, and often at the same table.

In Hogarth’s Progress by Peter Quennell, an evening was described “As night waned, the company that drifted in became extremely various; for ” noblemen and the first beaux after leaving Court would go to Moll King’s in full dress, with swords and bags . . . in rich brocaded silk coats ”, so that “ the chimney-sweeper, the pick-pocket, and maudlin peer, were often to be seen in the same seat together At dawn, over the heads of the market-women, a drunken young dandy might be observed riding home on the roof of his sedan-chair.”

Although named after Tom, it seems he was pretty much a drunk, and the real work was done by the wife, and she inherited the business when he died of alcoholism in 1739, just after they had bought a fine house in Hampstead.

After his death, Moll started drinking, and the venue went downhill very quickly after that, although it managed to carry on running until around 1745 when she retired, a rich and surprisingly pious church going widow, to Hampstead.

Edited 14:20 – managed to mangle 200 years and 300 years, sorry.

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3 comments on “300th anniversary of Covent Garden’s notorious brothel coffee house
  1. Mr T J Hewitt says:

    1720-2020 surely makes it the 300th anniversary, not 200th stated in the article title? Unless I’m missing something?

  2. Mr T J Hewitt says:

    Okay, scratch that, while reading and pausing to make a cuppa before commenting it appears to have updated!

  3. JP says:

    I wonder if this is the reason for the meaning of “tom” i e. Tom King/one of Tom’s/a Tom?
    Thomas Moore has the requisite wicked cockbey double humour of a Saint linked to a whore, though.
    Tomcat is less cockernee and Tom is London terminology at its base.
    Tomtit and Tom and Dick are other things of course.
    Dunno. It would seem right to have the oldest profession in possession of more than one term of endearment, but a three~hundred yr old moniker seems plausible.
    But then one can atomise things too far too.

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