The Beggarstaff Man

“Why,” I wondered yesterday as I sat in the hairdressers chair, “do men, once they reach a certain age, suddenly like dark chocolate?”  “My dad loves dark chocolate,” said hairdresser Hattie.

Beggarstaff Brothers Rowntree's Cocoa poster 1895

The Beggarstaffs Poster for Rowntree's Cocoa 1895

The Beggarstaffs were artists William Nicholson and James Pryde. As students they travelled to Paris and were influenced by the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.  In 1894 the pair began calling themselves The Beggarstaff Brothers. They revolutionised poster design in Britain using flat colours, clear outlines, and making collages from coloured paper to produce striking graphic images of everything from Queen Victoria to Rowntrees Cocoa.

In London’s East End the portly well-dressed gentleman with his delicate cup of cocoa must have looked out of place among the slums and the grinding poverty.  Bethnal Green was home to the most notorious London rookery, the Old Nichol.

Map of the Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green

The Old Nichol district of Bethnal Green 1892

The Old Nichol had grown from a few houses in 1680 on a field dug for brick-making, to a shanty-town of hovels built to accommodate the arrival of 25,000 Hugenot refugees,  Jews from Eastern Europe, immigrant weavers from Ireland and the rapidly increasing indigenous population.  By 1880 the Old Nichol covered 15 acres, or just a square quarter mile, but it contained some of the worst constructed house anywhere in Britain,  crammed together in alleys and courts joined together by arteries of narrow lanes.

A Court off Boundary Street 1890

A Court off Boundary Street in the Old Nichol, 1890

Families sometimes of ten people occupied single rooms in dwellings built with half-baked bricks and a mortar made from a waste product of soap manufacture called ‘billysweet’. The mortar never dried-out, and floorboards were laid onto earth. With little or no foundations the walls and floors sagged, and the interiors were permanently damp. In these teeming conditions people scraped a living making matchboxes, smoking fish, catching birds to sell, or just thieving. Anything to keep the rent man at bay on ‘Black Monday’. No running water, no lavatories, and into that stew were added horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs and of course rats. Infant mortality was twice the number in the rest of Bethnal Green, and five out of six child deaths were caused by suffocation, their parents or bigger siblings rolling on top of them at night and smothering them. The squalor and depravity was almost indescribable, but Dickens tried. He visited Jacobs Island in Bermondsey, the setting for Fagin’s rookery in ‘Oliver Twist’, the Old Nichol would have been too dangerous.  He was accompanied by two senior policemen and three constables, with a further platoon of officers within a whistles-blow. “Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three … filth everywhere — a gutter before the houses and a drain behind — clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.”

Charles Booth's poverty map of Bethnal Green 1889

Charles Booth's Poverty Map from 1889. The black and dark blue denotes the poorest most criminal areas

The Old Nichol was even worse than that, “one painful and monotonous round of vice, filth, and poverty, huddled in dark cellars, ruined garrets, bare and blackened rooms, teeming with disease and death.” As the 19th Century drew to a close two books were influential in awakening the public conscience,  Arthur Morrison’s  “A Child of The Jago” about the Old Nichol, and Jack London’s “The People of The Abyss“.

Arnold Circus bandstand

The bandstand at Arnold Circus, built on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol rookery. ©Philip Walker

The newly formed LCC began pulling-down the slums in 1891, and in its place created the Boundary Estate, the first council housing in the world, with gardens built triumphantly on a mound of rubble from the Old Nichol. The Rowntree Cocoa poster appeared at this time, one of the biggest posters the Beggarstaffs ever produced. I imagine it was left hanging on a partly demolished wall, a target for resentful mud-slinging locals. A passing versifier wrote :

                                          “A splotch of mud on the Beggarstaff Man,

                                                        A splotch, that is all.

                                          But it blinds the eye of the Cocoa Man,

                                                  On a Bethnal Green dead wall.”

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make froth

Aztec woman pouring cocoa from cup to cup to make the sacred froth ca.1553

Cocoa, or cacao beans came from Central and Southern America. Cultivation was first recorded 3,500 years ago, and the beans were sacred to the Mayan and Aztec civilisations. When the Spanish arrived they found the Emperor Moctezuma II would drink it flavoured with spices and whipped into a froth from a gold goblet for dinner.  It was brought to Spain by the conquistador Henri Cortez, but the Spanish found the drink bitter and almost unpalatable. By adding flavours such as cinnamon and pepper, and later of course sugar, chocolate drinking became popular but largely confined to Spain.  When Cromwell’s Navy captured Jamaica from the Spanish, the English found cacao plantations planted by the Spanish.

Bishopsgate, London, 1650

Bishopsgate in London, 1650.

The first advertisement for chocolate in London appeared in 1657,  “In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade, at reasonable rates.”

Making chocolate was very labour intensive and along-winded. The cocoa nuts were split and the beans dried in the sun before shipping to England. Then the dried beans were roasted and winnowed to remove the shells leaving ‘nibs’, which were ground on a special stone turning them into a paste which was dried in moulds. Only then could they be transformed into chocolate. You need between 300 and 600 beans to make 1 kg of chocolate.

Cocoa Nut

Cocoa Fruit or Nut, 20cm long!

17th and 18th Century chocolate would be unrecognisable to us today, the drink was thick, cool, and gritty. Bitter and grown-up, especially if it was mixed with wine or port.  I’ve never been a fan of chocolate, too sweet and sticky. Watching the crowds of (mostly) women excitedly gather around the stalls selling chocolate at Borough Market I wonder what it is that makes it so appealing.  Apparently twice as many women as men crave chocolate, and men mostly prefer bitter chocolate.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa Porter cooking in Devon.

Keith Floyd and Clarissa in his kitchen in Devon. The fridge is on the left.

Some years ago I was waiting with Clarissa for Keith Floyd in his Devon kitchen. We waited with M, a free-lance journalist. Keith was in Tuckenhay preparing for the lunchtime service at The Maltsters Arms. M was hungry, and she rifled through his fridge. “Mmm…” she said, “…chocolate.” She turned to us brandishing a large bar of Bourneville. “You’d better not touch that,” warned Clarissa. “Why not? Keith won’t mind, will he?” replied M.  “Yes he’ll mind very much, he’s numbered each piece.” Maria shrugged disbelievingly and scoffed some Bourneville. Keith appeared and he and Clarissa started cooking. I sat watching, and M started banging away at her laptop. M’s obsession was to be given a column on a certain tabloid. “Kelvin is interested in my ideas,” she’d gasp. Nothing else mattered, she’d sit all day bashing-out ideas for her non-existent column, instead of doing what she was supposed to be doing, and recording Keith’s every word. Stopping for coffee Keith went to the fridge, “Who’s touched my chocolate?” He said a mite grumpily. “I didn’t think you’d mind,” said M brightly.  “Well, I do.” And Keith refused to acknowledge her presence for the rest of the day, but at every opportunity dropped into the conversation his observations on trust and honesty, and how some people would stop at nothing in their pursuit of self-gratification. And so on.


Dr Matthew Green

If you’d like to find out more about London’s chocolate history, I recommend Dr Matthew Green‘s Chocolate and Coffee Tour. Matthew guides the tour around the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th Century London, complete with actors in period costume, and the chance to taste an authentic 18th Century cocoa. It’ll be a bit different to the usual walking tour, he had the idea when he was writing “The Lost World Of the London Coffeehouse’ which will be published through the Idler Academy in May. Invited to give talks at The Academy, Selfridges and at the upcoming Port Eliot Festival he thought there might be an audience for a real-life experience and assembled a team of actors and musicians to bring to life the streets and coffee houses of 17th Century London.

17th Century Chocolate House

London Chocolate House in the 17th Century

I met Matthew in The Black Lab, he ordered hot chocolate of course and began regaling me with chocolatey anecdotes. “If you could try 17th Century chocolate you’d probably choke!” He said sipping his cocoa. ” It was bitter and gritty and quite sludgy. But it became very popular in the coffee houses, in 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in the City of London, 100 years later there were 3,000 in London, and remember there were no news services. You went to a coffee house, and sat at a big communal table and immediately started a conversation with the person sitting next to you; that was the convention and how you learned the latest gossip and news. ‘What news have you?’ would be the shout as a newcomer entered.”  I glanced across the road at a chain coffee shop and today’s coffee ‘experience’. Lone customers sitting in hushed reverence with their latte, staring at their laptops. Imagine rushing into a smoke-filled Costa sweaty, unwashed, a clay pipe clamped between your blistered lips, clothes layered upon layer and dirty from the street, flopping down next to a perfect stranger and shouting “What news?!”

Map of Deptford and Docks

The Victualling Yard at Deptford, 1813.

Chocolate was more difficult and time-consuming to prepare than coffee or tea.  In Deptford’s Royal Victoria Victualling Yard, cocoa for the Navy was produced. Sailors had chocolate for breakfast, it replaced the unpleasant burgoo, coarse oatmeal and water.

The Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Victualling Yard

Cocoa Bean Roasters in Deptford's Royal Victoria Victualling Yard 1896

Sailors enjoyed generous daily rations. In 1622 the allowance was 1lb biscuit and 1 gallon beer every day, 2 lb salt beef four days a week, together with 1 lb of bacon or pork, 1 pint of pease. And for the other 3 days a quarter pound of salt fish and quarter pound of butter and a quarter pound of cheese. Additionally the sailors could buy other food from his wages. In the 18thn Century he gallon of beer, long a source of trouble, gave way to chocolate and tea.  Good living was one of the inducements to joining-up. Chocolate, or cocoa, or as sailors called it pussers ki was produced in Deptford from raw beans, more than 800 tonnes a year was made in the Victualling Yard. The ‘ordinary’ at 84% cocoa nibs the most pure chocolate, and the ‘soluble’. The ‘ordinary’ took several hour to prepare starting the night before when the chocolate was grated from 7 lb slabs, stamped with the Admiralty arrow, then locked away under sentry guard till the early hours when it was transferred to the ship’s coppers (boilers) and boiled for 3 or 4 hours, before being served for breakfast, with biscuit when the bugle sounded ‘Cooks of Messes’. The soluble chocolate which was less pure at 64% contained sago flour and could be prepared quickly, therefore more suited to drinking on watch in bad weather. It wasn’t till the advent of the modern drinking cocoa from Rowntree and Cadbury that it was taken up by the mass of the population at the end of the 19th Century.

Rabot Estate Cocoa Growers

Rabot Estates in Borough Market

I went to Borough Market, to Rabot Estate, buying 100% pure cocoa bean shavings, £7.50 for 120g; but you can buy 100% cocoa by Willie’s Cacao in Waitrose, I’d recommend the Venezuelan at about £6 for 180g.

My recipe is for an authentic cocoa drink from the 17th Century. I pushed the boat out and bought a chocolate cup on ebay, a Royal Worcester design by Sir Joshua Reynolds dated 1765, when the artist was founding the Royal Academy.

You can adapt this recipe to your liking by adding or subtracting ingredients. Be prepared for a surprise, there’s nothing whispery about this drink!

Cocoa, recipe for real cocoa hot chocolate 17th Century

17th Century Restoration Cocoa

Restoration Cocoa, or, a Real Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Preparation time 10 minutes



Whole milk

1 star anise

1 pimento, or a sweet chili pepper

Half stick of cinnamon

Few scrapes of nutmeg

Pinch of black pepper

Few drops of pure vanilla essence

Few drops of orange flower water

6 heaped tsp of ground almonds

1 tbs honey, or more, to taste. Or sugar the same.

2 tbs pure 100% cocoa


The amount of water and milk depends on the cup size. I used an authentic chocolate cup which is about the size of a demi-tasse: 100ml. So for 4 cup servings I needed 100ml water, and 300 ml milk. In a small pan bring the water to the boil, and in a separate pan heat the milk gently.

With a pestle and mortar pound the star anise, the pimento or chili pepper, the nutmeg, the cinnamon, and the pepper. Pound till it resembles ground coffee. Add a few drops of pure vanilla essence and orange flower water, and the ground almonds. Combine all these ingredients then drizzle-in the honey so the mixture resembles a grainy paste.

Stir the paste into the boiling water till smooth, then spoon the cocoa into the milk.

Finally add the water to the milk and whisk gently on a low heat till the mixture thickens slightly. Pour warm into your cups to serve.

©2012 David Porter

6 responses to “The Beggarstaff Man

  • Nikki

    Another fascinating post & Dr Green’s tours sound worth checking out.
    Love the idea of people running into a coffee house and saying “what’s news ?” Actually, come to think of it, I sort of already do that at our lovely local cafe, the fabulous You Don’t Bring Me Flowers in Hither Green.

  • Sue

    Fab love the floyd story and the recipe x

  • vi

    hi is the deptford lower road, on your map Evelyn street today

  • keatsbabe

    What a fabulous and detailed post. SO glad I came to you via a comment you made on my twitter feed. My ancestors ran a London coffee house in Limehouse I believe so I’ll look out for that book in May.

    • David Porter

      Do you know what the coffee house was called? My in laws lived on the Isle of Dogs and my wife’s grandad was vicar at Stepney Green. You should contact Matthew Green @unrealcityaudio.

  • Matt

    Yum…I’m going to try this

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