13 February 2014

William Pitt at the Coffee Houses of Lincoln's Inn

 The 1794 sundial marking the location of Pitt's attic rooms at 4 Stone Buildings                     

In the very late 1770s, and early 1780s, William Pitt trained as a lawyer at Lincoln's Inn. During his residence at one of the attic rooms of 4 Stone Buildings (facing Lincoln's Inn Gardens and the square of Lincoln's Inn Fields), Pitt was accustomed to drink at the coffee houses in the immediate vicinity. There are several documented places where he was spotted. These locations were Will's Coffee House at 7 Serle Street (at the corner of Portugal Street), and the other was Serle's Coffee House on 4 Carey Street [1]. Both were within a 2 minute-walk from Pitt's chambers, and were known to be frequented by other gentleman of Lincoln's Inn.

In 1815, nearly a decade after Pitt's death, Will's Coffee House was located at 7 Serle Street, at the corner of Portugal Street, but in Pitt's time at Lincoln's Inn (c. 1780-1) it may have been situated somewhere inside New Square [2]. In the 'recollections of a deceased Welsh judge,' the unidentified judge remembers his old friend St. Andrew St. John (later Lord St. John) discussing Mr. Pitt's time at Lincoln's Inn:

"They [Pitt and Andrew St John] lived in a double set of chambers within the same outer door, in the Old Buildings [Stone Buildings] (now finically termed Old Square) of Lincoln's Inn, to which Society both of them belonged. Pitt had often practiced speaking as well as composition under the superintendence of his father, but he was desirous of trying how his voice and his nerves would answer the call of a public assembly; so he and his crony went together in masks, as was the mode, to some debating place, I rather think Mrs. Cornelly's, and the experiment was as satisfactory in the result as might have been expected from the silver voice and the iron nerve on which it was tried. St. John used to say that Pitt, from the first, entered eagerly into legal discussions. He [Pitt] dined at a Law Club, as was the custom universally then and still is to a great degree, though beginning to be broken in upon by the fashionable clubs now forming, to the great and serious injury of the profession, both giving bad, idle, and rambling habits, and depriving the young lawyer and the student from the inestimable benefit of having cases and points that actually arise in the Courts familiarly discussed by lawyers of experience. 

I have often heard that Pitt was a regular attendant on the Court of King's Bench, and as regular a diner at his club, and took the most unceasing and lively interest in all the professional conversation of the table. For until the French Revolution made all men politicians, and its topics superseded every other subject of conversation in society, as well as of discussion in public, no politics nor indeed anything but law was ever heard at the dining clubs. The hour [of dinner] was four, and at six the billing being called, all departed to chambers. In the course of a little time, being introduced into Parliament for Appleby, I think it was by Sir James Lowther (afterwards Lord Lonsdale), he [Pitt] got into a club in St. James's Street or Pall Mall [Pitt's club at the time, Goostree's, was in Pall Mall], where he played a little, but his habit was, even when he dined at the west-end of the town, to come back to Lincoln's Inn early enough to make sure of getting in before the wicket was shut, which happened at twelve. His aim was not chambers, but Will's Coffee-house, now in Serle Street, but then in the New Buildings (or Square), and which was, by order of the society, shut at twelve. He [Pitt] then sat himself down with a newspaper, a dry biscuit, and a bottle of very bad port wine, the greater part of which he finished cold, whatever he might have eaten or drank at dinner." [3]

Pitt was called to the Bar on June 12, 1780 [4]. Going on to discuss Pitt's time on the Western Circuit, and his astounding oratorical powers, the judge relates the reminiscences of a man who knew Pitt called 'Hippesley':

"In the Western Circuit which he [Pitt] went, I believe, but once, I have heard from my old acquaintance Hippesley, who knew him upon it, that he [Pitt] held one or two briefs, probably from his father's old connection with Bath [his father Pitt the Elder was an MP for Bath at one time], and his property in Somersetshire, under [Sir William] Pynsent's will. On one of these trials, the court was a little astonished, perhaps partially amused, partially alarmed, at hearing his [Pitt's] remarkable voice; for our profession, especially on its circuits, is exceeding nervous through apprehension and jealousy, and, as it were, vested interests. Some objection being taken, Mr. Pitt said, 'I desire to know whether or not the point is taken, as I am prepared to argue it.'" [5]

Pitt was also spotted at another location in the area of Lincoln's Inn called Serle's Coffee House, which was situated at 4 Carey Street (south side). Mrs. Fanny Boscawen, a friend of Pitt's mother Lady Hester Chatham, wrote to Lady Chatham in July 1781 to tell her that "today I had a Lawyer of Lincoln's Inn [who] din'd with Me; we were speaking of the [Gordon] Riots last Year [June 1780] and he told me that when they form'd themselves into Companies for the defence of the Inns of Court they agreed that the tallest Man shou'd be the Captain: thus Mr. Pitt commanded their Company and in speaking of Him I cou'd have lik'd Dear Madam to have convey'd to your Ear all that was said. I ask'd my Guest [his name is unknown] whether he had seen Mr. Pitt lately, he answer'd 'Yesterday at Serle's Coffee House where he [Pitt] and other Gentleman of Lincoln's Inn are in the custom of drinking their Coffee, or tea, for an Hour in the Afternoon.'"[6]

It appears that Pitt certainly enjoyed the company of his fellow lawyers. Dining with other lawyers or aspiring politicians at his club, or conversing with them over coffee and a newspaper at either Serle's or Will's Coffee House, must have formed a regular habit of Pitt's life at the stage prior to his entry into Parliament.

Unfortunately, apart from anecdotes such as these, very little is known about Pitt's brief time as a lawyer of Lincoln's Inn. 


1. Rylance, R. (originally published in 1815), edited by Janet Ing Freeman. (2012) The Epicure's Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London (The original 1815 Guidebook). London: British Library, p. 150.

2. 'Recollections of a deceased Welsh judge.' The Law Review and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, Vol. 3. (1846) London: Owen Richards, p. 301.

3. Ibid, pp. 300-301.

4. Stanhope (1867) Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, Volume 1 (3rd Edition). London: John Murray, p. 42.

5. 'Recollections of a deceased Welsh judge.' The Law Review and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, Vol. 3. (1846) London: Owen Richards, p. 301.

6. Birdwood, V. (ed.) (1994) So dearly Loved, So much admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends (1744-1801). London: HMSO, p. 159.


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