On this day in history : 20th February 1673 – The first ever recorded auction – ‘by the candle’ – of wine is held at a coffee house in London….

Garraway’s Coffee House, City of London

During the 17th century coffee houses became the ‘in-place’ to be seen…. Previously socialising and indeed many a business deal had taken place in the nation’s inns and ale houses – but these were now being viewed as too rowdy and boisterous…. Coffee houses offered an alternative; it wasn’t that the coffee tasted particularly good, the early form of the beverage really didn’t – but the caffeine ‘buzz’ would have been quite addictive…. Soon coffee houses became centres of business with each establishment associated with its different trades and professions…. Whereas one might be frequented by artists or actors another might be where merchants would gather and a further one a place for medical men to congregate…. By 1702 it is thought that over 500 coffee houses had sprung up in London alone and by 1800 this number had risen to over 8,000….

One such establishment was Garraway’s Coffee House, which was opened by Thomas Garway in the 1650s…. Garway was a tobacconist and coffee merchant by trade – and before opening his coffee house is believed to have been the first to sell tea – as a ‘cure of all disorders’ – to the public in England…. He began to sell the commodity at Garraway’s in 1657 – in those days tea sold at between 80p – £2.50 per pound in weight….that’s well over £500 in today’s terms, making an extremely expensive cuppa!

Garraway’s was situated in Exchange Alley, a shortcut between Cornhill and Lombard Street, the hub of the City’s financial world…. It was built on a corner and had various entrances into the building – with small rooms on the ground floor along with a kitchen and on the upper floor a large coffee room…. Just ten years later it was destroyed by the Great Fire of London and had to be rebuilt…. Exchange Alley became known as ‘Change Alley’ and Garraway’s was one of three celebrated coffee houses in the immediate area – all of which were patronised by traders in shares and commodities…. Both Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe referred to Garraway’s in their works….

As the business grew Garraway’s began to hold auctions…. A small rostrum was installed in the upstairs room for the auctioneer and rough settles were provided for the bidders…. The windows and walls of the lower floor were adorned with placards advertising upcoming sales…. Up to thirty sales a day could take place, selling everything from furs to drugs, timber to tea….and then in 1673 wine…. As well as becoming famous for its wine sales, both by the bottle and crate, it was also to become well-known for its auction of fine brandy….

Auction room at Garraway’s

Auctions then were not as we know them today – they were conducted ‘by the candle’…. At the commencement of the sale, after the auctioneer had read out the description of the goods and the terms and conditions of the sale, a length of candle (typically an inch) would be lit…. He who placed the last bid before the candle had burned out would be deemed the winner….

Garraway’s Coffee House has now long gone…. It was to develop to become a famous drinking establishment and sandwich shop…. Then in 1748 the building was once more to be destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt again…. However, by the mid 1800s coffee houses were declining in popularity – and Garraway’s eventually closed on the 11th of August 1866 – and the premises became home to a bank…. All that remains as a reminder of the once great coffee house is an ornate stone plaque on the wall where it once stood and a mahogany panel at 32 Cornhill which reads “Place of great commercial transaction and frequented by people of quality”….

Image credit : Spudgun67 – own work

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