Beginners Guide to Tobacco – The surprising history of London’s lost tobacco houses

Considered a cure for cancer, ripped-off fingernails and more, smoking tobacco in times of yore was a debonair delight practised throughout London; if you know where to look, a tour brings the history of the capital’s tobacco houses back to life

An 1857 illustration shows gentlemen in a London tobacconist shop

An 1857 illustration shows gentlemen in a London tobacconist shop Photo: Chronicle / Alamy
By Dr Matthew Green

The introduction of the tobacco smoking ban in July 2007 instantly halted smoking in any public premises in the country, with one often overlooked exception. In cigar shops and lounges it is still possible to sink into a sofa and smoke a mammoth Cuban cigar (perhaps while enjoying a whisky), as long as you claim that you’re merely “sampling” the products.

It’s a loophole that, in London, allows customers to smoke an exotic cigar on an old theatre seat at Sautter in Mayfair, browse Winston Churchill’s leather-bound ledger at James J. Fox in St James’s, or choose between more than 300 malts to accompany your Havana on the cigar terrace of the Soho Whisky Club. Though tobacco smoking’s popularity may be much diminished, these venues continue to attract a loyal clientele and are in fact classy, smoke-swirled refinements of late Elizabethan and Jacobean tradition. Though it’s rarely acknowledged now, London was once the tobacco smoking capital of the world, awash with tobacco houses; if you know where to look, a tour of the city can reveal the last vestiges of this forgotten past.

For an in-depth history of smoking and tobacco refer to our dedicated article here, but in brief tobacco was introduced to the capital from Florida in the mid-16th century. It was subsequently popularized at court by Sir Walter Raleigh and by the 1590s Londoners were addicted. “They always carry the instrument on them”, wrote a Swiss traveller in 1599, “lighting up on all occasions: at the play, in the taverns, or elsewhere.” “Even at night,” reported an astonished Venetian in 1617, “they keep the pipe and steel at their pillows and gratify their longings”. At school, pupils sometimes had a pipe of tobacco for breakfast.

The earliest known image of an English smoker, from Anthony Chute’s Tabaco (1595)

To meet this insatiable demand for the “holy herb”, tobacco houses sprouted all over London. In 1614, one pamphleteer counted 7,000 – more than the number of alehouses and taverns combined, though at 3d per pipeful, it wasn’t cheap.

Entering a Jacobean tobacco house, each new customer would be greeted by a statue of an elaborately plumed American Indian with a giant tobacco pipe – as can still be seen today inside the window of James J Fox on 19 St. James’s Street, one of the oldest cigar merchants in the world. Within the curtained-off smoking area, a row of “tobacconists” in starched ruffs and broad-brimmed hats would sit behind a plank of wood propped up by hogsheads strewn with clay pipes – some, looking like little ladels, still wash up on the banks of the Thames to this day - richly decorated tobacco cases, and silver porringers for spittle.

Tobacconists would heave in the smoke with the force of an ocean tide, holding it until it flooded every last chamber of their innards, then breathe it out through their nose with “plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head” (as a German traveller described their snot in 1598) and free-flowing saliva. So complete was the immersion, you didn’t “smoke” tobacco, you “drank” it, and it made people “riotous and merry, and rather drowsy… performing queer antics”.

An image of a Jacobean Tobacco House taken from Richard Brathwait’s The Smoking Age (1617)

Pipe smoking could be a rapturous, quasi-religious experience. Enthroned in the Mermaid Tavern on Friday Street, Cheapside, wits eulogized the herb as “divine tobacco” and “the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man”. “All they that love not boys and tobacco”, thought Christopher Marlowe, “are fools”. As the physician Roger Marbecke explained in his Defence of Tobacco (1602), tobacco heated up the cold, moist humours of the brain, kindling a deft and lyrical wit, allowing tobacco smokers to meet their divinely apportioned creative faculties, and bringing them closer to God. The Mermaid Wits, then, were the first generation of chain-smoking intellectuals, long before any Parisian philosophers.

London’s physicians and apothecaries embraced tobacco, with tragic irony, as an infallible cure for just about every ailment they could think of. According to Anthony Chute’s Tabaco (1595), it counteracted coughs, colds and rheumatism. And it was a magical cure for cancer, fatigue, melancholy, and ripped-off fingernails; a “precious herb” indeed.

Not everyone was smitten – tobacco “makes your breath stink like the p— of a fox” opined a character in a Thomas Dekker play – and people were not completely oblivious to the health hazards. ‘I am told the inside of one man’s veins after death was found to be covered in soot just like a chimney’, reported the Swiss medical student Thomas Platter from London in 1599.

Though it is probably apocryphal, this engraving shows a smoking Sir Walter Raleigh being doused in a keg of ale by his servant, who supposedly thought he was on fire

London’s tobacco houses manifested England’s possession of alien lands and their secrets but James I worried about reverse-colonisation and made an unsuccessful attempt to dampen its popularity through extortionate taxation. Some 200 years later, Tobacco Dock was gouged into the marshy soil behind the riverbank at Wapping, guarded by a large brick warehouse. It can still be visited today brooding, forlorn, in the eerie Docklands, host to a solitary sandwich shop and occasional events.

Like much else, tobacco houses became more refined in the Georgian period. At 34 Haymarket you’ll find an old house with a magical double-fronted bow window, incongruous amidst the thunderous traffic and imperial buildings. Though today it’s a touristy gift shop, this was once Fribourg & Treyer’s, a purveyor of tobacco and snuff (finely ground, flavoured tobacco to be sniffed) to George IV, Beau Brummell, and other denizens of the St James’s clubs. Inside can be found the original oak counter and a wooden screen. It also came to dispense cylinders of tobacco rolled in leaves when, in 1820, the government relaxed its prohibitive taxation, ushering in the age of the cigar.

London’s new crop of tobacco joints specialise in cigars, stocking a range of Dominican, Nicaraguan and especially Cuban brands. They share other features too: you can find walk-in humidors – as at La Casa at Floridita in Soho, Cigars Unlimited in Fulham and the Wellesley hotel in Knightsbridge – to keep cigars and tobacco in prime moist condition; stylish leather sofas or even sumptuous lounges, as at No. 1 St James’s; exclusive lockers for customers’ cigars; a ready flow of liquid refreshment – coffee, most commonly, but sometimes whisky and champagne (you can be lavished with both at Davidoff on St James’s Street); and sometimes even a ‘cigarellier’ (after sommellier) as at the Ritz Hotel’s Cigar Shop on Piccadilly.

A traditional carving of an American Indian with a giant pipe can still be seen today inside James J Fox. Image: James J Fox Twitter

Though they are far fewer in number than their 17th-century predecessors and generally concentrated in London’s wealthy west, chiefly St James’s, Mayfair and Chelsea, these modern-day ‘tobacco houses’ testify to the city’s perpetual resourcefulness, its capacity to adapt and evolve, so that even its most noxious and harmful traditions never quite vanish from its streets.

Historian Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, in which the reader travels back in time and explores the city at key moments in its history soaking up the sights, sounds and smells from the Middle Ages to the 1950s, published by Penguin. He also leads immersive tours of historic London with Unreal City Audio. His newest tour, Shakespearean London, launches on Saturday August 8 and features a visit to a Jacobean tobacco house

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