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Ep 155: Marvellous Moll King

Updated: Feb 6

Portrait from Wits, Wenchers and Wantons by E. J. Burford

We're back with a colourful character from Covent Garden. Moll King was, amongst other things, proprietress of Tom King's Coffee House -Tom being Moll's husband. The earliest mention of this coffeehouse is in Henry Fielding's Prologue, The Covent-Garden tragedy (1732), where it's described as 'a rude shed and well known to all gentlemen to whom beds are unknown'.

Morning by William Hogarth

Hogarth drew it in his Morning image., showing it right in front of St Paul's Covent Garden. It seems that was a little artistic license. Most descriptions say it was on the south side of the piazza. Probably in the South East corner, where the London Transport Museum sits today. Which would make this the view looking out the door:

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726

It's odd to remember that the market buildings we have now were only built in the 1800s. In it's early years the piazza was a huge empty space. But the buildings above will look familiar to modern eyes. With the columns far right now housing the Apple shop.

Let's just zoom in for a moment, to detail of the Angillis picture. The chap with this amazing stack of basket on his head. Is he a market porter? Certainly the Billingsgate Fish porters had special hats to help carry the goods above their heads. And has he lost a few? Looks like there's a couple of falling baskets about to land on the lady below, and a bit of consternation in the crowd.

Moll lived 1696–1747, born nearby in Vine St. She married Tom King in 1717 aged 21. The above image would be about 10 years into their running the Coffee House. Which did sell coffee, and later alcohol. Moll's parents ran a stall in the market. Tom's father was a Baronet, between them they knew anyone and everyone from the top to bottom of society. Even the George II popped in at least once. Tom did the drinking, Moll presumably ran the business. She must have been a shrewd lady who made the most of all her local connections. There were plenty of brothels nearby, and plenty of matches made in the coffee house, but only one bed on their premises so they stayed, mostly, on the right side of the law.

However, we have this depiction of the inside:

The Rake's Rendezvous, or the midnight revels

Once again, have a look at a detail of the print. This is the picture on wall. Presumably the infamous image of a monk and a nun. It's not great quality, but I'm hoping you can see, they don't seem to be engaged in any spiritual activity.

If you look out the door, you can also see the pillar in the centre of the piazza, as in the painting above.

An evening at Tom King's has been 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.”

Indeed in Hogarth's image above, a fight is breaking out in the doorway, even as the market is starting it's working day.

Tom died in 1739, and his death was notoriously celebrated in a contemporary satire where the engraving shows a funeral monument composed of a black serving wench mourning his death, a drunken rake, a barrel of brandy and a weeping prostitute, all symbols associated with the infamous coffeehouse. Moll kept the business running, even when imprisoned for a while, (listen to the pod for the full details) before retiring to house in Haverstock Hill.

She didn't forget her roots though. In her will there was money left to their only son Charles, held in trust until he reached 30. If he didn't reach 30, it was to be given to the poor children of Covent Garden. She and Tom are both buried in St Paul's Covent Garden.

There's not a wealth of images to chose to share with you. I've written these words to go with the ones we have. Listen to the episode to get the full flavour of Moll and her exploits through life. Or track down a copy of the pamphlet written after her death, snappily entitled:

The life and character of Moll King, late mistress of King's coffee-house in Covent-Garden, who departed this life at her Country-House at Hampstead, on Thursday the 17th of September, 1747. Containing A true Narrative of this well-known Lady, from her Birth to her Death; wherein is inserted several humorous Adventures relating to Persons of both Sexes, who were fond of nocturnal Revels. Also The Flash Dialogue between Moll King and Old Gentleman Harry, that was some Years ago murdered in Covent-Garden; and the Pictures of several noted Family Men, drawn to the Life. To the Whole is added, An Epitaph and Elegy, wrote by one of Moll's favourite Customers. And a Key to the Flash Dialogue.

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Any questions, comments or requests, do get in touch. We love to hear from you.

And you have been in touch. Listener Despa coming up trumps again with this article about the Flash language. It seems it wasn't confined to London, but travelled around the world with convicts sent to Australia.

Listen to the introduction to next week's episode - 156, to hear more.

Thanks again to Despa.

Another update from a listener contribution!

Thank you to Charlie who lives close to Moll's Haverstock Hill house, and send us this painting by John Constable:

Looking from Haverstock Hill to the City of London by Constable ~1830

We see St Paul's and the Shard in the distance. (It's not The Shard! Maybe a church steeple much closer - Camden, or St Pancras? ) More to the point the taller building on the left is Moll's house. The cottage on the right was journalist Richard Steele's. If you want to look it up on a map. Steele's house is now a pub, conveniently called the Sir Richard Steele. Constable lived not far away in Hampstead and enjoyed painting the views and skies he saw from home.

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