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Alice's Coffee House and the petition of Henry Howard

1 February 2016

Alice's coffee house, a meeting place of lawyers and politicians, was destroyed in the 1834 Palace of Westminster fire. Its owner, Henry Howard, inspired by plans to rebuild the palace petitioned Parliament.

Destruction of the Palace of Westminster

The fire began when old wooden tally sticks, an outdated counting method used by the Exchequer, were burned in stoves under the House of Lords on 16 October 1834. Within a few hours the fire was out of control, engulfing the Chamber of the House of Lords and spreading to the roof of Alice's Coffee House nearby. The coffee house was destroyed along with the Chamber of the House of Commons, located in the medieval chapel of St Stephens, the richly decorated Painted Chamber of the House of Lords and numerous outbuildings.

In 1835 a Royal Commission was set up to oversee the rebuilding of Parliament. Henry Howard the owner of Alice's coffee house, seeing an opportunity to rebuild his business, decided to exercise his right to petition Parliament. The petition was presented to Parliament on 19 August 1835. Howard's request was simple: he asked that 'the honourable House will be pleased to give such directions in the erection of the new Houses of Parliament, that accommodation may be afforded him to resume his former business'. The destructive fire of 1834, as he stated in his petition, had 'deprived [him] of his house and every means of enabling him to continue to support his family' —  it is likely that he faced financial ruin. He had lost his furniture, plate (for serving food to customers) and his stock of wine.

Coffee houses in London

Coffee houses were important in the political, social and cultural life of London from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. They were vibrant places bustling with people and provided a space where friends could meet, enjoy a cup of coffee and discuss the news of the day. Alice's coffee house was located on the North Side of Old Palace Yard, close to Westminster Hall. It was one of a number of businesses — among them taverns, booksellers, and coffee shops — that clustered in and around the ancient Hall through its long history.

A meeting place for lawyers

Alice's coffee house was a short distance from the lobby of the House of Commons and the Courts of Requests, Chancery and King's Bench. As Henry Howard stated in his petition, his business served 'to supply the Members of both Houses of Parliament with refreshments, as well as His Majesty's Counsel and practising Barristers'. Its location made it a popular stopping point for lawyers and judges on their way to or from court. This association was strong enough for it to have been described by one writer almost thirty years later as 'a kind of club […] attended by the Bars of all the courts'. Lawyers frequented the shop so much that it became a convenient robing room before and after their attendance at court, and they often left their robes and wigs there under the watchful eye of Henry Howard.

The Petition and its outcome

Henry Howard's petition is an interesting example of a request for action by an individual exercising their right to petition Parliament — a right that continues to this day. The petition was presented to Parliament by the Solicitor General Robert Rolfe MP, who, as a lawyer and MP, is likely to have been a customer of Alice's Coffee House. Howard may well have hoped that having a friend in such a high place would add weight to his petition and help with its success.

What happened to Henry Howard after his petition was presented is unclear, though there is an interesting postscript to this story in an article on London's coffee houses and political clubs, published in Fraser's Magazine in 1860. Howard had long since died, but, as the author wrote, his son had continued the family business by opening his own coffee house serving the lawyers and clerks of the Queen's Bench Court in Westminster Hall. Howard's son, as the article went on, 'also manages the robing-rooms of barristers, making therefore a good income'. Though his coffee house was not rebuilt, the legacy of Henry Howard and Alice's Coffee House lived on.

Sean Harris, Committee Assistant, Petitions Committee.

Image: Fire 1834. Colour lithograph, by an unknown artist.

© Parliamentary Art Collection. WOA 460.