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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Major

Moll King, of King's Coffee House in Covent Garden

‘What rake is ignorant of King’s Coffee House?’

(Henry Fielding, The Covent Garden Tragedy, 1732).


There are many tall tales told about Mary (Moll) King, a shrewd businesswoman who was the proprietor of King’s Coffee House in London’s Covent Garden. Several sources say she was a thief, stealing watches from ladies’ pockets and held in Newgate before being transported on more than one occasion. She was, allegedly, a member of the notorious Jonathan Wild’s gang of thieves and, while in Newgate, met Daniel Defoe who used her as the inspiration for Moll Flanders. Later she settled down with her husband to run their successful coffee shop, from where she operated as a form of bawd and was prosecuted for keeping a disorderly house.


It all seems a little far-fetched. A certain Moll King appeared in court accused of thieving in 1693, but ‘our’ Moll wasn’t born until 1696. (This birthdate is claimed in a pamphlet, The Life and Character of Moll Kinglate mistress of King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, published anonymously in 1747 shortly after her death.)


Yale Center for British Art


Mary King is not an uncommon name and more than one Mary or Moll King would have been in trouble with the London authorities in the first half of the eighteenth century. It seems that the history of the pickpocketing Moll King, whose criminal career lasted between at least 1693 and 1728 and upon whom Defoe based Moll Flanders, entwined with that of Moll King, mistress of King’s Coffee House. The pickpocketing rumours abounded even during Moll’s lifetime, as they are specifically discredited in The Life and Character.


Moll was born in 1696 in a garret in Vine Street (now Grape Street) in the heart of St Giles in the Fields, the daughter of a shoemaker and a fruit, fish and greens seller. As a child, she helped her mother in the market and had a brief spell as a servant but hated being indoors all day. She returned to selling fruit from a barrow. According to The Life and Character, in 1717 at the Fleet, she married Thomas King.


Vegetable seller, Covent Garden market by Pieter Angillis, c.1726.Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Tom King also has a fanciful story. The son of a well-to-do family, he was born around 1694 in West Ashton in Wiltshire. E.J. Burford, in Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century says he was the son of Thomas King, a squire of Thurlow in Suffolk and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cordell, Baronet, who had married in 1691 at St Paul’s in Covent Garden.[1] In 1708, at the age of 14 years, he went to Eton and then, in 1713, to King’s College, Cambridge. Three years later he left Cambridge under a cloud, either expelled or in apprehension that his fellowship would be denied to him, depending upon which account you read. Whatever the cause, he ended up working in Covent Garden market where he was known as ‘Smooth’d-Fac’d-Tom,’ and there he met Moll.


Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Around the time she met Tom, it is alleged that Moll already had a lover, a gentleman named John Stanley. A few years later, in 1723, Stanley met his end at the gallows on Tyburn. He had stabbed his latest mistress. A pamphlet published the same year gave his history, including details of his brief dalliance with Moll five years earlier.


Is it true? Almost certainly not. It’s another of the many myths surrounding Moll’s life. The Life and Character admits only an affair with a man named Murray who was in high public office, whilst noting that the handsome Moll was never short of male admirers. One son was born to Tom and Moll, named Charles. (Moll names him in her will as her only child and subsequent claims that she educated him at Eton appear to be a falsehood stemming from Tom King’s education there.)


The next reliable sighting comes in 1730 when ‘Thomas King, the Market’ appears in a Covent Garden licensing register of victuallers.


The Kings, or rather Moll, made a tidy profit selling nuts from a stall in the market. With the money, they rented a shabby little house (in fact nothing more than a wooden shack) in Covent Garden’s Piazza and sold coffee, tea, and chocolate, naming their business King’s Coffee House. It was soon known informally as King’s College. They opened in the early hours of the morning when the market traders began work and started to sell alcohol as well as coffee. Covent Garden’s pleasure-seekers dropped in before stumbling home. Soon King’s Coffee House stayed open all through the night. The clientele included Hogarth, Henry Fielding (who mentioned King’s in two of his works), Alexander Pope and John Gay. By 1732 business was booming and the Kings bought the two adjoining properties to expand their business. The new Covent Garden Theatre opened next door to their coffee house.


Print showing the interior of King's Coffee House. British Museum


The business thrived. It is said that Moll acted as a procuress and bawd, but had no beds in the coffee house (except hers and Tom’s in an upstairs room, accessed via a ladder which they pulled up behind them) so she could not be prosecuted for running a brothel. Instead, the assignation would be made at her coffee house and she would then send a servant to light their way to a nearby bagnio. As well as that, it is suggested that she operated as a money lender. To deter outsiders from knowing what was going on within their doors, Tom, Moll, and their customers, started ‘talking Flash,’ a secret language.


Tom used the profits to build two or three ‘substantial houses’ and a villa on Haverstock Hill on the road to Hampstead. He and Moll moved into one of them. The dancer and actress Nancy Dawson (famous for her hornpipe between acts in The Beggar’s Opera) later lived in the villa. Tom King died October 1737 at his Hampstead home after a lingering illness exacerbated by boozing. His burial took place at St Paul’s in Covent Garden on the 11th of that month. Moll was granted administration of his estate (goods in Hart Street, Covent Garden and the coffee house were mentioned) and took over the running of their empire together with her nephew, William King.


Moll now took to drink – she was previously known for remaining sober – and the coffee house gained a bad reputation. She appeared before the courts charged with keeping a disorderly house. It was around this time that Hogarth depicted King’s Coffee House in his painting, Morning, one of ‘The Four Times of the Day’ series. The scene shows rakes and prostitutes staggering out of King’s into the morning light of a winter’s day. Inside, a fight is taking place.


Morning, by William Hogarth. Yale Center for British Art


Moll stayed a widow for a twelvemonth. Exactly a year after Tom’s burial, she married John Hoff at St Dunstan in the West although continued to use her former married name in connection with her coffee house. Hoff was a carpenter and builder who lived on Compton Street in Soho. It was rumoured that he married Moll for her money. However, Hoff died less than four months into their marriage and his will appointed Moll as his executrix and everything is left to her. (Moll proved the will before her husband was even in his grave. He was buried at St Paul’s in Covent Garden on 14 February 1739.)


Soon after this, a disturbance at King’s Coffee House made the newspapers. A young gentleman claimed that Moll had beaten him in her house and the case ended up in the Court of the King’s Bench. Moll was found guilty. She was fined the considerable sum of £200 and had to find sureties for her future good behaviour. Until the fine was paid, she would be held in prison. Moll stubbornly refused to pay for, as she said, ‘if she was to pay two hundred pounds to all the insolent boys she had thrash’d for their impudence, the Bank of England would be unable to furnish her with the cash.’ In her absence, the coffee house was run by her nephew. She eventually came to an arrangement and was released.


Moll retained her Hampstead villa (known as Moll King’s Folly), but when she came to write her will on 6 June 1747 she was ‘Mary Hoff of the parish of St Paul Covent Garden, widow’. She left small bequests to her sister-in-law and friends, but the bulk of her reputedly considerable fortune went to her only child, Charles King, in trust for him until he reached 30 years of age. If he died before that, she wanted her estate to be used by the parish of St Giles in the Fields to benefit poor children. Moll hadn’t forgotten her roots. She died later that year on 17 September, and was buried ten days later in the same churchyard as her two husbands.

 

Notes:

[1] E. J. Burford says Thurlow in Essex, but the marriage register at Covent Garden gives Thurlow in Suffolk. Thomas was the son of Robert King of Great Thurlow in Suffolk; Robert’s will c.1709 mentions his ‘unfortunate son’ Thomas and a grandson named John King.

 

Sources:

The Records of Old Westminsters, Up to 1927

The Life and Character of Moll King, late mistress of King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, 1747

Women in Business, 1700-1850 by Nicola Jane Phillips (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2006)

London – The Wicked City: A Thousand Years of Prostitution and Vice by Fergus Linnane (Robson, 2007)

Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century by E. J. Burford (Robert Hale Ltd, 1986)

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: Volume 11: Sixth Series, The Royal Historical Society (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Old and New London: Volume 5 via British History Online. (Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878)

Derby Mercury, 13 October 1737 and 7 June 1739

National Archives: PROB 3/36/147, 20 December 1737


This is a revised version of my earlier blog post on a former website.

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