In April 1755 my ancestor Richard Hall took his horse and carriage up river to Chelsea, and visited Don Saltero’s coffee house. He records that he spent thirteen shillings there – an improbably large amount on coffee, and much more likely to reflect a purchase of one or more of the other items which “Don Saltero” offered for sale.
“Don Saltero” was an interesting character. His real name was John Salter but her fancied that being a “Don” gave him an air of Spanish mystery and he liked to pose as a sea captain back from foreign parts….
He had originally been trained as a barber and had then become valet to Sir Hans Slaone (the man famous for being the benefactor of some 71,000 items given to the newly formed British Museum). When Salter left his master’s employment he cadged a vast amount of bric-a-brac off Sir Hans, and used it to festoon his coffee shop, which he opened right by the River Thames in 1693.
The coffee houses had by then developed as great centres of “intelligence” – where people could meet and discuss issues of the day, and share information about trade and so on. But the Salter Coffee House in Chelsea was something quite unlike any of its rivals! He attracted custom from naval officers who gave him other curiosities brought back from around the world and which Salter displayed in glass cabinets, or hung from the walls by the thousand. Visitors were not charged to see the “museum” but were expected to drink coffee or buy a catalogue for two pence. We know from the catalogues – and from the auction inventory when the contents were eventually sold in 1799, that Richard would have been able to see:
“a curious model of our Saviour’s sepulchre, a Roman bishop’s crosier, antique coins and medals, minerals, fossils, antique fire-arms, curious birds, fishes, and other productions of nature, and a large collection of various antiquities and curiosities, glass-cases, &c”
“King James’s coronation sword; King William’s coronation sword and shoes; Henry VIII.’s coat of mail, gloves, and spurs; Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer-book, stirrup, and strawberry dish; the Pope’s infallible candle; a set of beads, consecrated by Clement VII., made of the bones of St.Anthony of Padua; a piece of the royal oak; a petrified child, or the figure of death; a curious piece of metal, found in the ruins of Troy; a pair of Saxon stockings; William the Conqueror’s family sword; Oliver’s broad-sword; the King of Whiddaw’s staff; Bistreanier’s staff; a wooden shoe, put under the Speaker’s chair in James II’s time; the Emperor of Morocco’s tobacco pipe; a curious flea-trap; an Indian prince’s crown; a starved cat, found between the walls of Westminster Abbey when the east end was repaired; the jaws of a wild boar that was starved to death by his tusks growing inward; a frog, fifteen inches long, found in the Isle of Dogs; the Staffordshire almanack, used when the Danes were in England; the lance of Captain Tow How-Sham, king of the Darien Indians, with which he killed six Spaniards, and took a tooth out of each head, and put in his lance as a trophy of his valour; a coffin of state for a friar’s bones; a cockatrice serpent; a large snake, seventeen feet long, taken in a pigeon-house in Sumatra—it had in its belly fifteen fowls and five pigeons; a dolphin with a flying-fish at his mouth; a gargulet, that Indians used to cool their water with; a whistling arrow, which the Indians use when they would treat of peace; a negro boy’s cap, made of a rat-skin; Mary Queen of Scots’ pin-cushion; a purse made of a spider from Antigua; manna from Canaan; a jaw of a skate, with 500 teeth; the mermaid fish; the wild man of the woods; the flying bull’s head……”
Richard must have been in his element at such a display – a veritable treasure trove of tat embellished with improbable claims, the walls festooned with exhibits. But to pay out thirteen shillings – that’s a lot of coffee! My guess is that he purchased some of the fossils on display, and his collection included these which he drew in meticulous detail.
Personally speaking, I just wish that he had instead bought William the Conqueror’s sword, but there you go. It must have been quite a sight, and for a man like Richard Hall, who loved natural curiosities, it was a visit which well-deserved its diary entry.