The Royal Chocolate House, Greenwich
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
(Main Monarchs: George I to George II)
**Please note that Blackheath and Greenwich are interchangeable in many of the primary sources which might seem a little confusing. The location of The Chocolate House was Greenwich but close (very close) to the border of Blackheath.
Oh yes, we had a chocolate house in Greenwich! Not just any old chocolate house but one with the reputation of being the Royal Chocolate House. Before we get into where it was and why it existed, some chocolate indulgence is required.
A Brief History of Chocolate Houses
In 1668 and recently back from Spain, the first Earl of Sandwich (maybe food was his thing) had gathered intelligence on a fascinating new import – chocolate.
It wasn’t the first time the English had seen chocolate, or rather, cacao beans. Some of our pirates had come across them on their travels and thought they were sheep poo. Maybe ignoring such sweet delights was the true gibbeting offence! English Catholics with Spanish connections had also enjoyed its pleasure before chocolate became a valuable commodity, and John Cage, a Catholic priest, was considered to be the first English expert on the matter. I’m sure this is a career I would have excelled in (the chocolate eating, not a life of dedication to the priesthood).
As anticipated, the English went mad for it – well, the English Gentlemen did. This isn’t to say that the women and children didn’t want it too, or indeed men of the lower classes, but when chocolate houses (just like coffee houses) started to pop up, the male gentry reaped all the benefits. The BBC referred to these houses as ‘much-lampooned bastions of privilege and tradition.’
The problem with such ‘clubs’ back then was that they, according to Charles II, cultivated plots. Murderous-mutinous-antimonarchy style plots. And with Charles recently restored to the throne, the events of anarchy were still festering beneath. After all, Charles I’s head had not long been ‘offed’ by those Cromwellian loving peeps.
So, Charles II, who loved to indulge in almost anything but was still a little understandably raw from losing his father, issued a law in December 1675 that tried to quash all the coffee and chocolate houses. It wasn’t that Charlie didn’t like chocolate – quite the opposite. He got a bit of a reputation as being the Chocolate King. It’s possible he enjoyed the stuff just for its flavour, like everyone else, but Charlie liked to indulge himself in most things, especially women, and chocolate was seen as a nourishing drink – and an aphrodisiac.
Charles’ doctor, Dr Stubbs (ouch), often prepared chocolate drinks flavoured with vanilla for the King. In The Natural History of Chocolate in 1662, Stubbs wrote about ‘the great use of Chocolate in Venery and for supplying the Testicles with a Balsam or a Sap.’
Now, Charles had two or three mistresses on the go, as well as one-night stands, so it’s more than likely that he was rather appreciative of the virile wonders of chocolate. So much so that he bought huge quantities of it. In 1666, he spent £57 18s. 8d. on chocolate which rose to a staggering £229 10s. 8d. in 1669. That’s about £8,000 in today’s currency (nine horses back then), rising to £32,000 (thirty-six horses). I've yet to work out how many mistresses that might have afforded Charlie boy.
In a modern context, Charles could have bought a top-end hybrid Mini Countryman to bomb around for the money he spent on his chocolate virility.
Despite his expensive love of chocolate, Charles believed the houses were ‘hotbeds of sedition.’ The proclamation stated that they were a:
Great resort of Idle and disaffected persons [and] have produced very evil and dangerous effects.
But the law didn’t last very long; in fact, it was withdrawn within days because his ministers fought against the ban. Could cravings have already set in?
William III and Mary II
Back in the royal world but a few monarchs on, William and Mary had a chocolate kitchen built for them in 1690 at Hampton Court.
One of our favourite architects, Sir Christopher Wren, designed the kitchens for them, and the drinking of chocolate continued as a royal tradition. (Interestingly, Wren saw five monarchs sit on the throne, from Charles II, James I, William III and Mary II, to George I.)
With this newly delirious addiction, chocolate (and coffee) houses thrived. It wasn’t just about going to a chocolate shop to grab a bar of the delightful new indulgence – no. Chocolate bars hadn’t been invented. Instead, the gentleman enjoyed liquid chocolate, and they spent a small sum to get the best recipes because each chocolate house had its unique way of grounding down the cacao beans to produce the best hot chocolate.
On top of drinking such pleasures, they got to do it within a hub of social activity, debate, social climbing, and social hullabaloo.
The best chocolate houses were the ones who went a step beyond just serving the drink, and the one in Greenwich did just that during the next set of royals, George I and II.
Thomas Tosier – The Royal Chocolatier from Greenwich
We once had a street named Chocolate Row. What a dream to have lived upon it.
In former times there was a house of entertainment here, called the ‘Chocolate House;’ it is mentioned by the Duke of Richmond, Master-General of the Ordnance, in a private letter; and it would seem to have been largely patronised by the heads of Woolwich Dockyard and the college hard by [means close by these days], and by their friends. The name of this house was long kept in memory by ‘Chocolate Row.’
On this street (called The Grove before becoming Chocolate Row), a house was built in 1702 that went on to become one of the most famous chocolate houses in London.
Records and sources are a little fuzzy here – some say the house was built by Thomas Tosier himself (Tozier), and some just say it was ‘built’. Maybe it’s not a particularly important strand to the story. After all, what followed is the thing most of us wish still existed.
Not much is known about Thomas in his earlier days. Records show that he married a lady called Grace Woodhead in June 1722. But this is either scandalous, an entry error or another couple of the exact same names getting married. Whatever it is, the story of Thomas and Grace starts a good few years before 1722.
Going back to the house on a road that became known as Chocolate Row.
Thomas opened one of the first chocolate houses in London. In what year exactly we do not know, but if the fuzzy information is correct, it would have been between 1702 and 1717 because, in 1717, Thomas was asked to join the royal household as King George I’s chocolatier  (fifth and sixth row below).
Thomas was obviously doing well for himself in Greenwich, and his reputation was something more than just a chocolatier.
Some fuzzy information worth considering:
One source claims that King James I ate and drank at the Chocolate House, but I wonder how this is so, considering James popped his clogs in 1625. Did the source mean James II? Yet even so, James II died in 1702 so unless the House was open long before this time, it’s unlikely. Thomas and Grace were only old enough to want to gorge on chocolate, not run a business making and selling it.
We don’t know when either Thomas or Grace were born, but sources claim she was around seventy when she died in 1753 – making her born somewhere near 1683 – definitely too young to entertain James and his golfing buddies.
I may have calculated incorrectly, I am more a master of chocolate eating than maths, but still, the description below is interesting to read:
Did not James I and his Scottish courtiers play on the heath, and did not the red-coated players dine gloriously off turtles and haunches of venison at the Chocolate House and the Green Man?
Grace Tosier – The Royal Chocolate House Celebrity
The problem for Thomas being asked to work for King George I was that he was already rather busy with his chocolate house in Greenwich. His new position for George gave him his own rooms at Hampton Court, which meant he was away from his business and his wife. It also gave him a nice salary (so nice he could afford servants) and the perk of direct access to the King.
But, he couldn’t do both jobs, so he handed over the running of The Chocolate House to his wife, Grace.
Grace was a bit of a character. She was a shrewd businesswoman and knew exactly how to market her husband’s new position. The Greenwich chocolate house rode on the shirttails of Thomas’s royal position, and Grace sold the royal dream by rebranding the establishment as the Royal Chocolate House.
So, while Thomas was at court serving the King, Grace established the Georgian equivalent of a celebrity hotspot. As the place to be seen, the house attracted the likes of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and George Townshend, Lord and 1st Marquess Townshend.
The Chocolate House, in the Grove at Blackheath, was a place in great favour with Lord Townshend; and he very frequently invited a party composed of the civil and military officers of the Ordnance, stationed at Woolwich, to dine there with him. On one of these occasions, his Lordship, in order to mark the important parts of his narrative, struck the table with his fist so violently that the impression of his four knuckles was deeply imprinted into the wood, which daily polishing, for several years afterwards, was insufficient to efface.
Grace Tosier worked out what the aristocracy enjoyed at court and replicated it at the Chocolate House, so much so that it became more than just a chocolate serving café. Even women started to attend.
He [Frederick, Prince of Wales] and his wife went in great parade yesterday through the city and the dust to dine at Greenwich; they took water at the Tower and trumpeting away to Grace Tosier’s.
In 1721, with her brilliant business acumen, Grace installed a dance floor, and the room became known as the ‘Great Room.’ She cleverly timed The Chocolate House events to match the court calendar, including a ball for the King’s birthday. It was almost like a mini court at the top of the hill, where Greenwich and Blackheath’s borders meet.
Grace also knew when to utilise the court’s downtime to offer her hospitality to other interested and established groups, such as the Kentish Society, who held their ‘annual feast at The Chocolate house of Blackheath.’
Now more famous than her husband, Grace was one of the chosen few to pose for Bartholomew Dandridge, the fashionable portrait painter of the day, who painted the likes of the Prince of Wales and other fashionable contemporaries. Grace was up there with them, and the painting was a mark of her success and fame. She had become a Georgian celebrity.
She became known for wearing a ‘large, brimmed hat’, gloves and for having ‘flowers in her bosom’. How outrageous!
In some of the research I’ve come across, Grace has been criticised for trading on her husband’s success and for being rather too outgoing. Some sources have implied that her behaviour wasn’t always appropriate, but as with many things I read, sources haven’t been cited, and much is assumption based on assumption. Such speculation draws away from Grace being a fine businesswoman, especially in her day, when most women weren’t even allowed in coffee and chocolate houses. She knew how to make the best of the situation for her family, as well as herself.
Historic Royal Palaces honoured Grace in their Inspirational Women Through History series.
When Thomas died (1733), Grace married (1734) Samuel Vancourt but kept the Tosier name and The Chocolate House, which Thomas had left her in his will. There’s quite a big gap in the history of the House from this point, and although Thomas appears to have been in Grace’s shadow, the sparkle of contemporary reporting seems to have faded upon his death.
The End of an Era
Grace Tosier died in 1753. From the London Metropolitan Archives, it seems that she may have left most of her estate to her nieces, Mary and Grace, but the trail is hard to follow. What we do know is that in 1775, the lease for The Chocolate House ran out and was bought from Grace’s heirs by a Mr Charles Walker, who used the house for a while as the ‘Chocolate House Assembly Rooms.’
According to an article in Country Life (1920), The Royal Blackheath Golf Club used The Chocolate House in 1787, which recorded the list of subscribers attending the meeting.
In 1788, Charles moved everything over to the Green Man pub, which he also owned just over the road. The chocolate era, the dancing and decadence, had ended.
Around 1790, The Chocolate House became a boys’ school. Yawn. And eventually, it turned into an all girls’ school and was renamed Ashbourne House in 1816. John Ashburnham acquired the lands in 1755 through his wife’s inheritance, although he was already from a wealthy line of Agincourt fighters and nobility.
Around this time (the end of the eighteenth century), Chocolate Row lost its wonderful name and became known as The Grove again (its name before Chocolate Row).
From an 1851 census, Ashburnham House, The Grove, had a household consisting of:
Charlotte E Richardson (58) Ladies School Elizbeth Delves (38) Ladies School Clemence Viffmain (29) French Governess Martha Dive (31) English Teacher Jane Whistler (19) Junior Teacher Rosa Dyer (24) Wardrobe Assistant Martha Askey (34) House Servant Anny S Cornelius (25) House Servant Caroline Reeves (24) House Servant Harriet Reeves (17) House Servant And 25 pupils
To make way for new builds and new homes, the old Chocolate House was finally laid to rest in 1886 and was demolished. The Grove became West Grove in 1938 and what came next is another stage in history.
Location, Location, Location
After some digging around, I found the following article in the Kentish Mercury, 1902.
The question of the site of the Chocolate House––with view to the definite fixing of which we some time ago solicited information––can be now, we opine, assumed settled. Documentary evidence in our possession goes to show that the site now occupied by the houses 4 and 5, The Grove, Blackheath, one which is the residence of the Rev. George Elder, the minister of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church South Street, Greenwich.
By the kindness of the gentleman living on Blackheath Hill, we have been afforded the opportunity of inspecting the lease, dated 1776, from Mr John Wilkinson to Mr Charles Walker, of the property which then stood upon the site in question, described in the document, which is mutilated as “Chocolate-row,” and in the other lease, dated 1788 of the stables and post-house on the site now occupied by the Green Man.
Mr Walker, aforementioned, is described as of “Chocolate House.” That this Chocolate House was a place of fashionable resort and entertainment, we have previously mentioned. Proof afforded the fact that in the first-mentioned lease, there are clauses relating to the use of the assembly rooms for “dancing, music, and other diversions.”
Our informant himself remembers the premises referred to before the building was pulled down for the erection of those present standing. They were then utilised as a boys’ school, and the house was a spacious one, although the rooms were low.
In regard to the house, an approach which was to be had by an entrance gate next to No. 5, The Grove, which has been also––but it would now appear mistakenly—said to be the Chocolate House, interesting particulars were furnished to our representative Mrs Hubble, Blackheath Road, who lived there in 1873 or 1874 with a lady who kept a girl’s school. Mrs Hubble says that the building called Ashburnham House, the entrance to the grounds of which still exists, although the house itself was pulled down some ten years ago, was supposed by the tenant at that time to be the Chocolate House and that the lady in question used to point out, in some sort of corroboration, that from the extensive grounds one could look into the grounds of the ‘Olde House’ in Hyde Vale, where the footmen and attendants congregated while waiting for their masters and mistresses who were disporting themselves the Chocolate House.
Ashburnham House was a fine old place, with a wide staircase, up which, so tradition said, a former tenant had driven coach and four. It contained a large chamber known as the music room, access to which, and to the anteroom, was by a separate staircase, and in the cellars were to be seen bricked-up doorways which were said to have communicated with the subways in Greenwich Park. The house was reputed, of course, to be haunted, especially by the victim of tragedy which occurred therein, the tenant having either murdered his butler or vice versa.
The above is confirmed by several sources and is even on one of the storyboards on the Heath (Blackheath North West), where it mentions Chocolate Row and Chocolate Pond (sadly not an endless supply of flowing chocolate like Willy Wonka’s).
Number 7 = The Chocolate House on Chocolate Row
Number 8 = The Chocolate Pond
Number 6 = Conduit head, where there was access to the brick tunnels into Greenwich Park mentioned above
Number 5 = A horse trough
Number 10 = General wildlife
The Chocolate House existed because of Thomas. His dedication and commitment to his passion often hides in the shadows of his incredibly resourceful and clever wife, so much so that all research led me to Grace, not the chocolate maker himself. I feel quite sad about that, even though she seemed like a fun woman to have around.
Inevitably, all trends come to an end, and the chocolate house decadence did too – the desire to exchange enough money for thirty-six horses for a few cacao beans tapered off. The chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court where Thomas worked disappeared. Not just from use, but from view. It wasn’t until 2013 that it was rediscovered after a curator stumbled across their precise location in an old eighteenth-century document.
The old kitchen had been used as a storeroom for a number of years and had somehow remained bizarrely well preserved with many of the original fittings, including the stove, equipment, and furniture all still intact. As far as we know, they are the only royal chocolate kitchens in the country and were accompanied by the chocolate room and the chocolate court.
The rooms are open for visitors and if you go, know that it was Thomas Tosier from Greenwich who lived out his dream there – chocolatier to the King.
In the next blog (Tuesday September 28th), we are back with the villains and looking at the infamous Dick Turpin!
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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.
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