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‘Through various employs I’ve past:

A scraper, vertuo’s projector,

Tooth-drawer, trimmer, and at last

I’m not a gim-crack whim collector.

Monsters of all sorts here are seen:

Strange things in nature as they grew so;

Some relics of the Sheba queen,

And fragments of the fam’d Bob Crusoe’

 ~ Don Saltero, The Weekly Journal, June 22nd, 1723

A quirky piece of local history was Don Saltero's Coffee House. Established in 1718, 300 years ago this year on the newly-built 18 Cheyne Walk, the coffee house would gradually evolve into a 'knackatory', as the Don liked to call it, filled with gruesome and fascinating curiosities. Its proprietor,  an eccentric man as colourful and intriguing as his collection, started life as a James Salter, but wanting to appear more exotic, re-named himself  'Don Saltero' after a prominent Spanish naval captain.

In the 18th century, coffeehouses were places where writers would read their poems and share their ideas, and Don Saltero’s  quickly became the regular haunt of London's most fashionable literati. Georgian society flocked to marvel at the bizarre and wonderful: ‘mummies hands; the head of a Spatula bird; King James’s coronation sword; a petrified child;  a starved cat, found between the walls of Westminster Abbey; the jaws of a wild boar that was starved to death by its tusks growing inward; a frog, fifteen inches long; a purse made of a spider from Antigua; Queen Catherine’s skin;  a frog in a tobacco-stopper; and five hundred more odd relics!’ Eccentric mariners and sea captains would present curiosities from across the globe with implausible stories to please their host.

Though free of charge, visitors were expected to buy either a coffee or a catalogue, replete with improbable explanations. Some were sceptical of Saltero’s more extravagant claims, among them Sir Richard Steele, editor of  the Tatler magazine, who wrote: ‘though I go thus far in favour of Don Saltero’s great merit, I cannot allow a liberty he takes of imposing several names on the collections he has made.. one of which is particularly calculated to deceive religious persons... He shows you a straw hat, which I know to be made by Madge Peskad, within three miles of Bedford; and tells you “It is Pontius Pilate's wife's chambermaid's sister's hat.” To my knowledge of this very hat, it may be added that the covering of straw was never used among the Jews, since it was demanded of them to make bricks without it. Therefore, this is nothing but, under the specious pretence of learning and antiquities, to impose upon the world.'

There were, however, some treasures to be found amidst the implausible tat. Among the coffee house’s more reputable benefactors was Sir Hans Sloane, for whom the Don had worked as a travelling servant. It was Sloane's collection, which would later form the foundation of the British Museum, which inspired Don Saltero to start his own collection. Saltero, in turn, would inspire others to display queer oddities at their own premises. Among those inspired by the Don's success was Mr Richard Hand, proprietor of the Chelsea Bun House on the Pimlico Road, established around a decade after Don Saltero’s. Similar to the Coffee House, the Bun House was ‘fitted up in a very singular and grotesque style, being furnished with foreign clocks, and many natural and artificial curiosities from abroad’. Its collection included ‘a model of Radcliffe Church, at Bristol, cut out very curiously and elaborately in paste-board’ and ‘an equestrian coloured statue, in lead, of William, the great Duke of Cumberland’.

Like Don Saltero's, The Chelsea Bun House’s collection attracted some of the most prominent figures of the day, including Kings George II and George III. It is an amusing thought that David Linley showroom stands on the site today... Much of its success was owed to the invention of the eponymous Chelsea Bun, which, according to legend, drew in 50,000 customers on the day that it was introduced.  It was so loved by Queen Charlotte that she presented Mrs Hand with a silver half-gallon mug with five guineas in it. Yet the bun house also drew in more humble clients. On Good Friday, when it was traditional for the working classes to buy a hot cross bun, the bun house would open as early as 3 o’clock in the morning to the appease the vast crowds outside. So great was the rabble that the bun house’s owners would only sell buns through openings in the shutters, and constables were required to keep order. 

Both the Coffee House and the Bun House provided rare spaces in which people from all classes could mingle, and both hosted discussions central to developing the intellectual and cultural history of the Age of Enlightenment. In promoting the pursuit of knowledge in a social environment, they have encouraged and influenced collectors.  Maybe it's not a coincidence that the Pimlico Road has a tradition of antique shops spanning many years; I would like to think Don Saltero's legend lives on in a few of the establishments today...

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