No. 34: Bagg’s/Goodwin’s/Seal’s Coffee House

Seal's Coffee House

The large and handsome building used to stand on the corner of Catte Street and Holywell Street, but was numbered 34 Broad Street.

Philip Bliss, writing in 1848, said that it was built “out of the surplus material from Blenheim by sir John Vanburgh [sic]”, which had already been stated in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1835. Memorials of Oxford (1837) said: “The house at the corner of Broad street, known for many years as Seal’s Coffee House, was built by sir John Vanburgh [sic], the architect of the Clarendon, which on a small scale it closely resembles in style. It was erected on the site of a previous one; which, with two or three others adjoining to it, was built by the university on land granted to them for the purpose by Merton college.”

It is not however certain that Vanbrugh, who completed Blenheim Palace in 1734, designed this coffee house.

Left: Drawing of Seal’s coffee house published in 1837 in Memorials of Oxford. A photograph of the building taken in 1880 just before it was demolished can be found here on the English Heritage website.

This house (which was in Holywell parish until the 1870s, when it came under St Peter-in-the-East)) is believed to have been built in the 1730s for Alderman John Knibb. He died on 17 February 1754 and was buried at St Cross/Holywell Church (now Balliol Historic Collections Centre) three days later. Jackson’s Oxford Journal announced that his house “near the printing-house [the present Clarendon Building]” would be sold.

In about 1762 this corner building became a well-known Oxford coffee house serving Hertford, Wadham, and New Colleges. It was first known as Baggs’s, then Goodwin’s, and finally Seal’s. The last leaseholder, Charles James Adams, retained the name of Seal’s, and following his bankruptcy in 1843 it reverted to being a private house.

The building continued to be known as “Seal’s former coffee house” for another 39 years until 1882, when it was demolished (along with No. 33, the adjoining shop to the south) to make way for the first phase of the Indian Institute.

The precursor in New College Lane:
Johnson’s/Hadley’s/Kinnersley’s/Baggs’s Coffee House (c.1730–c.1862)

Johnson’s Coffee House was already in existence in New College Lane in the 1730s. By 1753 the eponymous Johnson had been succeeded by Thomas Hadley, who remained its proprietor until he moved to Henley in 1759.

It was then taken over by Mrs Martha Kinnersley. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 13 October 1759 reports that Mrs Kinnersley, having dissolved her partnership at the King’s Arms with John Young, had taken a coffee house (formerly Hadley’s) in New College Lane. It appears that Mrs Kinnersley had worked at the King’s Arms with her husband but had been recently widowed, as the will of a George Kinnersley, victualler of Oxford, was proved that same year.

On 18 November 1760 Mrs Martha Kinnersley married again at St Mary Magdalen church: her new husband was the breeches maker John Baggs of that parish. She was still at the New College Lane coffee house at the time of the marriage (and was thus described as a widow of St Peter-in-the-East parish rather than Holywell).

After Mrs Kinnersley’s marriage the coffee house in New College Lane changed its name from Kinnersley’s to Baggs’s. On 27 March 1761 Parson Woodforde describes Baggs’s as being “in our lane”, showing that Mr & Mrs Baggs had not yet moved to the new premises on the corner of Holywell and Catte Street.

Baggs’s Coffee House at 34 Broad Street (c.1762–1781)

Parson Woodforde records numerous bills that he paid at Baggs’s coffee house, mostly for wine sent round to his rooms. The last entry in Woodforde’s diary on 26 July 1763 reads, “Paid Baggs at the Coff: House (a very impudent fellow)…. NB I do not intend dealing with him again very soon for his Impudence to me yesterday morning.”

On 1 November 1763 (just three months after his “impudence”, and three years after his marriage to Mrs Kinnersley), John Baggs died. He was buried at Holywell Church the next day, and his death notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal describes him as a “breeches maker and keeper of the coffee house at the corner of Holywell”. This shows that John Baggs and his wife Martha (formerly Mrs Kinnersley) must have transferred their business from New College Lane to 34 Broad Street at some point between Woodforde’s diary entry of 27 March 1761 and Baggs’s death on 1 November 1763.

Baggs left the leasehold coffee house at 34 Broad Street to his wife, Mrs Martha Baggs, and thereafter to his cousin Eleanor. The 1772 Survey of Oxford (taken in consequence of the Mileways Act of 1771) gives the measurement of the Broad Street frontage of the coffee house (described as being in the possession of Mrs Baggs) as 9 yards 0 feet and 3 inches, and its longer side-length along Holywell Street as 14 yards 1 foot and 11 inches.

Martha Baggs appears to have died at some time between 1772 and 1781: there is no one of that name buried at Holywell Church, but one buried at Nettlebed on 19 February 1778/9.

On 30 June 1781 “Mrs Baggs” (probably Miss Eleanor Baggs) put an advertisement inserted in Jackson’s Oxford Journal stating that Baggs’s “old-accustomed coffee house” on the corner of Holywell was to let. Miss Eleanor Baggs’s death at the age of 83 was announced seven years later in the edition of 15 October 1788: she was then living opposite Balliol College.

Master Goodwin’s Coffee House at 34 Broad Street (1781–1805)

On 23 October 1781 Benjamin Goodwin married Mary Rooke, both of Holywell parish, and it is likely that he was the man who bought the lease of the coffee house from Eleanor Baggs earlier that year.

Twelve years later Benjamin Goodwin died, and was buried at Holywell Church on 24 November 1793. Hence in 1794 the Universal British Directory lists Mary Goodwin as the coffee-house keeper here.

Mary Goodwin’s died on 20 April 1805 and was buried at Holywell Church four days later. Her death was announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 April 1805: “On Saturday last died, after a lingering illness, Mrs. Goodwin, who has been for several years [in fact at least eleven] Mistress of the Coffee House, in Holywell.” An announcement in that newspaper on 24 August 1805, headed “Goodwin’s Coffee House”, refers to the estate of the late Mrs Goodwin.

Seal’s Coffee House at 34 Broad Street (1805–1840)

In April 1805 William Seal, who had been a waiter at Goodwin’s Coffee House, took the business over. He is likely to be the fourth son of Stephen Seal, who was admitted free on 26 September 1800. He inserted the following notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 April 1805:

JOJ 27 April 1805

On 23 July 1805 Seal married Miss Mary Tuckey (the youngest daughter of the late Mr William Tuckey of Standlake) in the bride’s parish church of St Peter-in-the-East. The marriage was announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 July 1805. Just three years after the marriage, on 22 August 1808, William Seal died: the notice in the newspaper of 27 August 1808 reads: “On Monday last died, aged 30, Mr. William Seal, Coffee-house keeper, in Broad-street.” He was buried at Holywell Church.

On 15 October 1808, Mrs Mary Seal inserted an announcement in the newspaper that she intended to carry on business as usual at Seal’s Coffee House in Holywell, and she ran it on her own for sixteen years.

In 1824 Mrs Seal married again at the age of 44: the announcement in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 11 September that year reads: “On the 22d of August was married, in London, Mr. Giles, upholder and auctioneer, to Mrs. Seal, both of this city”.

Mrs Seal’s new husband, the upholsterer James Giles, is henceforth listed in directories as the proprietor of the coffee house, but it retained its old name of Seal’s. He held auctions on the premises from 1830, and by 1839 had opened a wine & spirit shop in it.

Mrs Seal does not appear to have had any children. James Giles, however, had a son of the same name who on 19 January 1833 married Charlotte Seal, at Holywell Church. (Charlotte, who had been baptised at Holywell Church on 1 August 1806, was the daughter of Thomas Seal – who was probably Mrs Mary Giles’s brother-in-law – and his wife Mary). James & Charlotte Giles had two children baptised at St Martin’s Church: James Seal Giles on 20 November 1833 (buried at Holywell church the next year) and Charlotte on 7 October 1835 (buried at Holywell Church on 24 June 1841). James Giles junior is variously described as an upholsterer and an auctioneer. They then moved the High Street, and had four children baptised at All Saints Church: Edward and Mary on 13 February 1838 (Edward died after one day), Elizabeth in 1840 (died at the age of three months), and Emma in 1841. James died at the age of 33 and Charlotte at the age of 38, and they were buried at Holywell Church on 23 December 1841 and 2 December 1844 respectively.

Mrs Mary Giles, formerly Mrs Seal, died at the age of 60 and was buried at Holywell Church on 18 May 1840. Her husband appears to have gone to live with his son, as when he died four years later at the age of 67 he was buried at All Saints parish; but he actually died in Reading.

Adam’s Coffee House at 34 Broad Street (1841–1843)

By 1841 the premises had a new lessee, Charles James Adams, who according to directories appears to have let out part of the premises to the surgeon John Freeman Wood. The 1841 census shows Charles Adams, who was then aged 54 and described as an innkeeper, living on the premises with his wife Sarah and a young unmarried lady of about 20 called Sarah Knibbs.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 9 September 1843 describes a lottery held at “Mr. Adams’s (late Seale’s [sic] Coffee-house)”. Later that same year Adams went bankrupt, and the following advertisement appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 16 December:

JOJ, 16 December 1843

By the time of the 1851 census, Charles James Adams, at the age of 64, was Master of the Oxford Workhouse. He still however describes himself as an upholsterer and auctioneer, and although he states he is married, his wife is not present on census night. He was in the same situation at the age of 74 in 1861.

Private house at 34 Broad Street (c.1843–1882)

John Freeman & Juliana Lisetta Wood (1840s to c.1861)

John Freeman Wood was born in the Precincts of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 November 1797, the son of John George Wood and Margaretta Maria, nee Freeman. He was a boy at the King’s School, Canterbury from May 1806.

He appears to have started practising medicine in London, as his eldest son, John George, was baptised at St Pancras in London in 1827. The family then moved to Oxford, where Wood was matriculated at the University as a surgeon and apothecary on 13 June 1828. They first lived in Oriel Street (then known as St Mary Hall Lane), and his next five children were baptised at St Mary the Virgin Church: Martha (1829), Juliana Lisetta (1830), Margaretta Maria (1831), Rosa (1832, buried there seven months later), and Harvey (1833).

Wood then moved his practice to 26 Holywell Street, and his next six children were baptised at Holywell Church: Anne Rosa (1835, buried there six months later), Frederick (1836), Frances (1837), Emma (1839), Thomas James (1841), and Charles (1846).

In 1841 he took over part of 34 Broad Street for his surgery, and by the mid-1840s he was in complete occupation, using it both as his private residence and surgery. The 1851 census shows him living here at the age of 53 with his wife Juliana Lisetta Wood, eight of his ten surviving children, a young assistant doctor (Henry Leman), and two servants.

Wood died at the age of 60 and was buried at Holywell Church on 31 December 1857. His daughter Frances died at Madeira on 5 February 1865, and his widow died at Belvedere, London at the home of her son, the Revd J. G. Wood (an eminent naturalist), on 24 January 1870.

William Fishburn Donkin and wife (c.1861 to 1872)

Donkin (born 1814),had been a Fellow of University College from 1836 to 1843 and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford since 1842. The Donkins had five children: William Fishburn (born 1845), Arthur Edward (1847), Alice (1849), Alfred (1850), and Edward Hawtrey (1853).

In about 1861 he moved from New College Lane around the corner to 34 Broad Street. The 1861 census records “All gone away” next to No. 34, but it is unclear whether Donkin was just on holiday with his wife and three sons, or the house was between the two tenancies.

Donkin died of consumption at the age of 55 and his funeral was at Holywell Church on 9 November 1869. He is buried at Holywell Cemetery. His widow remained in the house. At the time of the 1871 census Mrs Donkin was away and the only person at home was her eldest son, William (25), a Bachelor of Arts who was teaching chemistry, and two servants (a nursemaid and cook). Mrs Donkin ceased to live in the house in about 1872.

After being empty in the mid-1870s, in 1880 it was let out (presumably on a very short lease) to Joseph Prestwich, Professor of Geology. He and his wife were there on census night 1881, together with a cook, parlourmaid, and housemaid.

The house was demolished in 1882.

Occupants of 34 Broad Street listed in directories


Mary Goodwin
Coffee House Keeper


Coffee House: Mrs Seales
(listed under “Coffee Houses”)

1830, 1839

Seal’s Coffee House: James Giles (listed under “Inns and Hotels” in 1830)

James Giles (Listed under “Wine & Spirit merchants” in 1839)


Seal’s Coffee House: Charles James Adams
(listed under “Inns and Hotels”)

1841, 1846,
1850, 1852

John Freeman Wood, Surgeon
(but listed at 26 Holywell Street in 1842)


William F. Donkin, Professor of Astronomy (Mrs Donkin from 1869)


Apparently vacant


J. Prestwich, FRS, FGS, Professor of Geology

Demolished in 1882 (along with No. 33 to the south)
to make room for Phase 1 of the Indian Institute

See also:

  • Norma Aubertin-Potter and Alyx Bennett, Oxford Coffee Houses 1651–1800 (Kidlington, Oxford: Hampden Press, 1987), pp. 28–30 (includes an illustration of a watercolour of the building in 1823)
  • Philip Bliss (ed.), Athenae Oxonienses by Anthony A. Wood, M.A., Vol. I, Life of Wood (Oxford, for the Ecclesiastical History Society, 1848), pp. 48 fn.
  • John Baggs’s will of October 1763: MS Wills Oxon 118/3/23.
  • George Kinnersley’s will of 1759: MS Wills Oxon 96.672; 40/2/23

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