Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Cafes in London today have little in common with coffeehouses in the last forty years of the seventeenth Century and the first half of the eighteenth. Only the fact that they offer coffee, food and the daily newspaper remains.

The first coffeehouse in England was opened in St. Michael's Alley in Cornhill. The proprietor was Pasqua Rosée, the servant of Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods. Edwards imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment, serving cauphe ...a taste a little bitterish, from Turkey. It was noted early on that coffee would hinder sleep for three or four hours, an advantage if one wish to remain watchful. The Grand Cafe in Oxford is alleged to be the first Coffee House in England, opened in 1650 by a Jewish man named Jacob. It is still open today, but has since become a popular Wine Bar. Oxford's Queen's Lane Coffee House, established in 1654, is still in existence today. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses throughout England.

But coffee was strenuously opposed for more than a decade. Poets and pamphleteers decried the new beverage. "A Cup of Coffee, or Coffee in its Colours," published in 1663 voiced this indignation:

"For men and Christians to turn Turks and think

To excuse the crime, because 'tis in their drink!

Pure English apes! ye might, for aught I know,

Would it but mode learn to eat spiders too."

But not all poets were detractors. Ben Johnson and other libation-loving poets saw it as a source of inspiration: "drank pure nectar as the Gods drink too."

Three years later a play was written called The Coffee House but was not a success and seen as insipid.

A pamphlet entitled: "The Character of a Coffee House," seven years later told "how people came to purchase at the expense of their last penny, the repute of sober companions, to receive news with his coffee. Where haberdashers meet, and mutually abuse each other and the public with bottomless stories and headless nnotions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets and persons more idly employed to read them in a room that stinks of tobacco worse than hell of brimestone." Judges, lawyers and pickpockets alike drank the brew, which in one person's opinion was like something witches tipple out of dead men's skulls.
In 1674 the wives of England took up a "Women's Petition against Coffee," because they thought it made men unfruitful. It's use seemingly would produce offspring of their "mighty ancestors" to dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies," and when a husband went out on a domestic errand he "would stop by the way to drink a couple of cups of coffee."

A proclamation for the suppression of coffee houses ensued, but was canceled almost before the ink had dried.

Not an auspicios beginning for coffee and one wonders how it became so popular!

The Rainbow of Fleet Street was the second coffee-house opened in London, and many more followed around Change Alley and the Royal Exchange, where the headquarters of Lloyd's began as one of the most remarkable coffee houses of the seventeenth Century. Lloyd's Coffee House, which had a pulpit from which one might orate to the gathered throng, played a notable part in the life of a nation, developing into the shipping exchange of the world, employing 1,500 agents in all parts of the globe.

Coffee houses took their colour from the district in which they were established. Cleriks favoured The Chapter at St Pauls, business men, poets and doctors gathered in others. But Baston's was the exception where businessmen clashed with poets. What did a mere business man know of poetry? Doctors too frequented Batson's coffee house. Sir Richard Blackmore, physician to William III and then Queen Anne was a constant visitor.

Thomas Garraway founded Garraway's Coffee House, which survived until 1866, the ground floor was furnished with cosy mahogany boxes and setas, and the floor covered in sand.

Two other houses, Jonathan's and Sam's were notorious for their connection with stock-jobbing. The latter figured prominently in the gigantic South Sea Bubble fraud.

Towards the end of the 18th century, coffeehouses had almost completely disappeared from the popular social scene in England. Historians offer a wide range of reasons for their decline. Ellis argues that coffeehouse patron's folly through business endeavours, the evolution of the club and the government's colonial policy acted as the main contributors to the decline of the English coffeehouse. Coffeehouse proprietors worked to gain monopoly over news culture and to establish a coffeehouse newspaper as the sole form of print news available. Met with incessant ridicule and criticism, the proposal discredited coffee-men's social standing. Ellis explains: "Ridicule and derision killed the coffee-men's proposal but it is significant that, from that date, their influence, status and authority began to wane.

The rise of the exclusive club such as White's and Boodles were gambling had become popular, also contributed to the decline in popularity of English coffeehouses."Snobbery reared its head, particularly amongst the intelligence, who felt that their special genius entitled them to protection from the common herd. Strangers were no longer welcome." For example, some coffeehouses began charging more than the customary penny to preserve frequent attendance of the higher standing clientele they served.

Literary and political clubs rose in popularity, as "the frivolities of coffee-drinking were lost in more serious discussion. The Blue-Stocking Club owed its popularity to Elizabeth Robinson, wife of Edward Monagu. After losing her only child, her mother and her brother, she turned her pursuits to literary breakfasts and then formed a club where literary discussions took place, wearing a petticoat embroidered with the ruins of Palmyra, with visits from Garrick or French actors. Card playing was not tolerated. Several new publications were penned, stitched in blue paper.

"With a new increased demand for tea, the government also had a hand in the decline of the English coffeehouse in the 18th century. The British East India Company, at the time, had a greater interest in the tea trade than the coffee trade, as competition for coffee had heightened internationally with the expansion of coffeehouses throughout the rest of Europe.

Research source: Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C. Shelley.


Maggi Andersen said...

I forgot to mention I've found wonderful research material from the Los Angeles Public Library. They offer free downloads on a multitude of fascinating subjects.

Maggie Dove said...

Wow, Maggi--excellent post! I am now dying for a cup of coffee.


P.I. Barrington said...

Love the post! I've drunk coffee since age two when my grandmother handed me a cup! Great reseach and chronology too!
Though, it does make me wonder about Starbucks...

Julie Robinson said...

What interesting history! Thanks for the rundown. Who would have thought? I love coffee houses.