London's Coffee Houses

History of London
The sanctuary of health, the nursery of temperance, the delight of frugality, an academy of civility, and a free-school of ingenuity.
Coffee-Houses Vindicated (anonymous 17th century pamphlet)

Cafe culture in London is nothing new. The last ten years may have seen a proliferation of places to buy a latte and flick through the daily papers, but the real coffee revolution was in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when as many as 3,000 coffee houses played host to caffeine-fuelled debate, wheeler-dealing and gossip-mongering on London’s streets.

Britain’s first coffee shop opened in Oxford in 1650. Two years later, a Greek servant named Pasqua Rosee brought the new drink to the capital, opening a shop in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill. It was an overnight success and others were quick to copy. Previously, men had gathered in taverns to do business and exchange ideas. But they were often unpleasant, rowdy and – thanks to the ale – unproductive venues. Coffee, on the other hand, “will prevent drowsiness and make one fit for business”.

Soon, intellectuals, professionals and merchants thronged to the coffee houses to debate, distribute pamphlets, do deals, smoke clay pipes and, of course, consume a drink said to resemble “syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”. Newsletters and gazettes (the precursors of newspapers) were distributed in coffee houses and most functioned as reading rooms and notice boards announcing sales, sailings, and auctions to the businessmen who frequented them.

The best-known began to attract a distinct clientele. In 1688, Edward Lloyd’s coffee house on Tower St earned a reputation as the place to go for marine insurance. It later evolved into world-famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London. In 1698, the owner of Jonathan’s coffee house in Exchange Alley began to issue a list of stock and commodity prices called “The Course of the Exchange and other things”: so starting of the London Stock Exchange. Auction houses Sotherby’s and Christie’s have their origins in coffee houses.

Physicians used Batson’s coffee house in Cornhill as a consulting room. Chapter in Paul’s Alley was the chosen rendezvous for publishers and booksellers. Scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Halley preferred the Grecian on the Strand. While the wits of the day, including the playwright Dryden, gathered at Will's in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Not everyone was in favour of the coffee houses – or ‘penny universities’, as they had become known. Women, in particular, objected to the amount of time their husbands spent in such establishments. In 1674, the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was launched, stating in a pamphlet that coffee, “made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought”. Despite earning substantial revenues from the sale of coffee, King Charles II tried to ban the establishments, condemning them as, “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of his Majesty and his Ministers”. But the outcry was such that he was forced to withdraw his proclamation almost before the ink was dry.

By the mid 18th century, coffee shops began to wane in popularity as the nation’s tastes turned to tea drinking. Those that remained began to cream off a more aristocratic clientele by charging membership fees. The Gentleman’s Club had been born.

Did you Know

By 1750, tea had replaced coffee as Britain’s favourite drink. First made fashionable by Charles II wife, Queen Catherine, the hugely-powerful East India Company flooded the domestic market with it to boost its trade interests.