Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.
When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say. After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.
With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.
Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.
Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.
The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.