Coffee-houses of London

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”.

 

17th-century London coffee-house
17th-century London coffee-house

Literature
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.

 

An illustration of the lion's head letterbox at Button's Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
An illustration of the lion’s head letterbox at Button’s Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
Trio of notables at Button's Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730
Trio of notables at Button’s Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730


Science

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.

Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House
Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House

Politics
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”.

 

Sociability
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.

 

Eccentricity
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.
White's Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, 1735
White’s Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, 1735

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.

Does coffee make men impotent? a 17th-century perspective

Although we are regularly reminded of the potential health risks of drinking too much coffee, to my knowledge no-one has yet argued that men ought to cut back on coffee because it makes them impotent. However, that is exactly what one bawdy pamphlet from 1674 claims. Given the catchy title of The Women’s petition against coffee: representing to public consideration the grand Inconveniences accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor, this scurrilous pamphlet claims to be a plea on behalf of the women of England which asks their men to stop drinking coffee, as it makes them unable to perform, thus leaving wives across the country languishing in a state of desperation.

To put this into context, coffee was an increasingly popular drink in 17th century Europe. It was mostly drunk in coffee-houses, where for just a penny, men enjoyed unlimited refills, access to the latest newspapers and a forum for intellectual discussion with other patrons; I wrote about the rise and fall of English coffee-houses in another post. Yet despite their enormous popularity, coffee and coffee-houses were not without their detractors. Serious-minded physicians published diatribes against the drink, and Charles II wanted to shut down coffee-houses as they were a potential hotbed of sedition. It’s no wonder, then, that a lot of satirical literature on the topic was printed. This pamphlet belongs in that category and shouldn’t be read as a serious social criticism, although some writers have mistakenly seen it as such. It probably wasn’t written by a woman at all; in fact, it scorns women by playing on the age-old stereotype of the gossiping woman unable to control her lustful appetites. However, what was calculated to entertain and make a quick profit back in 1674 still makes amusing reading today. Here is an abridged version with modernised spelling:

006790

“The Humble Petition and Address of several Thousands of Buxom Good-Women, Languishing in Extremity of Want showeth, that ’tis Reckon’d amongst the Glories of  our Native Country, To be A Paradise for Women [due to] the brisk Activity of our men, who in former Ages were justly esteemed the Ablest Performers in Christendom; But to our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigour. Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever. There was a glorious Dispensation (’twas surely in the Golden Age) when Lusty Lads of seven or eight hundred years old, Got Sons and Daughters; and we have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives, above NINE times in a night: But Alas! Alas! Those forward Days are gone.”

“The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a serious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunuched our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent and as unfruitful as those Deserts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought. For the continual sipping of this pitiful drink is enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-point without a Charm. They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiff but their Joints, nor standing but their Ears. Nor can all the Art we use revive them from this Lethargy.

“Can any Woman of Sense or Spirit endure with Patience, that when privileged by Legal Ceremonies, she approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting that a Man with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer the Vigour of her Flames, she on the contrary should only meet A Bedful of Bones, and hug a meagre useless Corpse rendered as sapless as a Kixe, and dryer than a Pumice-Stone, by the perpetual Fumes of Tobacco, and bewitching effects of this most pernicious COFFEE, whereby Nature is Enfeebled, the Off-spring of our Mighty Ancestors Dwindled into a Succession of Apes and Pygmies: and The Age of Man Now Cramp’t into an Inch, that was a Span.

King Charles II in 1675, a year after this pamphlet was published. Although he presumably drank coffee like other fashionable men, no-one could accuse it of making him impotent; during his life he had 8 to 14 mistresses (though just one wife), with whom he fathered 15 children.
King Charles II in 1675, a year after this pamphlet was published. Although he presumably drank coffee like other fashionable men, no-one could accuse it of making him impotent; during his life he had 8 to 14 mistresses (though just one wife), with whom he fathered 15 children.

“We have reason to apprehend and grow Jealous, That Men by frequenting these Stygian Tap-houses [coffee-houses] will usurp on our Prerogative of Tattling, and soon learn to excel us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed pre-eminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossiping. Though they frequently have hot Contests about most Important Subjects; as what colour the Red Sea is of; whether the Great Turk be a Lutheran or a Calvinist; who Cain‘s Father in Law was &c. yet they never fight about them with any other save our Weapon, the Tongue.

“Certainly our Countrymens’ palates are become as Fanatical as their Brains; how else is’t possible they should Apostatize from the good old primitive way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of destructive Foreign Liquors, to trifle away their time, scald their Chops, and spend their Money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water. Yet (as all Witches have their Charms) so this ugly Turkish Enchantress by certain Invisible Wiles attracts both Rich and Poor.

“Wherefore to the end that our Just Rights may be restored, and all the Ancient Privileges of our Sex preserved inviolable; That our Husbands may give us some other Testimonies of their being Men, besides their Beards: That they no more run the hazard of being Cuckolded by Dildo’s: But returning to the good old strengthening Liquors of our Forefathers; that Natures Exchequer may once again be replenished, and a Race of Lusty Hero’s begot to equal the Glories of our Ancestors. We Humbly Pray that henceforth the Drinking COFFEE may on severe penalties be forbidden to all Persons under the Age of Threescore. In hopes of which Glorious Reformation, your Petitioners shall readily Prostrate themselves, and ever Pray, &c.”

The rise and fall of the English coffee-house

There seems to be something inherently social about drinking coffee. We ask people to come in for a cup of tea, but we go out for coffee with friends, family and colleagues. This isn’t a modern phenomenon; coffee has always been intimately connected with sociability. In North Africa and the Middle East, coffee-houses had been widespread ever since people there started drinking coffee in the 15th century. When coffee was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century, within a matter of decades it was enjoyed in the coffee-houses which were springing up in the great cities of Venice, Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam. The English proved just as quick to adopt coffee as their European counterparts. A coffee-house opened in Oxford in 1652 and was swiftly followed by one on Cornhill in London, established by an entrepeneurial young Greek servant named Pasqua Rosée. Coffee-houses rapidly grew in number and popularity and it is estimated that by 1700, London boasted up to 3,000 coffee-houses; more than any other city in the world except Constantinople.

To the English, the coffee-house was an entirely new and excitingly cosmopolitan phenomenon. For centuries, taverns had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on being the place where you went to meet friends and relax with a drink; now, this foreign phenomenon was rapidly becoming the most exciting scene of urban sociability. Never before had England seen such a space, where men of diverse ranks of life gathered in a more or less sober fashion to discuss current affairs, philosophy, contemporary literature and the latest scientific ideas and inventions. Topics of conversation varied according to the particular clientele and ranged across diverse subject matter. You could always be certain of hearing and discussing current affairs; runners were sent around the coffee-houses to report breaking news, and London’s first newspapers and journals began by circulating out of coffee-houses.

A London coffeehouse, c.1700
A London coffeehouse, c.1700

In an issue of Tatler (itself founded in and run from a coffee-house), Richard Steele described how patrons would spend their time “deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality”. Such discussions could take unexpected and interesting turns. The judge and diarist Dudley Ryder recorded in 1715 how a conversation at John’s Coffee House about the execution of a rebel Jacobite lord soon took a scientific and philosophical turn. Customers began to discuss the “ease of death by beheading”, with one man recounting an experiment where he had chopped a viper in half and watched in amazement as the two halves slithered away in opposite directions. At this, others began to argue whether this was in fact proof of the existence of two consciousnesses.

Coffee-houses were not only vibrant centres of debate, they were also surprisingly democratic institutions. As long as you were reasonably dressed, for just a penny you could get a dish of coffee with unlimited refills along with access to all the latest newspapers and journals. Coffee-houses were decorated in a spartan style with long wooden-benches where lowly civil servants could rub shoulders with prominent politicians, where a poor curate visiting from the country could enjoy an energetic discussion with a prosperous City stockbroker.

In this respect, English coffee-houses were very different from their French equivalents, which from the beginning were designed for intimate conversation among crystal chandeliers, ornate mirrors and little marble tables. The English model meant that men from many walks of life had access to a very cheap way of keeping up with current affairs and engaging in intellectual discussion. One contemporary quipped, “so great a Universitie,/ I think there ne’er was any;/ In which you may a Scholar be/ For spending of a Penny”. In one of his visits to London, Jonathan Swift remarked, “I am not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House”.

'Coffee-house politicians', c.1700: coffee-houses were an ideal place to discuss the news with friends and strangers alike
‘Coffee-house politicians’, c.1700: coffee-houses were an ideal place to discuss the news with friends and strangers alike

What was the public reaction to coffee-houses? Despite their popularity, there were those who saw both coffee and coffee-houses as a pernicious influence on public morals and behaviour. The authorities worried, perhaps not without reason, that coffee-houses were hotbeds of sedition. In 1675, King Charles II issued a proclamation against them, saying that they produced “very evil and dangerous effects…for that in such Houses…divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm”. This provoked a public outcry and Charles backed down, settling on a rather vague order that the owners of coffee-houses should refuse admittance to spies and mischief-makers.

Coffee-houses were also the target of much mockery. In his bitingly satirical 1703 book The London Spy, writer and publican Ned Ward dismissed coffee-houses as grubby dens stuffed with “a parcel of muddling muck-worms…some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, others jangling, and the whole room stinking of tobacco like a Dutch barge”. However, defenders of coffee-houses maintained that they stimulated sociability and intellectual debate, besides which they exercised a sobering function on the population as they drew people away from the taverns. They also argued that coffee itself was beneficial for one’s health, notwithstanding opponents’ claims that coffee tasted “like syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes”.

Critics would have been glad to see the gradual decline of the coffee-house in the last decades of the 18th century. Thanks to the rise of the mighty British East India Company, tea was imported in ever-greater quantities and quite swiftly became the nation’s favourite drink, thus forever cementing Britain’s reputation as a land of tea-drinkers. The social and economic functions of coffee-houses also became less important as daily newspapers started circulating outside of coffee-houses and home mail delivery was gradually established. Increasingly, men could keep up with current affairs without stirring from their fireside. The coffee-houses which continued to prosper did so by becoming exclusive members’ clubs designed for the wealthy, fashionable or academic elite.

1323690432_tea-8-600x395
Early 18th-century coffee-house

Edward Gibbons’ 1762 description of The Cocoa-Tree Club, “that respectable body of which I am a member”, clearly shows the ever more elite nature of some coffee-houses: “[it] affords a sight truly English; twenty, or perhaps thirty, of the first men in the kingdom in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat on a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch”. Yet for over a century, the political, social and intellectual life of a nation was crammed into London coffee-houses where anyone who was reasonably dressed and had a penny to spare could come in and join the discussion. As Isaac Disraeli noted, “the history of Coffee-houses, ere the invention of clubs, was that of the manners, the morals, the politics of a people”. A broadside ballad of 1667, entitled ‘News from the Coffee House’, illustrates how influential and important coffee-houses were, whilst affectionately lampooning them:

You that delight in Wit and Mirth,
And long to hear such News,
As comes from all Parts of the Earth,
DutchDanes, and Turks, and Jews,
I’le send yee to a Rendezvouz,
Where it is smoaking new;
Go hear it at a Coffe-house,
It cannot but be true.

Before the Navyes fall to Work,
They know who shall be Winner;
They there can tell ye what the Turk
Last Sunday had to Dinner;
Who last did Cut Du Ruitters Corns,
Amongst his jovial Crew;
Or Who first gave the Devil Horns,
Which cannot but be true.

There’s nothing done in all the World,
From Monarch to the Mouse
But every Day or Night ’tis hurld
Into the Coffe-house.
What Lillie or what Booker can
By Art, not bring about,
At Coffe-house you’l find a Man,
Can quickly find it out.

Here Men do talk of every Thing,
With large and liberal Lungs,
Like Women at a Gossiping,
With double tyre of Tongues;
They’l give a Broad-side presently,
Soon as you are in view,
With Stories that, you’l wonder at,
Which they will swear are true.

The Drinking there of Chockalat,
Can make a Fool a Sophie:
‘Tis thought the Turkish Mahomet
Was first Inspir’d with Coffe,
By which his Powers did Over-flow
The Land of Palestine:
Then let us to, the Coffe-house go,
‘Tis Cheaper farr then Wine.

You shall know there, what Fashions are;
How Perrywiggs are Curl’d;
And for a Penny you shall heare,
All Novells in the World.
Both Old and Young, and Great and Small,
And Rich, and Poore, you’l see;
Therefore let’s to the Coffe All,
Come All away with Mee.