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.
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”.
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.
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,
Dutch, Danes, 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.