The first London coffee houses

Coffee became a political issue in England for a second or three–or the places where people drank it did. We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when people–men especially–wore clothes that were even sillier than whatever clothing you disapprove of most today. 

Think I’m exaggerating? This was the age of the three-cornered hat. Where, I ask you, did the runoff land when you wore one in the rain? My best guess is that it divided, without fear or favor, onto the shoulders. Unfortunately, I haven’t experimented. I should. We have no shortage of rain lately. All I’m missing is the hat.

I focus on the men’s clothes not because the women dressed more sensibly but because not many of them set foot or floor-length skirt inside coffee house doors. The only way in, if you were of the female persuasion, was to work there or own the place. Or to be disreputable enough, but even then most of them would be closed to you. 

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: pears on our tree this fall.

So coffee houses were overwhelmingly male establishments, places they gathered to read; to talk business, religion, politics, and philosophy; and above all to caffeinate themselves so they could do more of the above without nodding off. 

The coffee, according to contemporary sources, was awful. One man described it as a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes,” which may help explain why the British took to tea. The point, however, wasn’t the taste but the caffeine–which is lucky, because once you get into the habit you want more, even if it tastes of old shoes.

And of course the company. 

Coffee made its first public appearance in England in 1637, in Oxford, where it was sold in a coffee house. It reached London in 1652, and by the 1660s coffee houses were multiplying like humans in the age before birth control. By 1675, 3,000 were in business around England. 

It was decades before any male slept a wink. 

That last information dump was from Wikiwhatsia, which I try not to rely on heavily, but part of what I’m telling you is drawn from a BBC radio show, In Our Time, which gave three experts half an hour to talk about coffee (it was fascinating), and the show’s website links to Wikiwhoosits, so I’m going to bend my already-too-flexible rules. (You’ll notice the word try at the beginning of the paragraph.) Screw it. If it’s good enough for the experts, it’s good enough for me.

The show’s available via the website if you want to listen. I recommend it. And even though one of the experts has the same last name as I do, she’s not a relative. Very few people who share my name are. Long story, which we’ll skip.

Like most substances that have just come on the market, coffee was promoted as the cure for pretty much everything. Think of it as the newly legalized cannabis of its day. As one of the experts put it, “It cured anything you wanted it to.”

It was also something you could drink that didn’t get you drunk. Water, remember, was polluted. Most people drank ale or beer and–we can assume–were at least slightly drunk most of the time. Small beer was less alcoholic than strong beer and ale, but alcoholic it was. In coffee, finally, Londoners had a drink that kept them sober. In “The Lost World of the London Coffee House” (the link’s above, turning the words “contemporary sources” blue, and doing it without a swear word in sight), Matthew Green credits coffee with laying the foundations of England’s economic growth in the decades after its introduction. I have no idea if he’s right, but it’s an interesting thought. 

To get into a coffee house, people paid a penny. For that they got not just coffee (for all I know, that cost extra) but conversation, the latest newspapers, which were just starting to appear, and whatever pamphlets were making the rounds. Each place had its own tone, clientele, politics, and leanings. Some were intellectual hotbeds, gathering writers, philosophers, thinkers. In others, workingmen gathered to read and talk politics. They were called penny universities. The entrance fee would have put coffee houses out of reach of the poorest workers, but even so I’ve found a quote from one writer who describes shoe-blacks and assorted riff-raff gathering to talk about topics that I imagine the writer thinking were far above them. You can hear his disapproval leaking into the spaces between the words and I can’t swear that a bit of exaggeration about the men’s occupations didn’t sneak in with it. Make what you will of the contradictory information. 

Other coffee houses gathered businessmen from one field or another, making them places to do deals and exchange the gossip of their trade. The London Stock Exchange began in a coffee house. So did the insurance group Lloyd’s of London as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses.

Some high-brow coffee houses became private clubs. They gave way to the gentlemen’s clubs of the eighteenth century–and no, gentlemen’s clubs didn’t have anything to do with lap dances, although they were probably just as despicable, in their staid way.

And to make sure we don’t leave anyone out, some coffee houses attracted criminals. Not the kind who did respectable business. We’re talking about acknowledged criminals here. In some you could gamble. In others you could get a haircut and listen to a lecture on abolishing slavery, or so one source swears.

Don’t like the hair in your coffee, sir? Most customers feel it improves the taste.

One coffee house was the conduit to a nearby whorehouse. In another–which didn’t last long–you could only speak Latin. The Folly of the Thames was moored on the river and you could dance on deck. Which leads me to repeat that it wasn’t that no women could enter any of them, only that no respectable ones could–although in some no woman could at all.

Yeah, the good old days.

Having said that customers sorted themselves out according to interest, trade, and so forth, I’ll dance right on and contradict myself, since the sources I found do: Some talk about people mixing and debating without respect to title or class. Customers were expected to take whatever seat was available, which meant sitting next to whoever was already there. Tables were shared, not private. Whether you were sitting with people like yourself or people from a class that made you break out in hives, the coffee house ethos was that you talked to both acquaintances and strangers. 

It was because coffee houses were places to talk that they became a political issue. If you went to the right ones, you could hear the latest court gossip, even if you weren’t a courtier. And court gossip was inherently political. This made coffee houses a force of democratization–or sedition, depending on your point of view, and that’s where they got into trouble with Charles II, who in 1675 tried to ban the selling of coffee (also tea and sherbet) by royal proclamation. The punishment was to be £5 for every month a shop defied the ban, and if it continued “the severest of punishments that may by law be inflicted.” 

The ban never came into effect, though. Charles was pressured by his ministers–coffee drinkers, the lot of them, for all I know–to withdraw it.

But before we start cheering this force for democratization, let’s mention that coffee also drove the spread of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil) and colonialism (Java and Ceylon). As far as I’ve been able to find out, that didn’t become a political issue in England. Maybe the news about what it took to grow the stuff didn’t leak into public consciousness. Maybe people looked the other way. It’s surprisingly–and horrifyingly–easy to do.

Have I mentioned how fond history is of irony?

87 thoughts on “The first London coffee houses

    • Slept?

      It’s interesting, when you start reading about the early uses of tea and coffee, how many religious claims were made for it. All that caffeine allowed monks to meditate, priests to pray, and no one to nod off.


  1. You are brilliant! Thank you for using your wit to show the irony throughout history and bring these subjects to life, mostly with laughter. I look forward to your posts. (BTW: I think tricorne hats are sexy, wet shoulders and all)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it was the mention of tricorn hats being sexy–especially since the word “wet” followed it–but something made algorithms that run our lives decide that this was spam. I only just dug you out of the spam folder. Apologies for the company you had to keep. There were lots of discussions of sexy and wet, but yours was the only once mentioning the hats. Sorry to leave you languishing so long.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Most enlightening on an ofter overlooked topic.
    (1) Poldark was one of the favorite Masterpiece Theater series of all time at our home in West Columbia, SC. We loved the Cornwall countryside near the sea. The one distraction I never adjusted to was the three cornered hat.
    (2) The penny cover charge at coffee houses was the first of many comparisons I would draw between the coffee houses of the seventeenth century and lesbian bars in the south in the mid twentieth century. Of course, an obvious contrast was the clientele.
    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Given the way that coffee shops seem to be the harbingers of gentrification leading to the break up of local communities, perhaps we should see if the Charles II declaration could be revived. Given the powers of the Privy Council it might be possible…

    Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t drink coffee, like the aroma, just not the taste. Read a history book about it once, including a section on how it differs(ed) across America. Back before low-cost transportation coffee on the east coast would be strong as people could stand it, the further west you went the weaker it became. The cost of transporting it across the continent was so much that people would weaken the brew to make what they had last longer. Supposedly, back then, west coast coffee was as weak as tea.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Good post and history lesson.

    It us amazing how much better a cup of coffee can make you feel.

    Before coffee people used alcohol or narcotics to get through the day. Some still do. And tobacco.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a very long time coffee drinker, I found this very informative ! And I think of coffee in a similar way: it won’t (usually) affect your judgment or actions, you can (usually) ask for a cup in any setting – meetings – parties – work, etc it gives you something tactile to do. But sometimes today the taste is similar to what you describe (though I’ve never tasted shoes). I would start the day with a cup of hot coffee when I opened homeroom, and finish what was left, ice cold, in the cup before I went to lunch and got a fresh cup. More sociably acceptable than smoking.I must defend the notion of “weal tea” though – I’ve had some pretty strong tea, as well as weak coffee !

    Liked by 2 people

    • As I was reading, I thought about how similar its functions are to smoking–something to handle when you’re with people. A distraction for your hands, not to mention your mouth and everything attached to it. And then, of course, you landed there. When I worked, tea signaled a break. I didn’t drink it during meetings or at my desk–it was strictly something I drank when I had a chance to relax a bit, which during the day meant sitting down with something that needed editing or a quick read-through, which were jobs I loved. I remember making myself a cup in some different situation, when I couldn’t put my feet up, and realizing that no, the relaxation didn’t come from the cup or the brew. It was disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, I must have missed Friday because here you are and I’m a day late read it! I also have the cold from hell so forgive me if I type tripe. Fascianting stuff. A penny woud have been a lot of money and definately would have kept our the labouring types. I always had the idea that the profits from the slave trade funded the industrial revolution so was interested you made the point that the demand for coffee drove imperialism. In the late C18th consumers boycotted sugar in the first popular (anti-slavery) mass campaign in Britain. It strikes me that women and poorer types had worked out their only “power” ws consumer power and so withdrew it. I am more of a tea drinker (decaffeinated) myself but I always have one cup of milky coffee in the morning to get my minimal caffeine levels up and going! Yes, I know, there’s not much logic to that. Many years ago I gave up all caffeined drinks in the hope that I’d sleep better at night. All I did was feel sleepy in the day and awake at night!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, as far as I know, about the link between slavery and the industrial revolution. I was interested that the focus of anti-slavery boycotts were cotton and sugar but—well, we can’t boycott everything, however good our intentions. We get overwhelmed. My mother carried on a one-woman boycott of Spanish olives as long as Franco was alive. I don’t think it hastened his death. Which is another way of saying that if we’re going to boycott something it’s good to focus our efforts, otherwise it gets to diffuse it’s wasted.

      I gave up coffee ages ago–several times over, in fact, before it finally stuck. After about three weeks when I was underwater, I did start to sleep better. My tea, however, is still caffeinated. If I quit drinking it before evening, it doesn’t seem to keep me up. If I don’t drink it in the afternoon, it doesn’t keep me up when it should.

      Feel better.

      Liked by 1 person

      • People often say boycotts don’t work – they do if enough people take part (although I heartily approve of your mother’s one woman anti-Franco boycott), the tea and sugar boycotts did put pressure on the government in the times when ordinary people (and no women) had the vote. All the boycotts against South Africa hurt, especially when the US government finally joined in (to our eternal shame Britain carried on supporting SA).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to leave you hanging. I just dug this out of the spam folder, along with another one of yours. The algorithms have it in for you, and I apologize on their behalf–not because I have any control over them, but only because they won’t do it themselves and somebody should.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I remember my first taste being horrible and my mother saying it’s an acquired taste. I asked why anyone would want to acquire it. She could’ve told me about caffeine but for some reason didn’t. A few years later, I understood.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. i H been in business situations where I was the only woman. The women of the 17th century may have been better off not having to set through a bunch of men debating. (I do agree it should have been their choice.) Perhaps, this is where the connection between coffee and smoking also became so strong. (I may be wrong about that. I’m not sure when tobacco made it’s way over there.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do see your point.

      Boy, do I ever see your point. Unfortunately, getting into the middle of those scrums was the only way to get close to any sort of power.

      Tobacco was first imported to England in the sixteenth century (it also cured anything you wanted it to), so yeah, they probably would’ve been smoking. Bleah.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I found that all very interesting. I marvel at how our coffeeshops are so often full of introverts who don’t want to be bothered, and yet, still, a place where there’s a community bulletin board with pamphlets and announcements. English coffee houses must have been what college campus coffeeshops are now. Do tell, what are they like in England now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mostly, they’re chain. Starbucks and Costa, for the most part. Completely prefabricated and dull as hell. What they have done, though, is created a taste for fancy coffees (decaf machiatto–or however you spell that and whatever it is–with carmel syrup, please), so much so that a lot of cafes have installed those big coffee machines that are the size of VWs.

      Sorry to be the bearer of prosaic news.

      Liked by 1 person

        • They came along long after I quit drinking coffee, so for me they’re an almost mythical bit of excessive verbiage that people somehow manage to drink. And pay money for. What I miss are the old independent coffee houses–the ones with beat-out furniture where you could lounge around and either talk or ignore everyone and either read a book or get half a day’s work done in an hour because none of the chaos around you needed your attention.

          Liked by 2 people

  9. This made me go back in time to coffee houses in Boston and Cambridge where the likes of Joan Baez, Tom Rush and Dylan came to be known. Back in the day when I’d need a fake ID to get into the local bar. At least they were smart enough to let the women in. It was some pretty wild times and good memories. Oh to be young, but know better this time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Somehow those two never do go together, although I can’t think why. An ex of mine heard Dylan in a Minneapolis coffee house, when he was first getting started. He and his friend left saying, “Well, we’ll never hear of him again.”

      Liked by 2 people

  10. A great post, once again. The coffee in Spain is excellent and inexpensive. We enjoy hanging out in coffee shops, meeting new people and having interesting conversations. Didn´t JK Rowling write most of Harry Potter in a coffee shop?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. On the banning of coffee houses – have your researches extended as far as's_Petition_against_Coffee

    (by all accounts not necessarily written by women!)

    There’s an equally ribald “Men’s Reply”, but the only online text I can find for it is offline at present. There are audio recordings (also one for an early advert for coffee and chocolate) at:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I ran into several mentions of both but couldn’t get a sense of how genuine it was so I decided to let it slide. The issue, always, with these posts is figuring out what to leave out. If I could have found some deeper information, I might have included it, but it seemed to lean toward heavily toward the kind of jokes twelve-year-old boys would make, or at least enjoy, and I let it go.


    • Thanks. I don’t drink coffee either–or not anymore. I can drink too much of the stuff or none, so I went with none. And we had a great crop of pears this year. They hung on the tree like the essence of plenty.


  12. Pingback: #SeniSal Roundup: Dec 30-Jan 3, 2020 ~ Esme Salon

  13. Politics, coffee, irony and the best quote I’ve seen anywhere (syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes) make this a 5-star post :)


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