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?