London's Historic Coffee Houses of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In his Curiosities of London, the Victorian historian John Timbs delves into many of the popular streets and landmarks of the city and examines their history. But he also mentions some of the popular coffee houses he's known of and visited, and their histories go back to coffee's earliest beginnings in England.

The first coffee house, so they claim, is the Grand Café in Oxford, where you can still go for your caffeine hit. The café opened in 1650 in the High Street, where artists, thinkers and scientists would meet to get their brains jumping and participate in lively debate. 

Photo by Kevin Canlas on Unsplash

The earliest coffee house in London was said to have been set up in Cornhill, in St Michael's Alley. It was established by a Mr Bowman, coachman to a merchant who had dealt with Turkey. He instructed Bowman to build the business, and trading began in 1652. Some accounts credit a Greek servant, Pasqua Rosee, with establishing the coffee shop with Bowman, with them going separate ways soon after. In 1666, the year of the Great Fire, James Farr ran The Rainbow, a coffee house in Fleet Street. 

Within ten years of first opening, coffee shops were numerous enough in England to require a statute, which imposed a tax of four pence on each gallon of coffee made and sold. By 1675, they had developed a reputation where great minds met to discuss ideas, and this unnerved Charles II, who considered them a place of unruliness and sedition, ordering them to be closed. The need for daily coffee was too great for the subjects however, and Charles reversed the proclamation soon after. 

But coffee houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries didn't just serve coffee. They offered different atmospheres, services and food to tailor to every interest, profession and personality, securing them a slice of the buoyant coffee trade.

Timbs mentions Baker's Coffee House in Lombard Street in East London. The area had been a centre for business and finance since Medieval times, and offered a tasty accompaniment. It was noted, said Timbs, 'for its chops and steaks, broiled in the coffee-room, and thus eaten hot from the grid-iron'. To finish off the experience, he said you could order 'excellent stout and post-prandial punch'. Langbourn Coffee House, also in Lombard Street served steaks too, along with wine and cigars. It was rebuilt in 1850. 

Another offered a more commercial service. The Baltic Coffee House on Threadneedle Street, he said, was where merchants and brokers met with interests in Russian trading, along with merchants buying and selling tallow, oil, hemp and seeds. Customers could sip a cup of stimulating coffee downstairs, and then venture upstairs to deal in auctions for these products. The Jamaica Coffee House in Cornhill was the place to go for information on trading with Madeira and the West Indies. Also in Cornhill, the Jerusalem Coffee House was where merchants and traders met for news and information on trading with China, India and Australia. In 1845 it was the dramatic scene of the capture of the murderer John Tawell. He had been at the coffee house gaining information about a property he owned in Sydney. 

Covent Garden was also a popular spot but offered a slightly more creative atmosphere. The Bedford Coffee House in Covent Garden's piazza was regularly visited by celebrated actors David Garrick and David Quin in the eighteenth century. Garrick was a prominent Shakespearean actor of his time, while Quin, who was born in Covent Garden, acted with Garrick and they became friends. The poet and playwright Sheridan was also a customer in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A similar clientele could be found at Button's Coffee House in Covent Garden, which opened in 1712. It distinguished itself by having a carving of a lion's head, 'a proper emblem of knowledge and action' at its entrance. Customers here included Joseph Addison, the writer and politician of the early eighteenth century and Alexander Pope, a poet of the same period. The combination of intellect, ego and caffeine led to things sometimes getting heated: the poet Ambrose Philips once threatened to beat Pope with a birch rod, hanging it up in the coffee shop after Pope had provoked him over his work. Mr Button, the owner of the coffee house seems to have been an interesting character. Timbs says that he was a servant of Addison's wife, the Countess of Warwick, and if she upset him, he would order the men out of the coffee house. 

Smyrna Coffee House in Pall Mall, and Somerset Coffee House in The Strand were also well-known sites for writers, poets and playwrights during the early eighteenth century. The artist Sir Joshua Reynolds was said to have regularly visited Tom's Coffee House in Covent Garden. 

Writers, judges and booksellers could also be found at Chapter Coffee House, in Paternoster Row during the eighteenth century, some editors recruiting potential writers here for their magazines. It offered good punch as well as coffee, and made newspapers and pamphlets available for reading. It was said that at Deacon's Coffee House in Walbrook, sixty years worth of copies of The Times could be found, along with papers and pamphlets from America, France and Germany. At the Clifford Street Coffee House on the corner of Bond Street, a debating club was held where members could argue the day's topics while sipping at a tankard of porter, a dark beer with a frothy top popular in the eighteenth century.

On St James' Street stood the Cocoa Tree, a chocolate house in business during the time of Queen Anne. Said to have been a meeting place particularly for Tories, it was described by Gibbon in 1762 as full of 'the first men in the kingdom, in fortune and fashion, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee room, upon a bit of cold meat or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch'. This is the first written reference of the sandwich, said to have been created by the Earl of Sandwich to avoid getting his fingers greasy with meat while playing cards. Garraway's was another coffee house famous for its sandwiches, served alongside ale, stout and sherry. It also had an auction room on the first floor for the sale of medicine, mahogany and timber, as well as property.

At The Strand there was George's Coffee House and Grecian Coffee House, the latter run by a Greek man named Constantine. Miles' Coffee House offered a more politically-charged atmosphere, set up in New Palace Yard, Westminster in 1659 to debate republican opinions. 

Tom's Coffee House in Cornhill offered games as well as refreshment. Cards and chess were played here. One advertisement in a newspaper of 1662 offered free coffee at The Turk's Head Coffee House in The Strand, on New Year's Day. In 1664 Samuel Pepys visited Will's Coffee House in Covent Garden and noted the well-known poets and intellectuals that were also there at the time. 

It is perhaps not surprising that Charles II initially objected to these meetings at coffee houses. Their cosy rooms thick with the aroma of roasted coffee, port, grilled steaks and wisps of cigar smoke offered thinkers an opportunity to come together and debate the state of the realm. Political debates argued by those with differing views could mean a loss of control of the careful craft of state propaganda as people criticised the king's actions. But they were also meeting points for artists, poets and actors, where they networked, argued and, on occasion, threatened one another with a beating from a birch rod. Merchants also gathered at coffee houses to read the latest news, make trading contacts and conduct business around the world. Infused with stimulating caffeine, it could be argued that coffee houses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to establish the modern world we know today. They facilitated debate, business growth and travel. 

Source: Timbs, John. Curiosities of London. (Bogue, Fleet Street, London) 1855

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