The Starbucks on Russell Street near Covent Garden piazza is one of London’s many cloned coffee shops. Can you imagine walking in, sitting next to a stranger, and asking for the latest news? Or slamming a recent novel down next to someone’s coffee and asking for their opinion before delivering yours? It’s not the done thing.
But more than 300 years ago, precisely this kind of behaviour was encouraged in thousands of coffeehouses all over London. In 1712, the Starbucks site was occupied by Button’s coffeehouse. Inside, poets, playwrights, journalists and members of the public gathered around long wooden tables drinking, thinking, writing and discussing literature into the night. Nailed to the wall, near where the Starbucks community notice board now stands, was the white marble head of a lion with wide-open jaws. The public was invited to feed it with letters, limericks and stories; the best of the lion’s digest were published in a weekly edition of Joseph Addison’s Guardian newspaper, entitled ‘the roarings of the lion’.
Today, not even a blue plaque commemorates Button’s. It’s just one of London’s forgotten coffeehouses.
Every time you sip a cup of coffee in London, you are participating in a ritual that stretches back 365 years to a muddy churchyard in the heart of the City. London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee stall) was opened by an eccentric Greek named Pasqua Roseé in 1652. While a servant for a British Levant merchant in Smyrna, Turkey, Roseé developed a taste for the exotic Turkish drink and decided to import it to London. People from all walks of life swarmed to his business to meet, greet, drink, think, write, gossip and jest, all fuelled by coffee.
Before long, the ale house and tavern keepers of Cornhill could only look on despairingly as Pasqua sold over 600 dishes of coffee a day. Worse still, coffee came to be portrayed as an antidote to drunkenness, violence and lust; providing a catalyst for pure thought, sophistication and wit. Roseé had triggered a coffeehouse boom and his ‘bitter Mohammedan gruel’ would transform London forever.
By 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses within the old Roman walls of the City. They arose from the ashes of the Great Fire and went on to survive Charles II’s attempt to crush them in 1675. It concerned the king that for a measly one-penny entrance fee anyone could discuss politics freely. The term ‘coffee-house politician’ referred to someone who spent all day cultivating pious opinions about matters of high state and sharing them with anyone who’d listen. Although some coffeehouses had female staff, no respectable woman would wish to be seen inside these premises and the Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674) bemoaned how the “newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee” had transformed their industrious, virile men into effeminate babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffeehouses.
The men took no notice and London became a city of coffee addicts. By the dawn of the eighteenth century, contemporaries counted over 3,000 coffeehouses in London although 21st-century historians place the figure closer to 550.
Early coffeehouses were not clones of each other; many had their own distinct character. The walls of Don Saltero’s Chelsea coffeehouse were adorned with exotic taxidermy, a talking point for local gentlemen scientists; at Lunt’s in Clerkenwell Green, patrons could sip coffee, have a haircut and enjoy a fiery lecture on the abolition of slavery given by its barber-proprietor; at Moll King’s, a near neighbour of Button’s in Covent Garden, libertines could sober up after a long night of drinking and browse a directory of prostitutes, before being led to the requisite brothel on nearby Bow Street. There was even a floating coffeehouse, the Folly of the Thames, moored outside Somerset House, where jittery dancers performed waltzes and jigs late into the night.
Despite these diversifications, coffeehouses all followed the same formula, maximising the interaction between customers and forging a creative, convivial environment. On entering, patrons would be engulfed in smoke, steam, and sweat and assailed by cries of “What news have you?” or, more formally, “Your servant, sir, what news from Tripoli?” Rows of well-dressed men in periwigs would sit around rectangular wooden tables strewn with every type of media imaginable – newspapers, pamphlets, prints, manuscript newsletters, ballads, even party-political playing cards. Unless it was a West End or Exchange Alley coffeehouse, the room would be cosy but spartan – shaved wooden floors, no cushions, wainscoted walls, candles, the odd spittoon. In the distance, a little Cupid-like boy in a flowing periwig would bring a dish of coffee. It would cost a penny and come with unlimited refills. Once a drink was provided, it was time to engage with the coffeehouse’s other visitors.
Conversation was the lifeblood of coffeehouses. From coffeehouses all over London, Samuel Pepys recorded fantastical tales and metaphysical discussions – of voyages “across the high hills in Asia above the clouds” and the futility of distinguishing between a waking and a dreaming state. Listening and talking to strangers – sometimes for hours on end – was a founding principle of coffeehouses yet one that seems most alien to us today.
Debates culminated in verdicts. In Covent Garden, the Bedford Coffeehouse had a ‘theatrical thermometer’ with temperatures ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘execrable’. Playwrights dreaded walking into the Bedford after the opening night of their latest play to receive judgement as did politicians walking into the Westminster coffeehouses after delivering speeches to Parliament. The Hoxton Square Coffeehouse was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where a suspected madman would be tied up and wheeled into the coffee room. A jury of coffee drinkers would view, prod and talk to the alleged lunatic and then vote on whether to incarcerate the accused in one of the local madhouses. Coffeehouses were democratic theatres of judgement. The way you dressed, your quick-wittedness, even the way you held your spoon – all were assiduously monitored and discussed.
Coffeehouses brought people and ideas together; they inspired brilliant ideas and discoveries that would make Britain the envy of the world. The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse by the Royal Exchange (now a private members’ club); merchants, ship-captains, cartographers, and stockbrokers coalesced into Britain’s insurance industry at Lloyd’s on Lombard Street (now a Sainsbury’s); and the coffeehouses surrounding the Royal Society galvanized scientific breakthroughs. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin on the table of the Grecian Coffeehouse.
But how much of this burst of innovation can be traced back to the drink itself? For those of us accustomed to silky-smooth flat whites brewed with mathematical precision in one of London’s independent cafes, the taste of eighteenth-century coffee would be completely unpalatable. People in the eighteenth century found it disgusting too, routinely comparing it to ink, soot, mud, damp and, most commonly, excrement. But it was addictive, a mental and physical boost to punctuate the working day, and a gateway to inspiration; the taste was secondary.
The flavours found in the latest incarnation of London cafes are undoubtedly superior, but the vanishing opportunities for intellectual engagement and spirited debate with strangers have been quite a trade-off.
London historian Dr Matthew Green is the co-founder of Unreal City Audio, which produces historical tours of London as audio downloads and live events.