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Coffee Houses - a history


Coffee-Houses still exist in London, but it would be difficult to find one answering to the type which was so common during the last forty years of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth. The establishment of to-day is nothing more than an eating-house of modest pretensions, frequented mostly by the labouring classes. In many cases its internal arrangements follow the old-time model, and the imitation extends to the provision of a daily newspaper or two from which customers may glean the news of the day without extra charge. Here and there, too, the coffee-house of the present perpetuates the convenience of its prototype by allowing customers' letters to be sent to its address. But the more exalted type of coffee-house has lost its identity in the club.

It is generally agreed that 1652 was the date of the opening of the first coffee-house in London. There are, however, still earlier references to the drink itself. For example, Sir Henry Blount wrote from Turkey in 1634 to the effect that the natives of that country had a "drink called _cauphe_ taste a little bitterish," and that they daily entertained themselves "two or three hours in _cauphe-_houses, which, in Turkey, abound more than inns and alehouses with us." Also it will be remembered that Evelyn, under date 1637, recorded how a Greek came to Oxford and "was the first I ever saw drink coffee."

Whether the distinction of opening the first coffee-house in London belongs to a Mr. Bowman or to a Pasqua Rosee cannot be decided. But all authorities are as one in locating that establishment in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill, and that the date was 1652. The weight of evidence seems to be in favour of Rosee, who was servant to a Turkey merchant named Edwards. Having acquired the coffee-drinking habit in Turkey, Mr. Edwards was accustomed to having his servant prepare the beverage for him in his London house, and the new drink speedily attracted a levee of curious onlookers and tasters. Evidently the company grew too large to be convenient, and at this juncture Mr. Edwards suggested that Rosee should set up as a vendor of the drink. He did so, and a copy of the prospectus he issued on the occasion still exists. It set forth at great length "the virtue of the Coffee Drink First publiquely made and sold in England by Pasqua Rosee," the berry of which was described as "a simple innocent thing" but yielding a liquor of countless merits. But Rosee was frank as to its drawbacks; "it will prevent drowsiness," he continued, "and make one fit for business, if one have occasion to watch; and therefore you are not to drink it after supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for three or four hours."

That Pasqua Rosee prospered amazingly in St. Michael's Alley, "at the Signe of his own Head," is the only conclusion possible from the numerous rival establishments which were quickly set up in different parts of London. By the end of the century it was computed that the coffee-houses of London numbered nearly three thousand.

But there were days of tribulation to be passed through before that measure of success was attained. In eight years after Rosee had opened his establishment the consumption of coffee in England had evidently increased to a notable extent, for in 1660 the House of Commons is found granting to Charles II for life the excise duty on coffee "and other outlandish drinks." But it is a curious fact that while the introduction of tea was accepted with equanimity by the community, the introduction of coffee was strenuously opposed for more than a decade. Poets and pamphleteers combined to decry the new beverage. The rhyming author of "A Cup of Coffee, or Coffee in its Colours," published in 1663, voiced his indignation thus:

"For men and Christians to turn Turks and think
To excuse the crime, because 'tis in their drink!
Pure English apes! ye might, for aught I know,
Would it but mode learn to eat spiders too.
Should any of your grandsires' ghosts appear
In your wax-candle circles, and but hear
The name of coffee so much called upon,
Then see it drank like scalding Phlegethon;
Would they not startle, think ye, all agreed
'Twas conjuration both in word and deed?"

By way of climax this opponent of the new drink appealed to the shades of Ben Jonson and other libation-loving poets, and recalled how they, as source of inspiration, "drank pure nectar as the Gods drink too."

Three years later a dramatist seems to have tried his hand at depicting the new resort on the stage, for Pepys tells how in October, 1666, he saw a play called "The Coffee-House." It was not a success; "the most ridiculous, insipid play that ever I saw in my life," was Pepys' verdict. But there was nothing insipid about the pamphlet which, under the title of "The Character of a coffee-House," issued from the press seven years later. The author withheld his name, and was wise in so doing, for his cuts and thrusts with his pen would have brought down upon him as numerous cuts and thrusts with a more dangerous weapon had his identity been known. "A coffee-house," he wrote, "is a lay-conventicle, good-fellowship turned puritan, ill-husbandry in masquerade; whither people come, after toping all day, to purchase, at the expense of their last penny, the repute of sober companions: a rota-room, that, like Noah's ark, receives animals of every sort, from the precise diminutive band, to the hectoring cravat and cuffs in folio; a nursery for training up the smaller fry of virtuosi in confident tattling, or a cabal of kittling critics that have only learned to spit and mew; a mint of intelligence, that, to make each man his penny-worth, draws out into petty parcels what the merchant receives in bullion. He, that comes often, saves two-pence a week in Gazettes, and has his news and his coffee for the same charge, as at a three-penny ordinary they give in broth to your chop of mutton; it is an exchange where haberdashers of political smallwares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the public, with bottomless stories, and headless notions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets, and persons more idly employed to read them; a high court of justice, where every little fellow in a camlet cloke takes upon him to transpose affairs both in church and state, to shew reasons against acts of parliament, and condemn the decrees of general councils."

Having indulged in that trenchant generalization, this vigorous assailant proceeded to describe a coffee-house in detail. The room "stinks of tobacco worse than hell of brimstone;" the coffee itself had the appearance of "Pluto's diet-drink, that witches tipple out of dead men's skulls;" and the company included "a silly fop and a worshipful justice, a griping rook and a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer and an errant pickpocket, a reverend non-conformist and a canting mountebank, all blended together to compose an oglio of impertinence." There is a delightful sketch of one named "Captain All-man-sir," as big a boaster as Falstaff, and a more delicately etched portrait of the Town Wit, who is summed up as the "jack-pudding of society" in the judgment of all wise men, but an incomparable wit in his own. The peroration of this pamphlet, devoted to a wholesale condemnation of the coffee-house, indulges in too frank and unsavoury metaphors for modern re-publication.

Of course there was an answer. Pamphleteering was one of the principal diversions of the age. "Coffee-Houses Vindicated" was the title of the reply. The second pamphlet was not the equal of the first in terseness or wit, but it had the advantage in argument. The writer did not find it difficult to make out a good case for the coffee-house. It was economical, conduced to sobriety, and provided innocent diversion. When one had to meet a friend, a tavern was an expensive place; "in an ale-house you must gorge yourself with pot after pot, sit dully alone, or be drawn in to club for others' reckonings." Not so at the coffee-house: "Here, for a penny or two, you may spend two or three hours, have the shelter of a house, the warmth of a fire, the diversion of company; and conveniency, if you please, of taking a pipe of tobacco; and all this without any grumbling or repining." On the score of sobriety the writer was equally cogent. It was stupid custom which insisted that any and every transaction should be carried out at a tavern, where continual sipping made men unfit for business. Coffee, on the contrary, was a "wakeful" drink. And the company of the coffee-house enabled its frequenter to follow the proper study of man, mankind. The triumphant conclusion was that a well-regulated coffee-house was "the sanctuary of health, the nursery of temperance, the delight of frugality, an academy of civility, and free-school of ingenuity."

But a still more serious-minded person took part in the assault upon the coffee-house. He was one of those amateur statesmen, who usually, as in this case, abrogate to themselves the title of "Lover of his Country," who have a remedy for every disease of the body politic. In a series of proposals offered for the consideration of Parliament, this patriot pleaded for the suppression of coffee-houses on the ground that if less coffee were drunk there would be a larger demand for beer, and a larger demand for beer meant the growing of more English grain. Apart from economics, however, there were adequate reasons for suppression. These coffee-houses have "done great mischiefs to the nation, and undone many of the King's subjects: for they, being great enemies to diligence and industry, have been the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen, who, before frequenting these places, were diligent students or shopkeepers, extraordinary husbands of their time as well as money; but since these houses have been set up, under pretence of good husbandry, to avoid spending above one penny or two-pence at a time, have gone to these coffee-houses; where, meeting friends, they have sat talking three or four hours; after which, a fresh acquaintance appearing, and so one after another all day long, hath begotten fresh discourse, so that frequently they have staid five or six hours together," to the neglect of shops and studies, etc., etc.

Even yet, however, the worst had not been said. The wives of England had to be heard from. Hence the "Women's Petition against Coffee," which enlivens the annals of the year of grace 1674. The pernicious drink was indicted on three counts: "It made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought;" its use would cause the offspring of their "mighty ancestors" to "dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies;" and when a husband went out on a domestic errand he "would stop by the way to drink a couple of cups of coffee."

These assaults--or, what is more probable, the abuse of the coffee-house for political purposes--had an effect, for a time. The king, although enjoying the excise from that "outlandish" drink, did issue a proclamation for the suppression of the coffee-houses, only to cancel it almost ere the ink was dry. But later, to put a stop to that public discussion of state affairs which was deemed sacrilege in the seventeenth century, an order was issued forbidding coffee-houses to keep any written or other news save such as appeared in the Gazette.

But the coffee-house as an institution was not to be put down. Neither pamphlets nor poems, nor petitions nor proclamations, had any effect. It met a "felt want" apparently, or made so effective an appeal to the social spirit of seventeenth century Londoners that its success was assured from the start. Consequently Pasqua Rosee soon had opposition in his own immediate neighbourhood. It may be that the Rainbow of Fleet Street was the second coffee-house to be opened in London, or that the honour belonged elsewhere; what is to be noted is that the establishments multiplied fast and nowhere more than in the vicinity of the Royal Exchange. Several were to be found in Change Alley, while in the Royal Exchange of to-day, the third building of that name, are the headquarters of Lloyd's, which perpetuates in name at least one of the most remarkable coffee-houses of the seventeenth century.

Evidence is abundant that the early coffee-houses took their colour from the district in which they were established. Thus it would be idle in the main to expect a literary atmosphere among the houses which flourished in the heart of the city. They became the resorts of men of business, and gradually acquired a specific character from the type of business man most frequenting them. In a way Batson's coffee-house was an exception to the rule, inasmuch as doctors and not merchants were most in evidence here. But the fact that it was tacitly accepted as the physicians' resort shows how the principle acted in a general way. One of the most constant visitors at Batson's was Sir Richard Blackmore, that scribbling doctor who was physician to William III and then to Queen Anne. Although his countless books were received either with ridicule or absolute silence, he still persisted in authorship, and finally produced an "Heroick Poem" in twelve books entitled, "Prince Alfred." Lest any should wonder how a doctor could court the muse to that extent without neglecting his proper work, he explained in his preface that he had written the poem "by such catches and starts, and in such occasional uncertain hours as his profession afforded, and for the greater part in coffee-houses, or in passing up and down the streets," an apology which, led to his being accused of writing "to the rumbling of his chariot wheels." But in the main the real literary folk of the day would have none of him. He belonged to the city, and what had a mere city man to do with poetry? Even Dr. Johnson, in taking note of a reply Blackmore made to his critics, chided him with writing "in language such as Cheapside easily furnished."

Other physicians, however, resorted to Batson's coffee-house in a professional and not a poetic way. The character of its frequenters was described in a lively manner in the first number of the Connoisseur, published in January, 1754. Having devoted a few sentences to a neighbouring establishment, the writer noted that it is "but a short step to a gloomy class of mortals, not less intent on gain than the stock-jobbers: I mean the dispensers of life and death, who flock together like birds of prey watching for carcasses at Batson's. I never enter this place, but it serves as a _memento mori_ to me. What a formidable assemblage of sable suits, and tremendous perukes! I have often met here a most intimate acquaintance, whom I have scarce known again; a sprightly young fellow, with whom I have spent many a jolly hour; but being just dubbed a graduate in physic, he has gained such an entire conquest over the risible muscles, that he hardly vouchsafes at any time to smile. I have heard him harangue, with all the oracular importance of a veteran, on the possibility of Canning's subsisting for a whole month on a few bits of bread; and he is now preparing a treatise, in which he will set forth a new and infallible method to prevent the spreading of the plague from France to England. Batson's has been reckoned the seat of solemn stupidity: yet it is not totally devoid of taste and common sense. They have among them physicians, who can cope with the most eminent lawyers or divines; and critics, who can relish the _sal volatile_ of a witty composition, or determine how much fire is requisite to sublimate a tragedy _secundum artem_." The house served a useful purpose at a time when physicians were not in the habit of increasing their knowledge by visiting the wards of the hospitals. Batson's was a consulting-house instead, not alone for patients but for the doctors themselves. In this respect, then, it differed from the generally commercial character of the coffee-houses under the shadow of the Exchange.

Garraways Coffee House


But there was no mistaking the commercial character of a place like Garraway's in Change Alley. The essayist just quoted is responsible for a story to the effect that when a celebrated actor was cast for the part of Shylock he made daily visits to the coffee-houses near the Exchange that "by a frequent intercourse and conversation with 'the unforeskin'd race,' he might habituate himself to their air and deportment." And the same chronicler goes on to say that personally he was never more diverted than by a visit to Garraway's a few days before the drawing of a lottery. "I not only could read hope, fear, and all the various passions excited by a love of gain, strongly pictured in the faces of those who came to buy; but I remarked with no less delight, the many little artifices made use of to allure adventurers, as well as the visible alterations in the looks of the sellers, according as the demand for tickets gave occasion to raise or lower their price. So deeply were the countenances of these bubble-brokers impressed with attention to the main chance, and their minds seemed so dead to all other sensations, that one might almost doubt, where money is out of the case, whether a Jew 'has eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, affections, passions.'" But lottery tickets were not the only things offered-for sale at Garraway's. Wine was a common article of sale there in the early days, and in the latter career of the house it became famous as an auction-room for land and house property.

Thomas Garraway was the founder of the house, the same who is credited with having been the first to retail tea in England. On the success of Pasqua Rosee he was not long, apparently, in adding coffee to his stock, and then turning his place of business into a coffee-house. The house survived till 1866, and even to its latest years kept an old-time character. A frequenter of the place says the ground-floor was furnished with cosy mahogany boxes and seats, and that the ancient practice of covering the floor with sand was maintained to the last.

Two other houses, Jonathan's and Sam's, were notorious for their connection with stock-jobbing. The latter, indeed, figured prominently in the gigantic South Sea Bubble fraud. And even when that was exposed Sam's continued to be the headquarters of all the get-rich-quick schemes of the day. Thus in one issue of a newspaper of 1720 there were two announcements specially designed to catch the unwary. One notice told that a book would be opened for entering into a joint-partnership "on a thing that will turn to the advantage of the concerned," and the other was a modest proposal to raise two million pounds for buying and improving the Fens of Lincolnshire.

Jonathan's is incidentally described by Addison as "the general mart of stock-jobbers," and in that amusing account of himself to which he devoted the first number of the Spectator he explained that he had been taken for a merchant on the exchange, "and sometimes passed for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan's." Half a century later than these allusions the Annual Register recorded a case tried at the Guildhall arising out of an assault at this coffee-house. It seems that the master, Mr. Ferres, pushed the plaintiff, one Isaac Renoux, out of his house, for which he was fined one shilling damages on it being proved at the trial that "the house had been a market, time out of mind, for buying and selling government securities."

Such houses as John's in Birchin Lane and the Jerusalem coffee-house, which was situated in a court off Cornhill, were typical places of resort for merchants trading to distant parts of the world. One of Rowlandson's lively caricatures, that of a "Mad Dog in a Coffee-House," is a faithful representation of the interior of one of those houses. A bill on the wall shows how they were used for the publication of shipping intelligence, that particular placard giving details of the sailing of "The Cerebus" for the Brazils. In a private letter of July 30th, 1715, is an account of an exciting incident which had its origin in the Jerusalem coffee-house. At that time England was in a state of commotion over the Jacobite insurrection and the excitement seems to have turned the head of a Captain Montague, who was reputed to be "a civil sober man," of good principles and in good circumstances. He had entered the Jerusalem coffee-house on the previous day, as the letter relates, and, without any provocation, "of a sudden struck a gentleman who knew him a severe blow on the eye; immediately after; drawing his sword, ran out through the alley cross Cornhill still with it drawn; and at the South entrance of the Exchange uttered words to this effect, that he was come in the face of the Sun to proclaim James the third King of England, and that only he was heir." Whereupon he knocked down another gentleman, who, however, had sense enough to see that the captain was out of his mind and called for assistance to secure him. It took half a dozen men to hold him in the coach which carried him to a magistrate, who promptly committed him to a mad-house.

Tom's coffee-house was situated in the same thoroughfare as John's. This was the resort affected by Garrick on his occasional visits to the city, and is also thought to have been the house frequented by Chatterton. In a letter to his sister that ill-fated poet excused the haphazard nature of his epistle he was writing her from Tom's on the plea that there was "such a noise of business and politics in the room." He explained that his present business--the concocting of squibs, tales and songs on the events of the day--obliged him to frequent places of the best resort.

Toms Coffee House

[Illustration: TOM'S COFFEE-HOUSE.]

In view of its subsequent career no coffee-house of the city proper was of so much importance as that founded by Edward Lloyd. He first appears in the history of old London as the keeper of a coffee-house in Tower Street in 1688, but about four years later' he removed to Lombard Street in close proximity to the Exchange, and his house gradually became the recognized centre of shipbroking and marine insurance business, for which the corporation still bearing the name of Lloyd's is renowned all over the world.

Two pictures of Lloyd's as it was in the first decade of the eighteenth century are to, be found in the gallery of English literature, one from the pen of Steele, the other from that of Addison. The first is in the form of a petition to Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., from the customers of the house, and begged that he would use his influence to get other coffee-houses to adopt a custom which prevailed at Lloyd's. Great scandal, it seems, had been caused by coffee-house orators of the irresponsible order. Such nuisances were not tolerated at Lloyd's. The petitioners explained--and by inference the explanation preserves a record of the internal economy of the house--that at Lloyd's a servant was deputed to ascend the pulpit in the room and read the news on its arrival, "while the whole audience are sipping their respective liquors." The application of the petition lay in the suggestion that this method should be adopted in all coffee-houses, and that if any, one wished to orate at large on any item of the news of the day he should be obliged to ascend the pulpit and make his comments in a formal manner.

Lloyds Coffee House

[Illustration: LLOYD'S COFFEE-HOUSE.]

Evidently the pulpit at Lloyd's was a settled institution. It played a conspicuous part in that ludicrous incident which Addison describes at his own expense. It was his habit, he explained, to jot down from time to time brief hints such as could be expanded into Spectator papers, and a sheetful of such hints would naturally look like a "rhapsody of nonsense" to any one save the writer himself. Such a sheet he accidentally dropped in Lloyd's one day, and before he missed it the boy of the house had it in his hand and was carrying it around in search of its owner. But Addison did not know that until it was too late. Many of the customers had glanced at its contents, which had caused them so much merriment that the boy was ordered to ascend the pulpit and read the paper for the amusement of the company at large. "The reading of this paper," continues Addison, "made the whole coffee-house very merry; some of them concluded that it was written by a madman, and others by somebody that had been taking notes out of the Spectator. One who had the appearance of a very substantial citizen told us, with several political winks and nods, that he wished there was no more in the paper than what was expressed in it: that for his part, he looked upon the dromedary, the gridiron, and the barber's pole, to signify something more than what was usually meant by those words: and that he thought the coffee-man could not do better than to carry the paper to one of the secretaries of state." In the midst of the numerous other comments, wise and otherwise, Addison reached for the paper, pretended to look it over, shook his head twice or thrice, and then twisted it into a match and lit his pipe with it. The ruse diverted suspicion, especially as Addison applied himself to his pipe and the paper he was reading with seeming unconcern. And he consoled the readers of the Spectator with the reflection that he had already used more than half the hints on that unfortunate sheet of notes.

Since those almost idyllic days, Lloyd's has played a notable part in the life of the nation. At its headquarters in the Royal Exchange building are preserved many interesting relics of the history of the institution. From a simple coffee-house open to all and sundry, it has developed into the shipping-exchange of the world, employing 1,500 agents in all parts of the globe.

And Last updated on: Tuesday, 02-Jun-2020 15:01:38 BST