The English Coffee Houses


Around 1700, Ned Ward, in his journal the London Spy, lampooned an institution which had captured a city — the London coffee-house:

There was a rabble going hither and thither, reminding me of a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store.  Some came, others went; some were scribbling, others were talking; some were drinking (coffee), some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.  On the corner of a long table, close by the armchair, was lying a Bible.  Beside it were earthenware pitchers, long clay pipes, a little fire on the hearth, and over it the high coffee pot.  Beneath a small bookshelf, on which were bottles, cups, and an advertisement for a beautifier to improve the complexion, was hanging a parliamentary ordinance against drinking and the use of bad language.  The walls were decorated with gilt frames, much as a smithy is decorated with horseshoes.  In the frames were rarities; phials of a yellowish elixir, favourite pills and hair tonics, packets of snuff, tooth powder made from coffee grounds, caramels and cough lozenges.  Had not my friend told me that he had brought me to a coffee-house, I would have regarded the place as the big booth of a cheap-jack.

Much as Ward chided the city's population for the "quality" of its entertainments, he ended by confessing, "When I had sat there for a while, and taken in my surroundings, I myself felt  inclined for a cup of coffee."  Thus, the man whose object was to expose the "vanities and vices of the town" was captivated by the ambience of the coffee-house.  While the coffee-house was not unique to the city, Ned Ward came close to describing the elements which made the London coffee-house different from all others, and it was just these differences which accounted for the place of this establishment in the social history of London.

In 1652, Pasqua Rosee opened a coffee-house in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill, London.  A native of Smyrna, a port in Western Turkey, where the young man had learned to prepare the beverage, Rosee had been brought to London by a merchant named Daniel Edwards, whose friends so liked the unique brew that he allowed his servant to open the city's first coffee-house.  The venture was an immediate success, so much so that large numbers of coffee-houses were established throughout the city in imitation of the first.   From its unpretentious beginnings in Cornhill, the coffee-house quickly became the centre of London social life as well as one of the city's most remarkable social institutions.

The coffee-house itself was not unique to London.  As Francis Bacon noted in his Sylva Sylvarum in 1627, "They have in Turkey a drink called Coffee, and they take it, and sit at it in their Coffee Houses, which are like our Taverns."  Yet in London the coffee-house was unique in the extent to which it entrenched itself as an institution in the social, cultural, commercial, and political life of the city.   "Foreigners remarked that the coffee-house was that which especially distinguished London from all other cities," wrote Thomas Macauley in his History of England, "that the coffee-house was the Londoner's home, and that those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lane, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow."

The London coffee-houses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his long, clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons.   At the period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganised and irregular, the coffee-house provided a centre of communication for news and information.  Runners were sent round to the coffee-house to report major events of the day, such as victory in battle or political upheaval, and the newsletters and gazettes of the day were distributed chiefly in the coffee-house.  Most of the establishments functioned as reading rooms, for the cost of newspapers and pamphlets was included in the admission charge.  In addition, bulletins announcing sales, sailings, and auctions covered the walls of the establishments, providing valuable information to the businessman who conducted much of his business from a table at his favourite coffee-house.

Naturally, this dissemination of news led to the dissemination of ideas, and the coffee-house served as a forum for their discussion.  As the eminent social   historian G. M. Trevelyan observed:  "The 'Universal liberty of speech of the English nation'...was the quintessence of Coffee House life."

The patrons of the coffee-houses agreed to conform to the strict rules of the establishments.  According to the posted "Rules and Orders of the Coffee House," all men were equal in these establishments, and none need give his place to a "Finer" man.  Anyone who swore was made to "forfeit twelve pence," and the man who began a quarrel "shall give each man a dish t'atone the sin."  "Maudlin lovers" were forbidden "here in Corners to mourn," for all were expected to "be brisk, and talk, but not too much," "Sacred Things" must be excluded from conversation, and the patrons could neither "profane Scripture, nor saucily wrong Affairs of State with an irreverent tongue."  In many establishments, games of chance as well as cards were prohibited, and any wager was limited to five shillings, a sum which was to "be spent In such Good Liquor as the House doth vent."

Even during the plague and the great fire that followed it, Londoners continued to visit their favourite coffee-houses.  Neither Samuel Pepys nor Daniel Defoe, for example, could be persuaded to forgo his daily visit to the coffee-house during this dreadful time, but like every citizen, each was prudent. Patrons of coffee-houses were no  longer prepared to talk freely with strangers, and would approach even close acquaintances only after inquiring after their health and that of the family at home.  The plague and the fire did much to curtail the prosperity and popularity of the coffee-house, but only for a short time.  Once these dangers were past, the coffee-house again assumed its place as the major social institution of its day.

Almost from their inception, the London coffee-houses each began to develop its own specialised clientèle, and each soon became identified as the meeting place for a particular occupation, interest group, or type of specialised activity.  By and large, the type of clientèle was determined by the area of London in which the coffee-house was located.  Coffee-houses such as Lloyd's or Garraway's, located in the area around the Royal Exchange, were, for example, the gathering places for businessmen of the city, and those such as the St. James and Cocoa-Tree, located in Westminster, were frequented by politicians.  Many of the coffee-houses near St. Paul's Cathedral were the haunts of clergymen and intellectuals who gathered to discuss theology and philosophy.  Some coffee-houses became so identified with specific groups or interests that an early London newspaper, The Tatler, printed its stories under coffee-house headings.  As Sir Richard Steele wrote in the first number of the newspaper in 1709:  "All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St. James' Coffee-house."

The coffee-house established by William Urwin in Russell Street, Covent Garden, achieved a fame far beyond it founder's hopes when it became the haunt of London's literati.   The presiding genius and chief arbiter of literary taste at Will's Coffee-house was the poet, John Dryden.  For thirty years, Dryden shaped the public taste and served as an inspiration to poets and writers of prose by passing judgment on the latest poem or play.  So great was Dryden's reputation, and with it the reputation of Will's, that the most famous of England's men of letters, including Pepys and Pope, frequented the coffee-house.  While its patrons sipped their coffee, they discussed the sonnet form or the literary merits of blank verse.  One group debated whether Paradise Lost should have been written in rhyme.  In addition to serious discussion of literature, the patrons of Will's turned their talents to lampoons and libels, so visitors to the establishment could be assured of entertainment of one sort or another, entertainment which owed much to the influence of Dryden.

Yet Will's was not without its critics.  Jonathan Swift spoke disparagingly of the company at Will's:

The worst conversation I ever remember to have heard in my life was that at Will's Coffeehouse, where the wits (as they were called) used formerly to assemble; that is to say, five or six men who had writ plays, or at least prologues, or had share in a miscellany, came thither, and entertained one another with their trifling composures in so important an air, as if they had been the noblest efforts of human nature, or that the fate of kingdoms depended on them.

And after the death of Dryden, the reputation of Will's began to decline.  In The Tatler of April 8th, 1709, Steele reported the changes which had altered the character of Will's:

This Place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have now only a Pack of Cards; and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game.

By 1712, the haunt of the wits was no longer Will's but Button's.

The popularity of Button's Coffee-house, also in Russell Street, Covent Garden, was due primarily to the influence of the writer Joseph Addison.  In fact, it was Addison who, in about 1713, established Daniel Button as the proprietor of the coffee-house.   Determined to effect a change in the loyalties of the wits, Addison, with the help of his colleague Steele, conducted in the pages of The Guardian a campaign which was designed to promote the merits of Button's.  This campaign ended successfully when Addison announced that he intended to erect at Button's  a letter-box for the receipt of contributions to his paper.  This letter-box, a lion's head in imitation of those he had seen in Venice, was, he explained, to be the repository of secret correspondence:

This head is to open a most wide and voracious mouth, which shall take in such letters and papers as are conveyed to me by my correspondents...Whatever the lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public...It shall be set up in Button's coffee-house in Covent-garden, who is directed to shew the way to the lion's head, and to instruct young authors how to convey his works into the mouth of it with safety and secrecy.

Addison's lion's-head letter-box did much to focus attention on Button's, and within months that coffee-house became the new centre of literary life.

Addison and his coterie at Button's — Steele, Dr. Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope, Jonathon Swift — did much to raise the standard of public taste and opinion because their standards of good taste were reported in the pages of The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian.  These newspapers were read widely by coffee-house patrons, and they provided the topics for discussion and debate.  Determined "to open Everyman's eyes to literature; better still, to open his mind, form his judgment, teach him to think, and provide him with general ideas on life and art," and convinced that the reading public wanted more than political news, Addison and Steele used the pages of their newspapers to teach simple and practical lessons about life and literature, and thus to cultivate a taste for intellectual reading and cultured manners.   As Dr Johnson noted in his Life of Addison, The Tatler and The Guardian "had a perceptible influence on the conversation of the time, and taught the frolic and the gay to unite merriment with decency, effects which they could never wholly lose."  The founders of Button's were always convinced that they could effect a degree of social change through the capital's most social institution.

While the legacy of Addison and Steele survived their deaths, the coffee-house that they established did not prosper, and by 1754 the wits were frequenting the Bedford Coffee-house, located under the Piazza in Covent Garden.  The Bedford was the haunt of John and Henry Fielding, the satirical artist William Hogarth, Charles Churchill, the playwright Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, and Samuel Foote, and like its predecessors, it was "the emporium of wit, the seat of criticism, and the standard of taste."  In fact, the first number of The Connoisseur reported that the Bedford "is every night crowded with men of parts.  Almost everyone you meet is a polite scholar and a wit.  Jokes and bon mots are echoed from box to box; every branch of literature is critically examined, and the merit of every production of the press, or performance at the theatres, weighed and determined."

The Bedford, however, was to go the way of Will's and Button's, for its function was gradually usurped by private clubs and other institutions.  Yet for over a hundred years the Bedford and its predecessors, as well as countless minor coffee-houses, were the centres of English literary life.

Yet the literary coffee-houses were not the only seats of learning.  In fact, according to the announcement in The Tatler, "learning" was to be reported "under the title of the Graecian," for it was at this establishment in Devereaux Court, Strand, that the "Learned Club," as the Fellows of the Royal Society were called, continued its regular meetings in a social way.  The president of the Society, Sir Isaac Newton, Professor Halley, the great astronomer, and Sir Hans Sloane, a collector whose curiosities were to form the basis of the collections of the British Museum, as well as other learned men, frequented the Graecian Coffee-house where, as was reported in The Tatler, they "generally spent the inquiries into antiquity, and thought anything news which knowledge."   To this end, the patrons of Graecian's were, on this particular evening, "making a very pleasant entertainment" by trying to arrange the events of the Iliad into chronological order.  Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Graecian's maintained its distinction among the London coffee-houses.

It was in Westminster, near St. James' Palace, that London's political life emanated, and the coffee-houses in this area served as centres of this activity.  Politics were a standard topic of conversation in these meeting places and often the rumours and gossip which were bandied about by the patrons of the coffee-houses near St. James were surprising in their accuracy  So important was the coffee-house to London's political life that Jonathan Swift, during one of his visits to London, remarked in a letter to a friend in Ireland, "I am not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House."

As might be expected, Whigs and Tories patronised different coffee-houses, the Whigs choosing the St. James and the Tories the Cocoa-Tree, both of which were located near Pall Mall.  As one contemporary observed in 1724:  "A Whig will no more go to the Cocoa-Tree than a Tory will be at the Coffee-house, St. James."  From the time of Queen Anne until late in the reign of George III, these coffee-houses were the gathering places for statesmen, members of Parliament, and gentlemen of fashion.   Jonathan Swift received mail at the St. James, and Richard Steele collected much of the political news for The Tatler from the conversation there.

Both the St. James and the Cocoa-Tree, like most coffee-houses that were political in nature, eventually became exclusive clubs, but during the height of the coffee-house period, these establishments were open to anyone who chose to pay his penny at the bar.

In his classification of the coffee-houses, Richard Steele, due no doubt to his particular interest in the arts, failed to notice one of the most important and interesting groups of coffee-houses — those catering to the city's businessmen. Almost from the opening of Pasqua Rosee's establishment in 1652, the businessmen of the city found the atmosphere of the coffee-house more private and pleasant that that of the Royal Exchange or the nearby taverns, and quickly chose to conduct their business there.  Each businessman kept regular hours at a particular coffee-house.  By the year of the fire, 1666, the square mile surrounding the Exchange had the highest concentration of coffee-houses in London, and many of England's early financial institutions grew out of these establishments.

It was in 1697, however, that the coffee-house exerted its greatest influence on the business community, for it was in that year that the merchants, bothered by their presence, had the stock-jobbers removed from the Royal Exchange.  With their expulsion from the Exchange, the stock-jobbers moved their dealings to the neighbouring coffee-houses, taking over many of the customary haunts of the shippers, traders, underwriters, and merchants engaged in maritime trade.  Thus, for seventy-six years, until 1773 when it was moved to quarters behind the Royal Exchange, the nation's stock exchange operated from the coffee-houses, most notably Jonathan's and Garraway's.

In its early years, Jonathan's Coffee House was known more for its revolutionaries than for its businessmen.  Founded in Exchange Alley about 1680 by Jonathan Miles, it was a suspect house in the Popish scare and several of its patrons were implicated in the assassination plot again William III in 1696.  The coffee-house was the centre for the speculations during the great South Seas "bubble" day of 1719-1720, and in 1745, during the panic caused by the Young Pretender's march on London, men won and lost fortunes in speculations on the rebellion's success.  From 1762 until 1773, Jonathan's became a club for London's leading stock-jobbers and served as the city's first stock exchange.  The coffee-house continued to serve as the scene of a lottery office after the departure of the jobbers in 1773 until it was destroyed by fire in 1778.

Their traditional haunts usurped by the stock-jobbers, those who conducted the nation's maritime trade tended more and more to frequent the coffee-house of Edward Lloyd at 16, Lombard Street.  In the 1700s, auctions of ships and cargoes were held at Lloyd's, and it was during this period that the underwriters of ships and cargoes began gathering at the coffee-house.  Although the actual underwriting was done on the floor of the Exchange, it became increasingly common for this sort of business to be conducted at Lloyd's.  By 1727, the actual business of underwriting ships and cargoes was moved to Lloyd's Coffee-house, where it remained until 1771.  In that year a society was formed among the shipping underwriters who frequented Lloyd's.  That society became know as Lloyd's of London.

The coffee-house years were vital and expansive ones for the London businessman.   The expulsion of the stock-jobbers from the Royal Exchange had forced the various segments of London's business community to define their influence, to concentrate their expertise, and to develop their own specialised institutions for conducting their affairs.   The city's coffee-rooms, which served at first as makeshift offices, provided the nucleus around which the institutions were built.  Evidence of the significance of the coffee-house on British business is clear.  Even into the twentieth century, attendants at the Stock Exchange were referred to as "waiters," an anachronism from the coffee-house days, and the world's greatest insurance exchange bears the name of an otherwise insignificant London coffee man.  It was in such coffee-houses as Lloyd's, Garraway's, and Jonathan's that Britain's modern business institutions spent their infancy and that the foundation was laid which would lead them towards ascendancy in world commerce in the nineteenth century.

Not all of London's coffee-houses, however, were dedicated to the conduct of commerce, politics, or learning.  There were many whose speciality was, as Steele's Tatler described it, "Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment," many which served the more hedonistic elements of Augustan London.  These coffee-houses were the direct antecedents of the first clubs in London, housing the gaming rooms where the rakes and idlers passed the hours at cards.  From the reign of Queen Anne until well into the nineteenth century, gambling was almost a national disease among the leisured classes, who often lost housands of pounds at a single sitting and squandered fortunes at games of chance.   In this aspect of life as well as the others, the coffee-house served as a gathering place, and among the most famous was White's Chocolate House.

Founded by an Italian, Francis White in 1693 in St. James Street, White's, like the Cocoa-Tree, was actually called a chocolate house, but it is doubtful if cocoa was ever really served there.  By 1702, having moved once and enlarged after the move,   White's was increasingly identified with gaming for the most fashionable gentlemen of the city.  Jonathan Swift referred to White's as the "bane of half the English nobility," and the frequenters of the establishment were known as "the gamesters of White's."  The sixth print of William Hogarth's Rake's Progress depicts a distraught man just having lost his fortune in the gaming room at White's.   In April 1773, a fire destroyed the coffee-house.  After rebuilding, White's Chocolate House was reopened as White's Club, the first of many London coffee-houses to become a club.

The change may have been effected to protect the houses clientèle, for it was increasingly the object of thievery and assault.  The rakes, sharpers, highwaymen, and quacks also frequented the city's coffee-houses, and not all of the coffee-houses were of high repute.  King's Coffee-house in Covent Garden, kept by Thomas King, who had left Eton as a young man when he feared he would not receive his fellowship, was, as one contemporary noted, "well known to all gentlemen to whom beds were unknown."   Other lower-class coffee-houses were merely fronts for prostitution:  "I cannot but complain to you that there are, in six or seven Places of this City, Coffee-houses kept by Persons of that Sisterhood," wrote one citizen to The Spectator in 1711.  "These Idols sit and receive all day long the Adoration of the Youth within such and such districts."  Yet even in the city's most respectable coffee-houses, the lawless were present.  As the coffee-house provided a place to exchange information about business and politics, it was also used by the highwaymen and robbers to gather information for the conduct of their trade.  It was here that the outlaws discussed who was a worthy object for their efforts, who won at cards at White's, or who had done well at business.  Even for the lawless, the coffee-house was the centre of life.

For this reason as well as others, the transformation of White's from a coffee-house to a private club marked the beginning of other such transformations, a fact which accounts for the decline of the coffee-house at the end of the eighteenth century.  In an effort to maintain an ever more exclusive clientèle, such famous coffee-houses as the St. James and the Cocoa-Tree, following the lead of White's, began allowing admission only through membership.  The conversion of the most important and fashionable of the coffee-houses into private clubs was accompanied by an assault upon the establishments' chief beverage — coffee.  The British East India Company had begun to import another exotic brew — tea, and as it increased in popularity among the people, so did the coffee-house decline.  Both these factors contributed to the gradual disappearance of the coffee-house.  At the end of the nineteenth century, there remained an estimated 1,400 coffee-houses in the London area, but the essence of coffee-house life was lost, never again to be revived.

Yet during its heyday, the years of 1652 to 1780, the coffee-house was an institution important to every element of London society.  As Isaac D'Israeli noted, "The history of Coffee-houses, ere the inventions of clubs, was that of the manners, the morals, and the politics of a people."

J. Pelzer and L. Pelzer, "Coffee Houses of Augustan London," History Today, October 1982, pp. 40-47.

For Further Reading

The Clubs of Augustan London - Robert J. Allen
Coffee Houses of Europe - Jurgen Boettcher.
The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Great Britain and Ireland - Dorothy Eagle and H. Carnell
The Penny Universities :  A History of the Coffee-Houses - Aytoun Ellis
The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland - Christopher Haigh
London Coffeehouses : A Reference Book of Coffee Houses of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries - Bryant Lyllwhite
Covent Garden Market : Its History and Restoration - Robert Throne
The London Encyclopedia - B. Weinreb and C. Hibbert

Links to other articles on Coffee Houses

The Coffeehouses of London

Modern History Sourcebook: The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670-1675

Penny Universities: History's Colourful Coffee Houses

Coffee in Seventeenth Century England


The East India Company and Coffee

History of Coffee

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