With England setting the trend for the modern coffee house in the form of “Penny Universities” and with coffee finally added to the desires of the western palate, a new era was born and coffee was it’s muse.

18th century London coffee house - c/o lookandlearn.com

18th century London coffee house – c/o lookandlearn.com

While records show that coffee had already been enjoyed in France by a few lucky enough to associate with merchants of Arabia, the brew would not befriend the public at large until an Ottoman ambassador named Solomon Aga arrived to Paris.  Representing Sultan Mehmed IV, Salomon and his retinue set up lavish residence in central Paris while awaiting an appointment to hold audience with the French King Louis XIV.  Wasting no time, Solomon converted a grand Parisian town house into a palatial Turkish abode befitted with gilt fountains, the finest carpets and emerald encrusted tiling where guests could indulge in Oriental delicacies such as shisha tobacco and a rich brew called coffee.  It was here that Solomon is credited with introducing the drink – and the manner in which it was traditionally served – to many of the cities elite of the time.  One such visitor named Isaac D’Israeli best describes the occasion in his book Curiosities of Literature, by writing;

“On bended knee, the black slaves of the Ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes, served the choicest Mocha coffee in tiny cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold bullion, to the grand dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces, bending their piquant faces—be-rouged, be-powdered and be-patched—over the new and steaming beverage.”

Despite the attentions lavished upon Solomon and his fine brew, it would not be until he had departed Paris that coffee would become better established thanks to an Armenian member of his retinue named Pascal.  Capitalising on the impact of his previous master, Pascal began by selling hot coffee (a.k.a. petit noir) at a stall in St Germain before opening Europe’s first coffee house in 1683 – an Orient inspired café located on Qui de l’Ecole near Pont Neuf, Paris.   Unfortunately the public, while fond of coffee, preferred libations of a more alcoholic nature and as such Pascal packed up once more and moved to a place he knew coffee was already well established – England.

A French traveller to London in 1668 named Henri Misson gave us the best description of the early English coffee house, writing they were;

“…very numerous in London, [and] are extremely convenient. You have all manner of news there; you have a good Fire [sic], which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the transaction of Business, and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more”

It’s important to mention at this stage that while these were comfortable environments infused with the smell of brewing coffee atop large open fires, the coffee infusion primarily comprised of steeping course ground or smashed coffee beans into near boiling water and serving black.  An expensive sweetener such as honey or sugar (even mustard!) was often available if affordable.  The crèma rich espresso’s of our modern addiction would not be invented until the influence of the Italians at the beginning of the 20th century, as would the widespread addition of milk.  For the esteemed gentry of these new fine establishments, naturally one was expected to adhere to a commonly unspoken law of civility.  And should said civility be remiss, one could often find a guide written on the walls for reference, such as the following from a 17th century London coffee house;


Enter, Sirs, freely, but first, if you please,
  Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
  And may without affront sit down together:
  Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,
  But take the next fit seat that he can find:
  Nor need any, if finer persons come,
  Rise up to assigne to them his room;
  To limit men's expence, we think not fair,
  But let him forfeit twelve-pence that shall swear;
  He that shall any quarrel here begin,
  Shall give each man a dish t' atone the sin;
  And so shall he, whose compliments extend
  So far to drink in coffee to his friend;
  Let noise of loud disputes be quite forborne,
  No maudlin lovers here in corners mourn,
  But all be brisk and talk, but not too much,
  On sacred things, let none presume to touch.
  Nor profane Scripture, nor sawcily wrong
  Affairs of state with an irreverent tongue:
  Let mirth be innocent, and each man see
  That all his jests without reflection be;
  To keep the house more quiet and from blame,
  We banish hence cards, dice, and every game;
  Nor can allow of wagers, that exceed
  Five shillings, which ofttimes much trouble breed;
  Let all that's lost or forfeited be spent
  In such good liquor as the house doth vent.
  And customers endeavour, to their powers,
  For to observe still, seasonable hours.
  Lastly, let each man what he calls for pay,
  And so you're welcome to come every day.

Copy of the Women's Petition Against Coffee, 1650

Copy of the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1650

By the mid 17th century a new kind of popular social media was rekindled thanks to the public attentions of the coffeehouse – the pamphlet.  Similar to the freedom of expression available through the internet today, the pamphlet could be written to either advertise or publicise any product or opinion from anyone with the pennies to spend.  And thanks to the coffeehouse, could now also be assured of an audience – albeit a sober one.  One such campaign was from a London city based women’s group who, in 1674, wished to grow support for the Women’s Petition Against Coffee.  Laying a direct attack on not just the patrons of the coffeehouses but their very manhood, the WPAC proclaimed that “Never did men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any mettle what soever [sic]…”.  Referring to their frequenting of the coffeehouse it continued, “They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty noses; nothing stiffe [sic] but their joints, nor standing but their ears”.  Without losing a beat or wasting time with creative metaphor’s, a short yet honest retort was soon printed simply entitled The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, arguing that indeed coffee “…makes the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, [and] adds a spiritualescence to the sperm”.  While it may be difficult to prove or even define the exact “spiritualescence of sperm”, modern science can lend support this statement with evidence of caffeine helping to increase sperm mobility in males – scratch one for the boys!

The importance the coffeehouse played in popular society was not lost on the authorities either who used the most influential venues as public forums to read notices of general importance.  By the mid 18th century, the coffeehouse society had spread to the new American colonies where, in 1776, the Merchants Coffee House of Philadelphia was selected as the first location to publically announce the United States Declaration of Independence.  When Admiral Nelson defeated the Spanish and French navies at Trafalgar in 1805, the first public address of the victory was publically announced to “…the shipping interest at Lloyds coffee house” in central London.

Lloyds building of London - a.k.a. the Inside-Out Building.

Lloyds building of London – a.k.a. the Inside-Out Building.

By the 19th century, the role of the coffee house in Western society was clearly a significant one yet it would be the affluence of the patrons and not their numbers which would create the lasting impact.  The same London coffee house named Lloyds where Nelson’s victory was first publically addressed would develop from its humble caffeinated beginnings, into the powerful Lloyds insurance underwriter still operating out of London today.  Originally opening in Tower Street in 1689 [later moving to Lombard St], Lloyds Coffee House and its proprietor Edward Lloyd, was very popular with influential merchants, sailors and ship owners of their time.  In catering for his patrons, Edward published weekly shipping news under the name of the Lloyds List, a publication which today is one of the world’s oldest continuously running journals.  With so many influential ship owners and merchants meeting regularly at his house, Edward also established a company of financial backers known as Lloyds of London along with the first official Register of Ships which gave both underwriters and merchants an idea of the condition of the vessels they insured and chartered.  Almost three and a half centuries later, both the Lloyds List, Lloyds Register and Lloyds of London are still in operation supplying information, advice and financial support to merchants and venture capitalists alike – not to mention one of the most iconic buildings in central London, the Lloyds Building in Lime street  [Note: there is no association between these groups and the Lloyds Banking Group].

Further influential coffee houses include, Will’s Coffee House near Scotland Yard Gate where a group of Naval officers first conceived the idea for the Naval uniform, the Jerusalem Coffee House in Cowpers Court, Cornhill which became the unofficial headquarters for the East India Company (later to be renamed the Jerusalem and East India Coffee House) and Jonathans Coffee House in Exchange Alley which is credited with evolving into the first modern stock exchange.  Further credits to the coffee house go the foundation of the Freemasons and even the conceptualisation of the police force (a.k.a. Bow Street Runners), although both are subject to debate.

Tom Kings coffee house, taken from Hogarths Four Seasons - c/o British Museum

The Rake’s Rendezvous; Or The Midnight Revels.  The Various Humours of Tom King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Taken from Hogarths Four Seasons – c/o British Museum (click to enlarge)

It is also well believed that subconsciously coffee had a further more important role to play in society.  In a period where major cities held such incredibly poor standards of hygiene and clean water, many depended on fermented or distilled products for safe hydration [see: 1689 – Gin Epidemic].  As such it’s argued that coffee helped increase the general state of health by offering a safer means of sanitary consumption, as well as sobering up an otherwise oft intoxicated society.

By 1739, the New London Directories would list 695 coffee houses throughout the London boroughs with 551 in the city alone, the largest number of which was centered around the cities first in St Michaels Alley.  By this time and with so many competitors, the coffee house had evolved into something closer resembling today’s modern drinking establishments with a venue to be found for all tastes and with coffee a prerequisite in the name only and no longer necessary in the offering.  One of the most famous examples of these was Tom King’s Coffee House.  While trading out of London’s Covent Garden with under the title of a coffee house, Tom King’s was more openly a den of gambling, drinking and prostitution.  Open from the time the common tavern closes to the time the sun arises,  the coffee house was equally a popular meeting place for the ill repute and respected alike with many renown intellectuals such as William Hogarth, Alexander Pope, John Gay and Henry Fielding in common attendance.  Without any beds on the establishment grounds, Tom and his charismatic wife Mol avoided any legal prosecution in operating as a brothel yet were able to easily trade as a meeting point for ladies of the night and their would be suitors.  The Kings became somewhat of an institution in London during their time and despite a large opposition from religious reformers, even King George II once visited the establishment yet stayed only briefly after being challenged to a fight by an ignorant punter.  Captured at it’s most honest by famous satirical artist William Hogarth in his collection Four Seasons, Hogarth best describes the scene at Tom Kings with the poetic footnote;

“Here drunken Templars [sic], Rakes and men of taste, their constitutions and their substance waste.  Here lustful strumpets with their bosoms bare, mix with a motley throng, drink, smoke and swear.  Destruction lurks in their contagious breath, their eyes are basilisks, their jokes are death”.

Map of Coffee Houses c.1652 - c/o Helen Cann

Artists impression of a map of London coffee houses c.1660 – c/o Helen Cann (click to view)

While most coffee houses were still intellectually driven, others used curiosity or practicality to attract their patrons.  Of these, few are better remembered than the Chelsea Coffee House owned by James Salt (aka Don Salterno).  As well as displaying oddities in jars including a “mermaid fish”, “mice skeletons” and an “instrument for scratching the Chinese ladies back”, the Chelsea Coffee House also offered the age old barber-surgeon skill of pulling teeth and bloody letting – albeit with the odd haircut or two.

By the mid to late 19th century, the coffee house revolution along with the newly styled “Age of Enlightenment” had reached its peak and began a steady decline replaced by – or rather evolved into – the modern hotel bar or gentlemen’s club.  Despite the change in name, these locations were still places of intellectual institution in which patrons can find good company, coffee and fine liquor in mutual surroundings.

From humble beginnings in tribal Ethiopia to its religious use by the Sufis in Yemen, on the back of the Ottoman Empire until its Western foundation, the coffee bean would see an empire rise and fall, cross religious boundaries and help new nations such as the United States, India, Indonesia and South America develop into major trading powers.  But above all, thanks to the role of the humble coffee house the modern world had discovered an age of intellectual advancement emphasised by the evolution of the police force, insurance system, stock exchange and a multitude of corporate societies.

[For further reading see – The history of coffee from crop to cup]