Coffee-houses in 17th century England



Coffee was one of the fancy new comestibles introduced to England in Stuart times. The first coffee-house was opened in Oxford in 1650; two years later they began to appear in London, and then elsewhere in the country; by the 1660s they were pretty well established. Customers generally ad to pay a penny for a cup, and the coffee-house was sometimes called the ‘penny university’, reflecting the intellectual stimulation visitors could expect. The habitués were almost entirely male, and fairly well-off. Inevitably, men of various professions and political persuasions came together at particular haunts.

Robert Hooke loved to frequent coffee-houses with Christopher Wren and Edmund Halley. Steele’s London Gazette mocked the tendency: “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 Grecian; Foreign and Domestic News, you will have from the St James’s Coffee-house…

coffee-house in the time of King Charles II

Coffee-houses served as libraries and debating chambers; they provided periodicals – the Tatler and the Spectator both started in coffee-houses – the latest polemical best-sellers, and customers to pass passionate judgement of them. Jonathan Swift wrote of the ‘Committees of Senators who are silent in the House, and loud in the Coffee-house, where they nightly adjourn to chew the cud of politics, and are encompassed with a ring of disciples who lie in wait to catch up their droppings’.

coffee merchants poster

Member of the Royal Society frequented them, and discussed intellectual developments alongside social scandal and religious upheaval. Pepys spent many an evening in them; in February 1664 he recorded, ‘In Covent Garden tonight I stopped at the great Coffee-house, where I never was before; where Dryden the poet (I knew at Cambridge), and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player, and Mr Hoole of our College [i.e. Gresham]. And had I time then, or could at other times, it will be good coming thither; for there I perceive is very witty and pleasant discourse.’

coffee house in 1668

Some coffee-house customers were content to sit all day over a single cup, but those who wanted quick service could pay for it; according to legend there was a box on display labelled TIP, for To Insure Promptness. The impatient put money in the box, and the waiter came quickly. That is one version of why today we leave a tip.

cofee-house token

In the smoky corners of the coffee-houses, not only were tea and coffee and hot chocolate consumed in huge and sugary quantities, but rumours were spread, opinions aired, deals struck, friendships made and broken. ‘Here they treat of Matters of State, the Interests of Princes, and the Honour of Husbands, &c. In a Word, ‘tis here the English discourse freely of every Thing, and were they may be known in a little Time.’ Women were up in arms, partly no doubt because they were effectively excluded. The Women’s Petition Against Coffee accused the coffee beans of making men sterile and impotent – but it met with the spirited counterblast in the shape of The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition. Charles and his government were worried about all the potentially seditious gossip, which might easily lead to plotting. The king used the women’s petition as an excuse to order all the coffee-shops to be close down. However, this raised such a storm of protest that he was forced to relent, and they stayed open.

womens petition against coffee

The coffee-houses bred one particular enterprise: the insurance market. In these establishments shipping merchants would hear about loads to be bid for, or the misfortune of a fellow trader attacked by a pirate at sea. The cafés and the ships were linked directly by tea and coffee and sugar but also, more indirectly, by financiers. The money men had realised that the huge risks inherent in shipping could be turned to profit, could be calculated and reduced to figures. Fire insurance was born in the 1660s, but did not prosper as the slightly more mature marine insurance market did. One of the biggest names in the business, Edward Lloyd, gave the 200 or so faceless underwriters more of an identity when in 1688 he founded a coffee-house where they could meet shipowners, captains and merchants, who could be encouraged to sell their souls with complementary cups of coffee. So was born Lloyd’s in London. Even today the uniformed attendants at Lloyd’s are called waiters.

coffe house as the office

Some people have even suggested that England’s industrial revolution was seeded in the coffee-house. All manner of men met and mingled here, including scientists, investors and investor-patrons: a fertile ground for new developments and enterprise – unlike, say, the more stuffy stratified society of France, where wealthy aristocrats might not deign to socialise with humble merchants and artisans. As we have seen, this was an age where scientific thoughts and intervention were gather in pace.

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