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The Early Coffeehouses of London

by Bob Biderman

18th century London coffeehouse

COFFEE WAS FIRST introduced to England in 1610 through the activities of the East India Company (as recently discovered letters now attest) but it took another half century before it gained a public following via the Turkish connection. By 1670 the coffee house movement had burst onto the London scene with such vigour that hardly a City street could be traversed without seeing its sign - a fine glass lantern of a certain shape indicating that somewhere at the end of a dark passageway you could pay a penny at the bar and gain entry to a world of art or intrigue, never dull and often boisterous.

London at the time of the Restoration was a city still trying to find its place in the world. Like some famished traveller greedily consuming everything in reach, its waist-line seemed to burst each week. The streets were full of merchants and hustlers, itinerant brokers crowding the pavement before the new stock exchange was even built. It was a city on the move without knowing where it was moving to. Journalists abounded yet there were hardly any journals. There were more doctors than the universities could provide, more actors than the theatres could handle, more insurance agents than the cargo ships could float.

The feudal world, which had been turned upside down by even so tame a revolution as the English, had set its flotsam on the city’s shores. Displaced country folk flooded into the gin mills which let them dream once more of verdant lands until they puked up what little remained in their emaciated systems.

But demon gin had its antithesis in another drink which didn’t suppress the bleakness of life. This new drink, coffee, stimulated thought and thus accorded well with the contrasting spirit of the times. If you live in chaos and don’t know where you’re going, there are two choices. The first, and by far the easiest, is avoidance - drug yourself up and hope to enjoy the ride through hell. The second is taking advantage of the breakdown in entrenched power to formulate ideas for an alternative future. It was to those who made the second choice that the new café system appealed.

Cafés also served the developing urban infrastructure at a time when communication systems were rudimentary, to say the least. Without telephones, telegraphs or even a fully functioning post office, person-to-person contact was the only effective way of getting news or spreading slander.

Not only did the coffee houses disseminate news, they also manufactured it. What went on at Man’s or Will’s might have been grist for the boys at the Antiquarian. Indeed, most of the larger coffee houses produced their own newsletters which were widely circulated within the network.

Compared to the gin mills and the beer houses, these cafés were wonders of sobriety. Each conformed to a set of laws, written or unwritten, which stipulated proper decorum. One anonymous customer writing in the Coffee house Gazette could hardly restrain his rapture: ‘They are the sanctuary of health, the nursery of temperance, the delight of frugality, the academy of civility and the free school of ingenuity.’ Well, not quite. To enter cost him a penny.

Amongst the numerous houses that sprang up during those years (from 1675 through the turn of the century) the following stood out:

Man’s. Established by Dr. Alexander Man, it stood on the river front right behind Charing Cross. Though, like all coffee houses of the day, none but the most obnoxious were refused entry, still it was considered to set ‘the standard of taste’. A contemporary observer described it rather well: ‘At the end of the entry, a few steps led to an old-fashioned room of a cathedral tenement furnished like a knight’s dining room, with clean and polished floors and nut-brown shining tables on which stood rows of steaming dishes of coffee and wax was the resort of place-hunters, bribe-lovers and Puritan-haters and frequented by French agents and mysterious messengers for whose special use some side rooms were reserved.’

The Puritan’s Coffee House. Located in Aldergate street, the conversation here was purely political. The faithful dwelt on the days of Cromwell and dreamed of revolution.

The Widow’s Coffee House. Set in suburban Islington, mainly fields back then, it was overseen by the widow, Nell Gwynne. ‘The struggle up this steep ascent’, wrote a correspondent, ‘was rewarded by the attainment of a good-sized room sufficiently comfortable in itself...if the floor was rather broken, it was well rubbed and if brown paper was substituted for a few window panes, still it commanded a green and cheerful prospect. The pint coffee-pots were always ready by the antique and well-filled grate and the famed Islington cakes were arraigned in astonishing numbers along the shelves.’ Our observer went on to state that the place was frequented by London Apprentices who fostered the spirit of union and Freemasonry.

Jonathan’s, Lloyds and the Jamaica. These City houses went on to become the centres of London finance but then were described as ‘places of commercial gambling, where the Gazette and the Observator lay generally unturned, where the lottery-lists and ticket-catalogue were alone perused, and where the blank of the needy man or the benefit of the wealthy merchant were objects of more wrath and malice than Sunderland’s conversion...’

Garraway’s and Child’s. Located in Change Alley and St. Paul’s Churchyard, respectively, these were frequented mainly by those in the medical profession. The walls were hung round and the tables covered, in inverse proportion to the respectability of the house, with announcements of popular pills, drops, lozenges, and dentifrices. Private rooms were assigned for interviews or consultations.

Wills. Standing at No. 1, Great Russell Street this was the best known coffee house of its day. Under Dryden’s patronage it became noted for its ‘wits’ and ‘critics’. A contemporary satirist stated that second-rate writers who came there felt puffed if ‘they had the honour to dip a finger or a thumb in Mr. Dryden’s snuff box.’

The Grecian. Close by Wills, on Devereux Street, the Grecian was home to philosophers and scholars such as Newton, Halley and Sloane, who went there to discuss the latest meeting of the Royal Society.

These were just a few among the thousand or so coffee houses that flowered during the reigns of Charles II, Queen Anne and George I.

Why, then, had the English coffee house movement fallen into disrepute by the 19th century while the continental cafés continued to prosper? The reasons are several. Primarily, it had to do with the social stratification of the English society. The renewed emphasis on the class structure after the failure of England’s experiment with meritocracy meant that the coffee houses soon became exclusive clubs supplanting the café which had been open to all. The working classes, who preferred their beer and gin anyway, kept to the pub. A prolific press coupled with an efficient post and transport system meant that the coffee houses no longer were necessary centres of communication. Journalists hid away in bureaus; doctors stayed in their surgeries; scientists were taken into universities and insurance companies constructed purpose-built houses of finance.

But that, in itself, fails to explain why England abandoned coffee. The reason, of course, had to do with tea. And that had to do with the East India Company.

In the battle over the coffee trade, the East India Company decided to make a tactical retreat, turning instead to that insipid leaf which had been transplanted from China into Assam and was doing quite a brisk trade. It was the demands of the East India Company to exchange its preferred stimulants which pushed the domestic market away from coffee and into tea. No prizes for guessing which commodity skyrocketed in price!

The coffee house, however, didn’t die out. But it did, in many ways, become less ‘English’. In the 19th century, small shops run mainly by Arabs, Turks, Greeks and Sicilians became the haunts of foreigners as well as the stray ‘Bohemian’. A few others that hung on as ‘workers’ cafés’ were described by a contemporary: ‘They are dull and humble; they have sallow holland blinds, drawn deep down behind sallow window-sashes ... they have divisions in their interiors that rise high-by and dry, that build everybody off from everybody, that are consequently very exclusive and deterring and dumb and wooden.’

A rather artificial attempt at the recreation of a lively coffee house scene was made by the temperance movement in the 1880’s. Modelled after the spacious, light, mahogany-trimmed taverns being promoted by the beer industry, the late Victorian coffee house was a conscious attempt by naive social workers to lure the working men from their pubs and the perils of demon drink. ‘Coffee taverns,’ one pamphlet stated, ‘must show there are beverages as comforting as beer, that there are beverages to be bought as cheap as beer. And they must provide advantages not provided by such a formidable enemy and by this manoeuvre make victory certain.’ Accordingly, working-men were encouraged to bring their own food to be cooked free of charge in the tavern’s kitchen. Newspapers and games were laid out - also gratis - and customers were encouraged to remain as long as they wanted. Needless to say, none of these coffee taverns survived long on their own. And the number of converts to the questionable delights of temperance was negligible. (The Salvation Army at least was able to win a few souls for God.)

The focal point of the coffee house in Edwardian London - and for the rest of the century - was Soho. Already gaining an Italian flavour, the seedy charms of this area became a draw to the artsy set. Arthur Ransome, writing in 1907, described a typical Soho coffee house known as The Moorish Café: ‘Near to the Oxford Street end of Soho on the left hand side as you walk toward the square is a small green painted shop with a window full of coffee cups and pots and strainers of a dozen different designs. Looking through the window that is dimmed likely enough with steam you may see a girl busied with a big coffee-grinding machine and watch the hesitant blue flames of the stove on which the coffee is stewed. Opening the door, you step into a babble of voices, and find yourself in a tiny Moorish café. The room is twisted and narrow so that you must have a care, as you walk, for other people’s coffee cups upon small round tables. At every table men will be sitting, blowing through their half-closed lips long jets of scented smoke that disturb continually the smoke-filled atmosphere. Some will be playing at cards, some at backgammon, some talking eagerly among themselves. Dark hair, dark eyes, sallow-skinned faces everywhere, here and there a low-caste Englishman, and sometimes, if you are lucky, a Bohemian in emerald corduroy, lolling broadly on his chair and puffing at a porcelain pipe. Sit down near him and it is ten to one that you will be engaged in a wordy battle of acting, of poetry or of pictures, before the sediment has had time to settle in your coffee.’

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that a popular English coffee house scene re-emerged. Launched by the post-war recovery and inspired by Labour’s promise of new opportunities for all as well as the desire for mass cultural paraphernalia imported from the States, these new coffee houses became the home for those young people who were dying to break with the tedious restrictions imposed by their parents’ class-ridden mores. Bursting with life and energy, often run by ex-patriot Italians who had come to Britain either as prisoners of war or, later, simply to get a job, they seemed to follow a common design - a coffee bar, behind which steamed a feeble prototype of an ersatz espresso machine, little round tables upon which you balanced tiny clear-glass cups, a juke box with the latest rock and roll, a central area for illegal dancing, and a space for a singer or a small band to be crammed in at night.

These fifties-style coffee cafés, immortalised in Denis Potter’s sexually obsessed tele-musical, Lipstick on Your Collar, can still be seen set in aspic at an exhibit the Manchester Art Museum put on to celebrate the centenary of the Musicians Union. It wasn’t so long ago, yet they now seem as exotic as a Victorian parlour. In the sixties, the cafés that remained seemed to attract a fair share of CND activists and unrepentant poetry junkies. They reeked of cheap cigarettes and though the coffee was often lousy, they kept the flame alive. If you wanted a good cup of coffee, chances were you still had to make your way to Soho.

So from where does the new, emergent café culture come? Certainly not from the English tradition. Whatever one’s feelings about Britain’s entry into the Common Market, the recent explosion of cafés here owes nearly everything to life on the Continent. Not only have European residents in London come to demand this, but it finally seems to have dawned on Londoners that the pleasures of urban life have much to do with decent cafés where one can sit and ponder without having to gain membership of some tediously pretentious club (where they’d serve putrid coffee anyway).


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cafeman in a coffee cup