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The London Coffee House: A Social Institution

© 1997 by Deborah Hale

"Remember, John,
If any ask, to th' Coffee House I'm gone.
Then at Lloyd's Coffee House he never fails
To read the letters and attend the sales."

So went popular doggeral during the two centuries (1650-1850) when the coffeehouse served Englishmen as a composite office, club and post box. As a social institution of the 18th century the coffeehouse cannot be overestimated.

The hot stimulating beverage which provided this focus for sober socialization originated in the Near East. Spreading rapidly through the Moslem world, it was gradually introduced into Europe during the sixteenth century. By 1637, the diarist John Evelyn knew a Greek scholar at Balliol who brewed his own coffee. In that cosmopolitan university town of Oxford the first English coffeehouse opened its doors in 1650.

Two years later, a Greek proprietor established the first London coffeehouse in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill. Immediately and time-wastingly popular, by 1675 when Charles II closed all the coffeehouses in his realm calling them "seminaries of sedition", their number totaled three thousand! So overwhelming was public pressure that the king rescinded his order in a matter of days. During Queen Anne's reign, London alone boasted nearly five hundred coffeehouses, each with its unique character and clientele. An amusing sketch in the Spectator records the different reactions to news of the death of King Louis XIV, at eight coffeehouses between St. James and Garraways.

Unlike the café‚ of Continental Europe, the English coffeehouse served business as well as social purposes. In Ned Ward's Wealthy Shopkeeper, 1706, his daily routine went as follows: "Rise at 5; counting house till 8; then breakfast on toast and Cheshire cheese; in his shop for 2 hours; then a neighbouring coffeehouse for news; shop again till dinner...1 o'clock on change; 3 Lloyd's Coffeehouse for business; shop again for an hour; then another coffeehouse (not Lloyd's) for recreation." Businessmen often kept regular hours at a particular house, where clients would know to find them.

Gradually, certain establishments began to attract men with specific common business interests. The Jamaican Coffeehouse drew West Indian traders, while India and China merchants frequented Jerusalem and exchange brokers gathered at Jonathan's. Garraways in Exchange Alley catered to the tea trade. In 1744, London's Baltic Mercantile and Shipping Exchange had its beginnings in the Virginia and Baltic Coffeehouse, an outgrowth of the Virginia and Maryland. On the vast marble floor of the exchange, shippers and agents matched vessels and cargoes in secretive deals called "fixtures".

Perhaps most famous of the commercial coffeehouses was one opened by Edward Lloyd on Lombard Street. There, shippers sought wealthy merchants to underwrite or "insure" their vessels in the hazardous business of sea trade. By the end of Queen Anne's reign, Lloyd's had set up a pulpit for auctions and reading out shipping news. From such humble beginnings rose the mighty "Lloyd's of London".

For the struggling author, playwright or artist a regular coffeehouse was essential to the "business" of art. Most slaved away in cold dingy garrets, but for the price of a clean shirt and a few pennies admission they could meet clients and patrons, collect their mail, make contacts and appointments and secure commissions, in respectable surroundings. The Oxford Literary Guide to The British Isles lists no less that fifteen London coffeehouses frequented by writers in "The Age of Reason", including Buttons, Dick's, St. George's, the Somerset, the Grecian and Don Salterno's, as the proprietor James Salter was nicknamed by Sir Richard Steele.

Poets, patrons and critics met at Will's Coffeehouse in Covent Garden, founded by Will Urwin in 1660. Samuel Pepys looked into Will's in 1668, "there I perceive is very witty and pleasant discourse." John Dryden had his own seat at Wills, by the fireplace in winter and by the window in summer. Patronage by the likes of Congreve, Pope and Wycherly earned Will's the title "The Wit's Coffeehouse". Artists like Hogarth, Hudson and Gainsborough gathered at Old Slaughter's.

Writers, booksellers and printers congregated at the Chapterhouse. Dr. Campbell, "strolled into the Chapter Coffeehouse, Ave Mary Lane, which was remarkable for a large collection of books and a reading society, and I subscribed a shilling for the right of a year's reading and found all the new publications I sought." The young Chatterton wrote to his mother, "I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffee House and know all the geniuses there." He was not exaggerating. When Charlotte and Anne Bronte came to London to consult their publisher, they stayed at the Chapterhouse.

As a source of respectable recreation, coffeehouses provided a venue for men of similar views to congregate, smoke, read the papers, gossip and discuss the news, over a cup of coffee or chocolate. Unlike their Continental counterparts, Archenholtz reported that English coffeehouses had no billiards or gaming tables. There was little noise, he wrote, for everyone spoke low and read the papers. The Windsor, at Charing Cross, advertised "the best chocolate at 12 pence the quart and the translation of the Harlem Courant, soon after the post is come in." Other houses provided upwards of a dozen copies of the most popular weeklies, of which there were 55 in 1709, from the Anti-Walpole Craftsman to the fiercely pro-government Gazeteer.

Contemporary prints and watercolors show the interior of the typical coffeehouse. Two or three narrow trestle tables ran the length of a large room, with bench seating and lit by candles. Several pots of coffee warmed on the hob of a large hearth, while the hostess dispensed refreshments from the front booth. Patrons passed around copies of the news sheets and periodicals, smoking long "churchwarden" pipes. In the days before home mail delivery, letters were left for hourly collection and many customers received mail at their coffeehouse address.

Just as the mercantile coffeehouses catered to specific business interests, recreational coffeehouses became gathering places for social and political factions. The beau monde favored White's Chocolate House. Whigs patronized St. James Coffeehouse, where Jonathan Swift collected his letters. Tory gentlemen of fashion flocked to the Cocoa Tree where, Gibbon wrote, "twenty perhaps of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin in the middle of the coffee room, upon a bit of cold meat or a sandwich and drinking a glass of punch."

There was a home for every vocation and avocation. Truby's served the clergy and Greek scholars. Rawhmell's attracted the scientists, noblemen and philanthropists who, in 1754, founded "The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce". Foreigners congregated at the Orange Coffeehouse in Haymarket, actors, artists and physicians at Tom's on Russell Street, which had upstairs subscription rooms reserved for members. Men of letters and theatre people, like Quin, Garrick and Sheridan, frequented the Bedford, which acquired a somewhat dubious reputation. In 1776, Lord Malton's son shot himself on the premises. Three years later, Rev. Mr. Hackman shot Martha Ray, the singer and Lord Sandwich's mistress, in a fit of jealousy. After trying to shoot himself, and when that failed brain himself with the pistol butt, Hackman was subdued by the other patrons and hanged the next week at Tyburn.

The Great Piazza Coffeehouse in Covent Garden also drew actors, dramatists and audiences. When Drury Lane Theatre burned down in 1788, dramatist/manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan sat calmly drinking at the nearby Great Piazza. Asked by an alarmed patron what he was doing there, Sheridan quipped with characteristic sang-froid, "Can a man not enjoy a glass of wine by his own fireside?"

Through the early nineteenth century coffeehouses went into a permanent decline, displaced by home mail delivery, daily newspapers, and private clubs. Several of the gentleman's chocolate houses, such as White's and the Cocoa Tree, became private clubs. Certain elements of the coffeehouse still live on in the London gentleman's club, though gone is the refreshing egalitarianism of the eighteenth century. At the coffeehouse, it was written, "you will see blue ribbons and stars sitting familiarly with private gentlemen, as if they had left their quality and degrees of distance at home." As a fosterage of thriving commerce and literary endeavor, a bastion of social equality and free speech, one can only regret the demise of that uniquely English institution.


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