Just over a week ago I got sent the press release for a new walking tour round the City of London. This wasn’t your usual ‘here’s Buckingham Palace, look it’s Trafalgar Square’ tour. This was a tour of London’s 18th century coffee houses. A niche subject you might think, but combining history with my enthusiasm for coffee (I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on either of these two topics) and a vague resolution to be a tourist in my own city, it seemed the ideal way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
It was really cold. Less than freezing and that’s with the advantage of living in an urban heat island. I feel the pain of all of you who live further north and outside of cities – it’s been Baltic. Still a good crowd of us gathered on the steps of St Michael’s Cornhill in the weekend emptiness of the City for the start of a tour which led us all the way to Fleet Street, with wigged actors and musicians along the way.
Coffee was brought to London by a Sicilian Turk called Pasqua Rosee, who sold black bitter coffee, unevenly roasted and full of grit, to a growing number of addicted Londoners from a shack down a narrow alleyway in 1652. Rosee had disappeared entirely by 1657, a victim of ancient immigration laws or racism or competition or fear or something, but he left behind him a compulsion for caffeine that had people travelling from all over the UK to London to try it.
Coffee literally woke us up. From the stupor of gin and ale, coffee enlivened the mind, leading to the conversations and discussions that created a free press, modern politics, and the science of the Enlightenment. Trade and economics were built in coffee houses, slaves were bought and sold outside coffee houses, gossip and news was spread in coffee houses, juries deliberated in coffee houses, the British Empire was birthed in London’s coffee houses.
This isn’t an exaggeration. Lloyds was a coffee house before it was a bank. And now it’s a branch of Sainsbury’s. It’s a shame it’s not a Tesco, since they branched into banking and the whole thing might have demonstrably gone full circle… By 1662, there were 86 coffee houses within the limits of the original Roman walls of London, less than a square mile area.
Coffee houses were the internet of the time. In them deals were struck, news was spread, schemes were hatched, friendships made, insults thrown and duals lost. Coffee was the lubricant that changed the shape of our culture and led us to become intellectuals and pioneers.
Set up in an age of Puritanism, Charles II, our bawdy Restoration king tried to ban them because coffee, chocolate, sherbet and tea led to the spread of false, malicious and scandalous rumours that defamed the government.
Coffee houses were not like today’s coffee shops, where everyone sits staring vacantly out of the window, lost in their own thoughts, or typing furiously alone on a laptop, the reflected blue light adding an intensity to their gaze. Instead, you paid a penny to get in, found a space at a table of strangers, asked what they were talking about, and joined in. No one looked outside of the windows in the 18th century. Everything that was going on in the world, was happening inside.
It was said that Englishmen began their days with coffee instead of prayer. Think about that next time you clutch your early morning latte in the hope that it gives you the necessary strength for the day.