Imagine walking into your nearest coffee shop, ordering a flat white and beginning a debate with the other customers. This is a rather unnatural concept, particularly in Britain where we tend to keep ourselves to ourselves. However, this was how the Coffee Shop started its humble life here in Britain, not as coffee chains with free wifi and phone charging, or as places with beverages sparkling with crushed ice, sprinkles and a unicorn horn on top, but as Coffee Houses: places to read and debate.
In the seventeenth century, Europeans returned from Arabia with a black drink purportedly giving its consumers strength in body and mind. The drink was rumoured to give the ability to stay awake and debate long into the night with a sound mind and limitless stores of energy. Returning to Europe with this interesting souvenir, came the idea for quite the enterprising business.
It was in this way that Pasqua Roseé’s coffee business started. Whilst working in Turkey as a British Levant merchant he became intrigued and enamoured by the taste of coffee, deciding to have it imported into London upon his return. Opening his coffee shop on Cornhill in 1652, his was the first coffee shop to open in London. Roseé began selling over 600 servings of coffee a day, and the beverage quickly became known as the drink for intellectuals and a hangover preventative, whilst the coffee house was the location for discussion, thought and reading. The Coffee House, unlike other places of entertainment, was not the place to see and be seen, but instead played host to an immeasurable number of talents across the centuries. Amongst them were Shakespeare and Raleigh in the 1600’s, figures at the height of popularity. They would gather to discuss their writing, politics, or simply profit from coffee’s many supposed health advantages.
The mid to late seventeenth century saw coffee as being amongst one of the many products with innumerable health benefits, including aiding headaches and coughs, supposedly curing dropsy, gout and scurvy, and even preventing miscarriage. However, The Vertue of the Coffee Drink, an advertisement circulated by Pasqua Roseé, closes its proclamation with the phrase ‘[coffee] is neither a laxative or restringent.’ Whilst our knowledge on coffee has certainly improved over the years, the 1600’s saw this new and exciting concoction gaining popularity through its taste and health benefits, leading to the subsequent rise of the coffee house.
Like any good story, the coffee business took off with plenty of supporters, but it also had its fair share of adversaries trying to bring about its demise. By the late seventeenth century the Coffee House had gained considerable popularity and success. With King Charles I having been decapitated by uprising civilians, his son, King Charles II became increasingly concerned about the popularity of the Coffee House. This new entity was a place where the public would be able to gather and discuss politics, it provided them with a location to gripe about all that was going on and going wrong in the country. It gave the public the opportunity to create a collective voice, putting immense fear into King Charles II: was he to end in his days in the same way his father did? King Charles II’s anxieties got the better of him, and in 1675 he put out a declaration that there was to be a ban on the Coffee House.
King Charles II, however, could not voice these fears to the public, and so it was claimed that the prohibition of the Coffee House was due to the disturbing of the peace in the realm by way of professional idleness, as well as their enabling inappropriate and ruinous rumour-mongering. Coffee Houses had become a distraction for many: political parties would often be found deep in discussions there; whigs in one and tories in another, whilst the successful magazine of the time The Tatler, listed its business address at a Coffee House. Oxford’s Coffee Houses became known as ‘penny university’s’ as, for a penny – what it cost for entry and a cup of coffee – you could have a cursory education, and be informed on current matters. However, with rising pressure from the coffee-loving ministers, the King’s decree was withdrawn, and this coffee crisis was averted. This paved the way for the nation’s love of coffee to steadily grow and Coffee Houses continued to open, rivalling pubs and providing the perfect place for intellectual stimulation.
By the eighteenth century illustrious figures such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, and playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were gathering in Coffee Houses to discuss their writing and opinions on public matters. The element that was missing in these conversations was that of the female persuasion, Coffee Houses being a solely masculine-orientated domain. Whilst men congregated to discuss their works and current events, women could only imagine the academic encouragement and camaraderie this provided them with. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey, encountered a female version of this institution in the Turkish baths. Whilst abroad Lady Mary maintained correspondence with many friends, some of whom were celebrated figures such as Alexander Pope. She informed these friends of the oriental culture in the Ottoman Empire, and the differences between home and away.
In a letter dated 1st April 1717, Lady Mary narrates her experience visiting a Turkish bath. She tells of grand rooms made of marble with fountains of running water, cushions are carpeted spaces adorned with beautiful women, bathing and gossiping in the nude. Lady Mary goes on to say that these women were ‘in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbert, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves […] were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty manners. In short, ’tis the women’s coffee house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented etc. They generally take this diversion once a week, and stay there at least four or five hours’.
Lady Mary’s observation on the Coffee House demonstrates the exotic and exciting atmosphere surrounding this relatively new location. She also proves the concerns King Charles II had some years ago: a considerable portion of idle time was spent there, and more importantly, it was where scandalous rumours originated. The theme of the Coffee House was a prominent feature in this period, that is, until the end of the eighteenth century, when – like any fad – its popularity waned.
There are many possible reasons as to why the Coffee House’s success diminished: there was a rebellious nature against Coffee House rules, making them less enjoyable to visit, whilst the Coffee House proprietors began increasing the cost of their menus. And then came tea, rivalling coffee with its ease in preparation (simply adding hot water, rather than roasting and grinding, which needs to be done for coffee). The British learned to adore the taste of tea, whilst Tea Houses were popularised by high societal culture, and the fact that they were places where both sexes could congregate and socialise. Pubs also benefited from this slump, with their status as the place to socialise being restored.
So Britain chugged on merrily, enjoying its tea and alcohol as Brits do, until the end of the twentieth century when coffee culture seemed to boom again. This might be owing to seeing it plastered on screens –From late-night coffee take-outs on Ally McBeal to big coffee cups and cosy Central Perk interiors on Friends, TV certainly had a part to play. However, it was coffee chains from North America opening in the UK that re-cemented the British love of strongly caffeinated beverages. By the 2010’s an odd phenomenon had occurred: coffee sales had gone down, whilst popularity of sales in these coffee chains increased. This is owing to the fact that coffee chains – much like the Coffee Houses of bygone times – are brilliant places to socialise. They allow you to sit for hours, meet different people, and provide you with a plethora of locations to visit (you’re sure to find them everywhere from John O’Groats to Land’s End!). Since then, coffee has become an art form. There are artisanal coffee shops, courses on latte art, and YouTube is saturated with impressive videos of foam unicorns and yoda’s sitting on top of perfectly caramel-coloured beverages.
Coffee has managed to maintain an important role in British society: keeping us awake and alert, quenching our thirst, and keeping us warm on those cold and blustery winter days. More importanly, it is the Coffee House or shop that keeps us connected. Whether you’re meeting up with old friends, going for a course on how to create the ideal latte, or just popping in to salvage that dying phone with a quick charge so you can call home, it’s the coffee shop that’s kept us going over the years. With thanks to those seventeenth century ministers, Coffee Houses were never banned here and the British nation continues to have a special place in its heart for that beautiful beverage that gets us through the day.
The local Waterloo neighbourhood offers a range of great cafes and coffee shops for a caffeine hit including our below favourites: