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  • Amy

London's Coffee Culture

What does a bank have in common with a publishing house have in common with a doctor’s surgery have in common with an auction room?

Everything, it turns out.

They all evolved from the same common ancestor; the coffee house.

Today you’d be rather surprised if you were sitting in your favourite coffee shop, peacefully munching on a pastry, only for comrade or stranger to waltz in and begin to barter with you for the 6 sheep you have back at home. Or to slam down a printing tile, demanding your opinion as to its accuracy of depiction of a newt tongue or lizard scale.

But 300 years ago, what you now think of as your peaceful sanctuary in the city would have been just the place for this.

Cafe culture in London is certainly not new. There was a coffee revolution in the late 1600s and early 1700s. London was home to around 3,000 coffee houses, which served as the ideal platform for caffeine-fuelled scientific and political debate, trading, gossip-mongering, and setting stock and commodity prices.

Previously, men had gathered in taverns to do business and exchange ideas, but the flowing ale and rowdy drunks meant that these were often unpleasant, unproductive forums for the exchange of ideas, favours, and goods. Coffee, in contrast, was said to “prevent drowsiness and make one fit for business” says a 1652 advert – ‘The Vertue of the COFFEE drink’.

It was not long since the first English coffee house opened in 1650 in Oxford, and the first one in London opened in 1652, that intellectuals, professionals and merchants thronged to the coffee houses to debate, distribute pamphlets, do deals, smoke pipes and, of course, consume a drink said to resemble “syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”. Coffee Houses sprung up in high concentration, amongst the lawyers and businessmen of London’s square mile.

As an aside, this animation of the Evolution of London, shows delightfully how the city came into being and sprawled out from the square mile.

Newsletters and rudimentary versions of newspapers and academic journals were distributed in coffee houses, which became known to some as ‘Penny Universities’. Most coffee houses functioned as reading rooms and pin boards announcing agreed sales, tenders, sailings, and auctions to the academics, physicians, and businessmen who frequented them.

It was then only natural that, as well as forums for scientific discussion and debate, coffee houses became banks, insurance brokers, stock exchanges, libraries, publishers, booksellers, basecamps for artists and playwrights, auction houses, and even consulting rooms for physicians. Coffee houses evolved into Gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. Lloyds coffee house evolved into Lloyds bank. The London Stock Exchange started in Jonathan’s Coffee House. Auctions in salesrooms attached to coffee houses were the beginnings of the infamous auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christies.

The coffee craze spanned 100 years. During which, a taste for drinking chocolate crept into the Londoner’s taste buds, and onto the menus of coffee houses across London in the late 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century, coffee culture began to diminish as the nation turned its attention to tea drinking, and by 1750, tea had replaced coffee as Britain’s favourite drink. But that’s another story.

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