The first coffee house in London was established in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill in 1652 by Pasqua Roseé, a man believed to have been born into the Greek community living in Sicily during the early years of the seventeenth century. He had first prepared this exotic beverage while working as a servant in Smyrna. Before long he was selling six hundred bowls of coffee a day; inevitably, his success attracted a good deal of competition. By the middle of the eighteenth century coffee houses had become an integral part of London life.
In 1728, a visiting Prussian nobleman, Baron Charles Louis von Pöllnitz, struck by their popularity, described the daily practice of visiting a favourite coffee house as ‘a Sort of Rule with the English,’ and observed that patrons ‘talk of Business and News, read the Papers, and often look at one another’.
The rapid growth in the popularity of coffee in London was due in part to the decision to tout it as an antidote to cheap and potent gin, the widespread availability of which had allowed drunkenness to grip the city.
An anonymous poem of the time hailed coffee as:
…that Grave and Wholesome Liquor,
that heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker,
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad,
and cheers the Spirits, without making Mad.
Each coffee house reflected the character of its immediate neighbourhood, and offered exotic delights that included: Turkish coffee, sugar and cocoa from the West Indies, tobacco from Virginia, tea from China, and various chocolates and sherbets. One key attraction was the access such establishments facilitated to newspapers, scandal and the very latest in political gossip.
Many coffee houses doubled as places of business, doctor’s consulting rooms and gambling houses in many instances, and several patrons spent so much time in their favourite coffee house that they had their post redirected there. One such customer was Richard Steele, editor of The Tatler, who received his post at the Grecian off Fleet Street where he sourced much of the news that appeared in the pages of The Tatler too.
Several prominent coffee houses spawned new trades and occupations: Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley operated as an embryonic stock exchange, displaying the prices of stocks and commodities on a board on the premises, while merchants, cartographers, ship-captains and stockbrokers developed the concept of insurance during long sessions at Edward Lloyd’s Coffeehouse on Lombard Street.
The Grecian Coffeehouse was popular with members of the Royal Society and, as a result, became a centre of learning. On one memorable occasion, a gathering of scientists that included Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley dissected a dolphin on a handy table, having cleared the used coffee cups off it first one hopes.
Enjoy your coffee!