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The Story of London’s Coffeehouses

Visiting your local high street today, you are welcomed by relatively few coffee chains, albeit a lot of them. In contrast, the urban explosion of London during the 17th and 18th centuries brought with it a host of diverse coffeehouses that featured prominently along London’s busiest streets.

Coffeehouses became thriving hubs of activity; they were the centres for social interaction and commerce. By the 18th century, in fact, London was home to more coffeehouses than any other city apart from Constantinople.

If you wanted to stay informed of the day’s news, fashion, politics, and gossip, coffeehouses became a popular choice of destination.

First brought to English shores by Pasqua Rosee in the mid-17th century (largely through the efforts of giant stock companies like the East India and Levant Companies), coffee was originally an acquired taste. Taken by a shot, the very strong, dark, and sweet liquid wasn’t popular with everyone’s palettes. This soon changed, however.

Coffeehouses rapidly sprang into existence across London and began featuring largely in the observations of learned writers like Pepys and Addison. By the 1800s, contemporaries could count as many as 8,000.

The coffee revolution was duly in motion. Coffeehouses dominated the London landscape, and soon became an appropriate accompaniment to beer. The expansion in coffee drinking habits was so extensive that people began to sober up. Consequently, coffeehouses became conducive for reasoned debate, the expansion of financial markets, and the spread of journalism.

The role of coffeehouses was essential in accelerating the Enlightenment process that saw the birth of rationale.

It wasn’t popular with everybody, however.

Women came to loathe the scandalous excesses of coffee drinking by men. So much so, that in 1674, a petition was called for to ban the satanic vice. Coming to their support, King Charles II even tried to ban it by royal decree. He failed, however, to rise above the sea of opposition who saw coffeehouses as integral to the very fabric of modern culture.

Coffeehouses truly were cradles for social mobility and interaction. Often, we tend to think of such places as being dominated by the urban upper classes. With entrance fees typically reaching a penny, however, their accessibility was more open than we like to imagine.

As several social classes mingled amongst lords, barons, and fishmongers, coffeehouses played host to raging debates, networking, and finalising trade amongst merchants.

They also had educational advantages, and soon had the nickname ‘Penny Universities’. The reserve of elite knowledge rested not in secluded libraries and studies, but in warm coffeehouses.

Once the preserve of the social elite, informed debate became anyone’s game. This rapidly gave birth to several political groups that saw coffeehouses as perfect meeting places.