Coffee. My life’s blood. I can’t live without the stuff. So it’s no small wonder that I jumped at the opportunity to go on a tour dedicated to London’s seventeenth and eighteenth century coffeehouses. Dr. Matthew Green was once again at the helm of this tour, a fun, two hour, caffeine-fest in central London.
The tour kicked off in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, where London’s love affair with coffee all began. In the spring 1652, in St. Michael’s Alley, the first coffee shop opened serving Turkish-style coffee at the site that is currently The Jamaica Wine House. The owner, Pasqua Rosée, a Greek merchant, opened the coffeehouse under the name of “The Turk’s Head”, as the sign over the spot depicted Rosée as a Turk.
Drinking Dirt: It’s Not a Flat White…
The coffee wasn’t like the silky flat whites of the independent coffee shops of today, manned by tattooed, bearded purveyors in hip urban enclaves. The coffee of 1652 was, vile, vile stuff. How would I know this? Because part of the tour included trying coffee as it was brewed 364 years ago. It was hard to choke down, even for a hardened coffee drinker like me. It was brackish, strong, oily, and had a horrid after taste. So why on earth did this nasty concoction become so popular in London?
Green explained that drinking water at this time was ill advised; it was filthy and contaminated. Most people drank beer because the process of fermentation killed germs. Coffee (made with beans from Yemen and boiled to high heaven) also killed germs and as a bonus, helped with sobriety. People could still enjoy a drink but without the deleterious affects of alcohol. Says Green, “People thought clearly for the first time. It really was the jet fuel of the Enlightenment”.
Pasqua Rosée had struck gold. He was an astute promoter and businessman, publishling his little treatise, The Virtue of the Coffee Drink, in 1665. People thought he was a Turk and so he just went with it to promote his brew.
But what about tea?! Isn’t that what the British are known for? Green told us that coffee came before tea in popularity because tea was so highly taxed. Coffee was relatively cheap so it was more readily available.
‘I’m Sorry Ma’am, You Can’t Go in There’: CoffeeHouses and Women
At our stop beside Simpson’s Tavern, the spot of a former Georgian coffeehouse, Green indicated that it was not all smooth sailing; there was opposition to coffeehouses. Why would you oppose a coffeehouse, you ask? A place of sharing information, news, spirited discussion, and sober drink? You would if you were a woman. According to Green, women didn’t go into coffeehouses unless they worked in them, or were prostitutes. “Coffeehouses branded themselves as enclaves of rational thought, so not a place for a woman.” Women disliked coffeehouses because men stayed inside them all day, while they were excluded because they were deemed unable to hold intellectual conversations. Women in London fought back, in 1674, a petition against coffee was launched. It called coffee emasculating, and accused men of being like women by spending their time in coffeehouses babbling and carrying on with idle gossip. They used the same arguments men had used against women, to discredit coffeehouses. Tavern owners also disliked them. They were threatened by by coffeehouses because they saw them as another form of sociability, and stealing their custom.
As for the petition, men didn’t take it lying down and retaliated with a searing pamphlet to answer the charges. It railed, ‘Why women should have opinions?!’. Green said that their counter-argument went on to claim coffee made for better erections and better sperm production! They mocked the women’s petition by trying demonstrate that coffee was the Viagara of its day.
‘Your Servant Sir, what news from Tripoli!’: What Was a Seventeenth Century Coffeehouse Like? Coffeehouses were often on the second level of houses. Green described the scene for us: When you walked in, you’d be engulfed in steam, perfume and tobacco smoke. You’d see rows of men sitting around long wooden tables. Tables in coffee houses weren’t the same as our modern day intimate tables for two, you sat at communal tables. The point of the coffeehouse was to go in and participate in communal debates. When you walked in people would turn around, point a pipe at you and shout! ‘Your Servant Sir what news from Tripoli!’ Or a shortened variant, ‘What news have you?!’ It cost 1 pence for infinite refills but the desired currency was really news; from a gazette, or news on the street, or you could even make something up on the spot. Coffeehouses were rife with misinformation; you had no idea what kind of conversation you would have. Famous London diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a apparently coffeehouse house junkie and frequented the Turk’s Head (now The Jamaica House), which is where he apparently heard about the plague in Amsterdam well before it reached London in 1665.
Coffeehouses also were known for some more nefarious types of entertainment, such a betting, gambling, prostitution, and…wait for it…dolphin dissection! Jonathan’s coffeehouse in Change Alley supposedly held dolphin dissections as part of its endeavour to appeal to learned men of science. Definitely not something one would do at their local Starbucks today.
Good to the Last Drop…
The tour is fun, light hearted, and fascinating. If you’re a coffee aficionado, this is definitely a tour you want to take while visiting London. We visited the locations of the most famous coffeehouses: Lloyd’s (for financiers and insurance brokers), Garraways (for businessmen) Jonathan’s (the haunt of stockbrokers), the former Turk’s Head, (The Jamaica Wine House) and enjoyed coffee brewed as it was in the seventeenth century. We were also regaled intermittently by Pasqua Rosée himself as he read from his coffee treatise, told stories and poured us some of his finest (read: vilest!) Turkish blend.
The tour is approximately two hours long, and stays within the Cornhill area where the coffeehouses were located so there isn’t as much walking as there was on the Medieval Wine Tour (also delightful, and highly recommended!). Last, but certainly not least, Dr. Matthew Green is funny, a font of London knowledge, and happy to answer questions. He’s an excellent tour guide, and a wonderful story teller.
Coffeehouses were not the neatly curated shops filled with muzak, people glued to their laptops, and the sugary drinks passing themselves off as “coffee”, that we know today. They were places of information, and misinformation, politics, vice, science and animated discussion. They were communal, social, establishments where people went to learn, gossip, do business, and meet friends. After being on the tour, I longed to see an original coffeehouse, and lamented that we have no vestiges of this today. I’d love to see this brought back in some form, so that I can plonk down next to someone, yell ‘Your Servant Sir what news from Tripoli?! while I sip my brackish brew.