Episode 19: London Coffeehouses

Episode 19: London Coffeehouses

Ever wondered how the coffee tasted before in London’s old coffeehouses? Is it similar to Starbucks, Costa Coffee, or Caffe Nero?

Join Hazel Baker and Ian McDiarmid in this episode as we talk about all things coffee and its main role in the 17th century.


Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.

To accompany this podcast, we also have hundreds of London history related blog posts for you to enjoy at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog. We are now offering private tours, treasure hunts, and live London quizzes to private groups, all COVID-19 secure. And now, on with the show.


Joining me in the studio today is City of London Tour Guide Ian McDiarmid. Hello!

Ian McDiarmid: Hi there.

Hazel Baker: All right. So today we are talking about all things, coffee and I don’t mean Starbucks, Costa Coffee, or Nero. I’m talking about ye old fashioned coffee houses. So the first question Ian that I have for you is what were coffee houses?

Ian McDiarmid: Well, it’s a good question. Partly because unfortunately, I don’t think there are any surviving coffee houses. We were talking earlier about Whites, which was a chocolate house, which was in the West End. So yeah. But apart from that, I don’t think there are any. Lloyd’s has got a shopfront from Lloyd’s coffeehouse, which was recently displayed in the maritime museum in Greenwich.

But I think the fact that there aren’t any reflects the fact that they were rather ephemeral businesses and they just haven’t survived. Though obviously it’s true with a lot of historical buildings from the city haven’t survived. They were places where as the name suggests you’d go and drink coffee. And the very important thing for the proprietors of the coffee houses were to distinguish themselves from public houses and taverns. And public houses and taverns had a reputation for being a little bit rowdy where the meaner sort of people would go. And the coffee houses wanted to distinguish themselves from that. And obviously the trade is centred around coffee, which is, unlike alcohol, is not intoxicating. So they would in fact sell a range of drinks in coffee houses.

And often the clientele of the coffee house was dominated or characterized by the 17th century figure of the Virtuozzo, who was a gentlemen who claimed to have learning in a wide range of interests. And coffee houses often felt well shorter this ideal, but nevertheless, there’s a kind of gentlemanly impulse behind them, which helped set them off from their competitors.


Hazel Baker: Yes. And I think you’ve said it exactly. When you say that’s where people will go, you’re actually talking about this is where men would frequent.

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. We don’t have any records of rules saying that women weren’t allowed in them, but I think it’s fairly well understood that women wouldn’t be seen in coffee houses.

It wouldn’t be seen appropriate for a gentle woman to be seen in such an establishment. And the role of women is important though, because a lot of the coffee houses had female proprietors. So it’s one avenue for female business women. And I was talking about how coffee houses fell short sometimes of their gentlemanly ideal. One constant refrain of criticism against the coffee houses is that in fact, they were kind of basically claiming to be upmarket, but frequently services, but frequently functioning as brothels. And it almost certainly is the case that a small minority of them did that.


Hazel Baker: So when did this rage for coffee houses begin and which was the first one?

Ian McDiarmid: Well, the sources are a little bit vague. Some people claim that the first coffee house in England was in Oxford in 1650. And the other claimant to it, which certainly was the first one in London was one that we visited on our financial walk, which was in St. Michael’s alley and was founded by Pasqua Rosé, probably in or around 1652. And Rosé is a very interesting character. He was the Greek speaking servant of an English merchant by the name of Daniel Edwards and servant we need to understand as personal assistant. Yeah. Edward was a member of the 11th company trading with the middle East and he’d been resident in Smyrna, currently Izmir in Turkey.

And Pasqua Rosée was his servant or assistant. And he was primarily employed because of his facility within Turkish and Greek. But one of the things that Rosée was probably useful for was his knowledge of the ways of the workings of the Ottoman empire. And one thing that he was very good at, which fits in with the role of servant was making coffee. And Edwards when he comes back to London with his father in law or another merchant by the name of Hodges decided it’s a good idea to try and sell coffee and they set Pasqua Rosée up in business against the wall of the Michael’s in Cornhill and the business blooms.

If we fast forward to the end of the century, we don’t have any fast figures on the number of coffee houses in London, but we’re probably talking about several hundred and this distinguishes London from other cities. They have them. Paris has them. Amsterdam has them. But they’re much fewer in number. And in some of these countries, like in France and Northern Italy, the coffee houses don’t have the same boisterous, robust atmosphere as they do in England. They tend to be a bit more upmarket and so different in character.


Hazel Baker: So I can understand that we’ve got a unique character for coffee houses here in the UK, but why are you talking about coffee houses on a financial tour of the City of London?

Ian McDiarmid: One of the key periods in London’s history is the end of the 17th and the beginning of early 18th centuries. And this is when something that historians refer to, as the financial revolution occurred. And it’s useful to use this as a short term, even if we can debate the meanings, whether the word revolution is applicable. And what we’re seeing in this period is the emergence of modern financial markets. And so in London at this time, You’ve got the development of the bond market, which particularly depends on the creation of the bank of England in 1694, and then the issuance of British government debt art.

A little bit earlier than that, you’ve got the emergence of insurance and share dealing. And these two markets will be particularly closely associated with two particular coffee houses that have Edward Lloyd and Lloyd is active by the end of the eighties in 1691, he moves up to Lombard street from tower street and Marine insurance and ship auctions become an increasingly important part of the activity is coffee house.

And the other one is established by 1680, which is Jonathan’s, which again is. In and around this area, it’s an Exchange Alley and Jonathan’s becomes the main centre for the dealing of shares. And this begins in the 1680s and gets really going in the beginning of the early 18th century, but the general important, so this area of the city, when we go on the walk, we go, we spend a lot of time and around the area called it Exchange Alley, which is this little Island between Lombard Street.

Cornhill to the north of Grace Church Street to the East. It’s a little triangle of land. That’s delightful to walk in because it’s a network of little alleyways and low the, the buildings mostly for the most part, a long gone, it retains the footprint of these little alleyways. And you’ve got to imagine it full of coffee houses, and it’s not just Lloyd’s and Jonathan’s, which are of extreme importance to the future of development.

It’s also the whole network of coffee houses that are there. I was saying that London has far more. Coffee houses in any other city in Europe, part from Constantinople, the greater part of coffee counters are found in Britain, in London and within London. The greatest concentration is within the city and within the city.

The greatest concentration is in an area of the Royal Exchange, which is just today, is just over the road from the bank of England for those not too familiar with the city. And the Royal exchange was enormously important as a meeting place for merchants and with the development of coffee houses around the Royal exchange, the business that went on in the Royal exchange itself, spilled out into the coffee houses.

And so you’ve got this concentration of coffee houses in this area and they would frequently take the name of the area of interest to particular merchants. So today you can see the Jamaican, which is since the nineties, well, it was was rebuilt in the 19th century and is now a wine house that takes its name from the Jamaica coffee house, which is where the Jamaica merchants met on Cornhill.

Very close to it was the Barbados coffee house. Very just around the corner was the Jerusalem. And there were lots of coffee houses like this. There was also the, the Virginia were merchants would meet. And so it’s a bustling mercantile area and these merchants are very commercially minded and they’ve also got money to spend, which helps the development of the financial markets.

It helps enormously, they’ve got all this money to invest and also they need financial services. They need foreign exchange that they need credit, which is provided in the form of bills of exchange mainly at this period. And. The combination of merchants, the combination, the coffee houses, the Royal exchange, the foundation that bank of England leads to this great expansion and creates this area in London, where people come in and they can invest their money in what we call securities, which are bits of paper, maybe in an insurance policy or a bond or a share.

And these are alternatives to the traditional destination for investment, which would be land and. As I think I’ve probably just implied. One of the great distinctions of paper, securities from land is that they are liquid. You can buy and sell them fairly easily.


Hazel Baker: You painted a very vibrant picture, really knowing the exchange alley and all those small little alleyways aware light, hardly touches at all.

And then of course, you’ve got the raucous conversations of all these merchants in the different coffee houses there. And of course you got the messenger boys running around as well. It would have been very different atmosphere to what we might experience. Then now, so they’re in the coffee house or you said that mostly they served coffee.

So what did the coffee tastes like? Anything like Starbucks nowadays?

Ian McDiarmid: I think to those accustomed, to the taste of a Starbucks 17th century coffee will probably have been, shall we say disgusting recipes. And we know about the technology that they use to make the coffee and reading these things. It seems fairly clear that the coffee would have been incredibly bitter to our taste.

My understanding is that one of the great developments in modern coffee making is the. Even roasting the beans. And if you roast coffee, beans by hand and in a pan over a fire, what you get is very uneven roasting. So some of the beans get roasted too much and they impart a kind of salty flavour and other beans get under cooked and they give a very bitter taste.

They would boil the coffee for too long to our tastes. And again, this destroys a lot of the aromatic oils that gives coffee, its distinctive flavour. Again, imparting a bitterness. They would leave the coffee to stew for ages on the heat. So I think in this, we can readily imagine this. Cause I think in my eyes, very reminiscent and of those bulbous transparent coffee, making things that you find in offices with the.

Brown rims round them. And if the level of coffee in those is fairly low, you know that they’ve been there for a few hours. And if you meant to make the mistake of drinking it, it tastes pretty disgusting. So I think they would have that effect. They would reuse old coffee and mix it with new. And then finally it would also have granules in it.

And there’s a description of a satirists at the time who wanted to capture the taste of coffee and they wrote, this is an anonymous interest and they write that it is like a syrup of cert, all the essence of old shoe. Now we shouldn’t take this too much at face value because this is a satirist. And also one of the distinguishing things about coffee is that it’s an acquired taste.

So I think you, if you were to give it to a, an, an adult today, who’d never tasted coffee before them. They might’ve said something similar, but nevertheless, that there is something in that and that word sought recurs an awful lot in contemporary descriptions of it. So our tastes pretty awful, but obviously they did get hooked on it because they went back time and time.

And again, although quite a few of them hook, for example, who’s a famous member of the Royal society. He goes to coffee houses every day. And yet he says in his diary that he doesn’t particularly like coffee. So it didn’t, we know that. Absolutely everybody. And the other attractions of coffee houses were very important, but yeah, I think we can say it was pretty unpleasant, but the important thing, obviously, one of the important things about it is it doesn’t make you drunk, unlike a lot of the other drinks available at the time.


Hazel Baker: Yeah. That’s a really good point. And is it true that they used oyster shells to filter the coffee?

Ian McDiarmid: Yes, the dude always to shells to filter the coffee. And one implication of that is the fact that you’d get a kind of grittiness in the coffee. So a bit like drinking. Turkish coffee now and obviously contemporary visitors to coffee houses or that the modern coffee shops would not like to find sediment for the most part in, in, in their drinks.


Hazel Baker: So you’re not really selling it on the flavour factor for coffee. So why were coffee houses so popular?

Ian McDiarmid: Well, I think hook is a good example. So Robert Hook was the curator of experiments at the Royal society. One of the natural philosophers with a wide range of interests in the, what we would call the scientific revolution that they didn’t use the word science time.

And he goes to the coffee houses every day. And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, he. Doesn’t seem to particularly like coffee and this hints at the attractions of them. And for somebody like hook, he’s going to meet men with similar interests. He’s beating women from a whole wide range of walk. So at the Royal, society’s rather limited to obviously conversing with Royal society members in the coffee houses.

He can meet a wider range of different people, so he can meet artisans and craftsmen and he can learn, he can talk to other people and he can learn from them. And more importantly, perhaps for hook, who was rather an arrogant man and see that he can show off his learning to others. He can find a regular audience for his own ideas.

I was talking earlier about the coffee houses in the city, often being a venue for merchants like the Jamaica. And what you find with a lot of the coffee houses is that they develop a kind of theme. They have an area of interest, and this is important for the proprietors because it ensures that they will have a regular clientele.

So at the Jamaica, a merchant can go in there and he will know that the other people sitting in the coffee houses in that coffee house will be knowledgeable about his line of. Work. And it’s a place where he can get new information. And one thing about the coffee houses, which is enormously important is that they are a source of news.

They produce news because they’re where the experts meet. And some of them produce newspapers. So Lloyd’s will later produce an Edward Lloyd will produce a newspaper briefly in the 1690s. He produces a little, which gives information on ships, sailing, and the rest of it. So they produce news and they’re also consumers of news because they’re places where newspapers can be read.

And now was saying that they’re also a place for free conversation. And this is one of the things that gets them into trouble because the governments of the day are very suspicious of the coffee houses. And they have a reputation as being beds of submissions, just politics. And in particular, they get associated with the wigs.

Now that’s probably not quite fair because there were Tori coffee houses as well, but in the eyes of the government, there’s a problem with people talking about the government. Essentially. They’re worried about them being seditious and they’re worried about something that they called false news and false news.

Wasn’t just false news in the sense that we would employ the term, but it was also news that. Came from unofficial sources of the government couldn’t control.


Hazel Baker: You can understand it at the time though. Cause we’re talking about a period after the execution of Charles I. So Charles, the second is a new King on the throne.

His father having been executed and now people are talking, you’ve got this free thought and free speech. What’s next. Will his be, had be on the block?

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. And he obviously is concerned. And I was saying that. The coffee houses had a reputation perhaps unfairly for being associated with radical politics just before Charles comes to the throne.

There’s a famous club called the rotor club in which the Republican Thomas Harrington discusses Republican models for government. And I think this example, the rotary club becomes indelibly etched in the minds of Charles the second, some of his ministers and in 1675, he actually tries to close the coffee houses down.

It doesn’t work. And as I say, they, they keep on expanding. In addition to the conversation and the conviviality and the ability to meet men with common interests also important is the fact that these coffee houses provide services. You can get your mail forwarded to them if you so wish. And in a way they’re functioning as a protest offices in the nature, which didn’t have offices, that they’re places where they’re fulfilling some of the functions of that.

And yeah, we shouldn’t. Forget that people just went there for a good time for conviviality. And they’re not just drinking coffee. They’re Garraway’s, which is one of the big ones is famous for the quality of its cherry wine and sandwiches. So that gives us a good idea of one of the reasons why men went to them.


Hazel Baker: That’s really interesting stuff. And thanks so much.

Ian McDiarmid: No, my pleasure.


Hazel Baker: Now, if you are interested in all of this, we do have several blog posts digging into the matter a little bit more. And also of course, Ian is available for private financial London tours, and I’ll provide the link in the show notes as well. And you can have him all to yourself.

We’re going to be taking a bit of a break in providing these weekly podcasts. Don’t worry just for the month of August, I’ll be spending the time recording new episodes. So if you want a subject place or person to be covered in an episode, then now is the time to let me know.

We’ll be back on 4th of September with a Special Great Fire of London Edition. It’ll be 354 years to the day when the fire was raging through the city. So that would be a good one to look forward to. If you haven’t already written a review, then please it takes a few moments and it means the world to me. Have a great summer and I’ll see you on the 4th of September.

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