Friday, May 2, 2014

Caffeine, Sex and Cross-Dressing: Women in 1688

by Piers Alexander with Dr Matthew Green

“I wish to speak with Monsieur Jean Ollow,” I said in a French accent. A wiry-haired old woman of perhaps fifty years sat at her book of accounts, clutching a quill awkwardly between swollen ink-stained fingers. Her eyeglasses were swallowed up in the wrinkly lumps of her cheeks. She warmed a steel pot at a fire.
“What business with him?” she rattled, still scratching at her ledger.
I took a small twist of paper from my pocket, pulling open my coat a hand’s breadth so that the pistol bared its teeth at the starchy old woman.
She was no coward, the dame. For sure she had seen my gun, but she did not blink as she reached over for the twist of paper.
“Strange to see a Frenchman with the red hair,” she murmured, opening up the little package.
I blurted out, “It is from my father’s side, he is...”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Norweyan you might be, or Yorkshireman, it’s all one to me. Now what is this?”
The woman fumbled the twist of paper open and ran her little finger through the small pile of fresh ground coffee. Its rich ripe scent filled the room, making spit pour out under my greedy tongue.
“There is no John Hollow, Monsieur Frenchy. Or at least, I am he. For what is a woman but a hollow man, a man without all the guts and bile and sentiment?”

While writing The Bitter Trade, my novel set in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the stories of women in the seventeenth century. We all know a little about the witchhunts and duckings, but I had no idea how fluid the roles and rights of women were in the late seventeenth century; nor how many big female characters are lurking just below the official historical record.

In the countryside, life was undeniably harsh on women. An opinion, a vocation or a sexual appetite was enough to get you a scolding: to be shamed, beaten and run out of your village by your neighbours, screeching and banging pots and pans. (There’s a particularly horrible scene in The Bitter Trade inspired by this.)

Perhaps worse, wife sales were commonplace, and legal. Men wanting to lose a wife could shift her for £100, or a pint of ale.

Many women tried to join the army, dressed as men, in order to get away from their husbands and villages. It seems that most of them were inexpert at disguising their sex, and there are stories of recruiting sergeants laughing as they sent away the clearly female applicants. Though some got through, most notably Hannah Snell, who successfully served as a male soldier for three years, and became a national celebrity. Interestingly, she had relationships with women as well as men, and in at least one case the man considered her a gay male partner!

Property was always the unspoken challenge for women. Were they allowed to own it, or were they property themselves? In a way the mid-seventeenth century was a high point of women’s rights in America. In the Dutch colonies, women were considered equal to men, but the British later revoked a widow’s right to own property, and in my story it’s quite clear that women were mainly considered their husband’s or father’s property.

Coffeehouses were at the heart of London’s intrigues and commerce: letter drops and meeting places for spies, breeding grounds for conspiracy and dealmaking, private places where men could flee women.

The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1674

The more assertive, educated women of London chose to picket some coffeehouses, disgusted at the trivial conversations and depleting effects of coffee. I was lucky enough to meet Dr Matthew Green, a high-energy coffeehouse historian who leads fascinating tours of the old City sites ( Here’s his take on the muddy mix of sex and caffeine:

No respectable women would have been seen dead in a coffeehouse. It wasn’t long before wives became frustrated at the amount of time their husbands were idling away “deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality”, as Richard Steele put it in the Tatler, all from the comfort of a fireside bench. In 1674, years of simmering resentment erupted into the volcano of fury that was the Women’s Petition Against Coffee. The fair sex lambasted the “Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE” which, as they saw it, had reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts. Retaliation was swift and acerbic in the form of the vulgar Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, which claimed it was “base adulterate wine” and “muddy ale” that made men impotent. Coffee, in fact, was the Viagra of the day, making “the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, add[ing] a spiritual ascendency to the sperm”.

At Moll King’s brothel-coffeehouse, depicted by Hogarth, libertines could sober up and peruse a directory of harlots, before being led to the requisite brothel nearby. There was even a floating coffeehouse, the Folly of the Thames, moored outside Somerset House where fops and rakes danced the night away on her rain-spattered deck.

Hogarth’s depiction of Moll and Tom King’s coffee-shack from The Four Times of Day (1736). Though it is early morning, the night has only just begun for the drunken rakes and prostitutes spilling out of the coffeehouse.

England after the Restoration is painted as a liberal, sensual place, where women as well as men took their pleasures. But there’s a misogynistic menace below the surface of seventeenth century life: whilst glorying in Hannah Snell’s magnificent illusion, it’s hard to forget the dismal life of scoldings and wife sales that pushed women to take such a risky step.


The Bitter Trade is Piers Alexander’s first novel. He is currently working on the sequel, Cimarron, set in Jamaica in 1692. Also a serial media entrepreneur, Piers lives in London with the singer-songwriter and author Rebecca Promitzer.
The Bitter Trade is now on sale on Amazon and all ebook stores.

Dr Matthew Green has a PhD from Oxford University and works as a writer, broadcaster, freelance journalist, and lecturer. He is the co-founder of Unreal City Audio ( and author of The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse. Matthew is currently writing The Time Traveller’s Guide to London, to be published by Penguin in March 2015.

Recommended reading: Lascivious Bodies – A History of Eighteenth Century Sexuality by Julie Peakman


  1. I always enjoy a good story about cross-dressing women and coffee! The Bitter Trade is now on my list ;)

    1. Thank you Linda - your challenge is to spot the cross-dressers ahead of time!
      :) Piers

    2. Thank you Linda - your challenge is to spot the cross-dressers ahead of time!
      :) Piers

  2. Oh wow. Does it have Hannah Snell in it? I'm intrigued.

    1. Hi Tara, it doesn't - all characters are invented - but she's certainly one of the big inspirations. To say more would be a plot spoiler...!

  3. Women's rights for actually much better 100, 200 years before this... but that doesn't fit the popular imaginations vision of Renaissance.

    1. Agreed - what struck me was the extent to which the Enlightenment was in many ways a retrograde step...

  4. Linda knows a thing or two about those cross-dressing women, too. See her Barbados Bound.


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