Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hot-beds of fake news and misogyny? The rise of the Coffee Shop in 17th century London

By Kate Braithwaite

Coffee was not new to England when Pasqua Rosee opened the first London coffee shop in 1652. Coffee houses had gradually spread from the Muslim world in medieval times, finding their first European home in Venice in 1645 and from there to Oxford. But Rosee’s business in St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, at the heart of the City of London, although probably little more than a stall initially, advertised by a sign portraying a Turk’s head, marked the beginning of an explosion of popular coffee shops across the capital.

Initially coffee shops were hailed as a positive new force in London life. Rosee claimed his brew would cure hangovers, dropsy, gout and even scurvy. Coffee shops predominantly did not sell alcohol and had at least those grounds on which to claim to be healthier than the already well-established taverns and ale houses. A penny entry fee was charged – to keep the poorer Londoners at bay – and a list of rules was displayed in many coffee houses, calling on patrons not to shout, quarrel or gamble. Smoking, on the other hand, was almost compulsory and almost all early descriptions of London coffee shops, describe a fog of pipe smoke hanging in the air. Coffee shops were the province of men only, the sole female presence, likely a woman employed as the “dame de comptoir” with the work of grinding, brewing and serving the coffee being the responsibility of coffee boys wearing long aprons. Patrons sat at long tables to talk and debate with strangers and friends, sharing news, gossip, business deals and more.

Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century - Attribution
The diarist Samuel Pepys makes frequent mention of Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, where the celebrated poet and playwright John Dryden held court. Often named after their proprietors, coffee shops quickly gathered clique-ish clientele. While literary types chose Will’s, stockbrokers were drawn to establishments near the Royal Exchange such as Jonathon’s and Garraway’s on Exchange Alley in Cornhill. Sir Isaac Newton preferred the Grecian Coffee House in Devereaux Court by the Strand, with its reputation of drawing an intellectual crowd. During the Restoration years after 1660, a time of fomenting political thought and debate, coffee shops were the perfect place for thinking men to collect their letters, read newspapers and pamphlets and share opinions and news. But they were far from popular with everyone.

In 1675, worried that coffee shops were hotbeds of plot and sedition against his rule, Charles II issued A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses which, although it had little legal impact or effect, clearly demonstrates the concerns felt in government about the impact of Coffee Shops on London society. They were centres, the authorities believed, for the deliberate spreading of false news and anti-government sentiment. But they were also places where government spies could be placed and whispers of conspiracies and plots could be heard and acted upon. Despite Charles’ frustration, coffee shops continued to thrive but they had already attracted criticism from another part of the population – women.

The Women’s Petition against Coffee, featured here in more detail, claimed coffee made men not only anti-social and unsupportive of their families, but also impotent: “as unfruitful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” The response was swift and The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition was direct to a fault. After claiming that coffee rather aided men’s ability to perform under the bedcovers, its author went so far as to claim that coffee increased the chance of fertility, adding “a spiritual escency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the Womb.”

Such criticisms had no effect on the growth of the coffee shop however. In 1681 when the Thames froze from December to February and a Frost Fair was established on the ice, a central feature was Duke’s Coffee Shop a temporary building erected mid-stream. By the turn of the century it is estimated that there were at least 1000 coffee shops in London, vital to the economic and cultural life of the city.

Image: http://helencann.co.uk/
In The London Spy, published in 1703, Ned Ward gives the following colourful picture of typical establishment:
“Come, says my Friend, let us step into this Coffee-House here, as you are a Stranger in the Town, it will afford you some Diversion. Accordingly in we went, where a parcel of Muddling Muck-Worms were as busie as so many Rats in an old Cheese-Loft; some Going, some Coming, some Scribbling, some Talking, some Drinking, some Smoaking, others Jangling; and the whole Room stinking of Tobacco, like a Dutch-Scoot, or a Boatswains-Cabbin.”
Suggestions for further reading:

Life in a 17th Century Coffee Shop by David Brandon

1700, Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller

Ned Ward, The London Spy, published 1703 text available online at  http://grubstreetproject.net/

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Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the author of two historical novels set in the 17th century.  The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in the time of the Popish Plot, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate and her family live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.




6 comments:

  1. Interesting that today Costa Coffe and Starbucks are still popular places to meet with friends. Best place to visit? The Coffee House in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia!

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  2. Fabulous post. I learnt something new today. (And I'm still enjoying Charlatan, by the way...)

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  3. Great post. Really interesting. Loved the petition against coffee by the women and the response.

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  4. Thank you, Kate, for a fascinating post. Love that women thought coffee made men impotent!

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  5. i am so surprised that UK first coffee was opened in 1652 :), thank you sharing an interesting history among us.


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    Pastor chris

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