In The Road to Newgate, Nathaniel Thompson is a frequent visitor to Sam’s Coffee House. Sam’s was the haunt of the man who inspired my character Nat, Sir Roger L’Estrange, and was situated between Cornhill and Exchange Alley. It’s an important place for him – a place where he gathers gossip and reads pamphlets – but with his marriage to Anne (which happens about 4 months before the novel starts) he has less time to spend there. As public events impose on Nat and Anne’s personal life, one of the themes of the book is how they each manage their work/life balance and how their roles change within their marriage as events unfold. Historically, the tension between men and women over how much time husband’s spent in male-only coffee shops was real.
Below, I’m copying over a guest post I recently wrote about the history of coffee shops, but first, here are some images of a wonderful print I purchased by Brighton based artist, Helen Cann. Click here to see how Helen came to make her Coffee shop map. I’m thrilled to have my own copy hanging in my dining room in Pennsylvania!
To find out more about Helen Cann, please visit her website.
And now back to the history!
The original of this post was published on the excellent English Historical Fiction Authors website. It’s a great place where many authors have come together to share their historical knowledge.
Hot-beds of fake news and misogyny?
The rise of the Coffee Shop in 17th century London
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.
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 Issac 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 if 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.
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/