‘Sounds very “you”,’ texted my daughter when I told her what I was doing today: a tour of London coffeehouses. However, the coffeehouses that were the subject of this tour weren’t so much about being cafes where you could buy an excellent coffee but the story of the original coffeehouses of the 17th century which were meeting houses for debate and discussion. These were places where people came to discuss politics, philosophy, science and art and they became cauldrons of great creativity. My friend Elsa recently told me about going on one of these tours, organised by Unreal City Audio and how good it was. So I didn’t waste much time in signing up for one myself.
I’ve always had romantic ideas about Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where writers and philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Ernest Hemingway would sit for hours in cafes, like Le Procope, discussing life, literature, art and politics. Yet it is in London where such debate was first associated with coffee drinking, going right back to the opening of the first coffeehouse in 1652.
The coffee drinking of London began with a Greek. Pasqua Rosee is thought to have originally come from the Greek community of Ragusa in Sicily. He met an English merchant, Daniel Edwards, in Anatolia, Turkey in 1651 and worked for him as a manservant. He developed such a penchant for the exotic dark drink of the Turks – coffee – that when he followed Edwards to London, he decided to import the coffee bean to England. He started up not a coffee ‘house’ but a coffee ‘stall’ in a market right in the heart of the City of London near St Michael’s Church, Cornhill, which is where the group for today’s tour met . Our tour guide was Dr Matthew Green who provided a brilliantly informed and entertaining narrative to our walk. From the steps of the church, we moved round the corner into the adjacent alley – St Michael’s Alley – where The Jamaica Wine House was visible.
This area is a labyrinth of narrow passageways but many of them were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. At the time the streets were dangerous places: running rivers of mud and excrement, and populated by cutthroats and thieves. St Michael’s Alley was, however, the site of London’s first coffee house where Pasqua Rosee began to sell the coffee he had brought from Turkey.
News soon spread of this exotic liquid that was served in earthenware dishes from a flimsy shack in the market and it wasn’t long before Pasqua was serving 600 coffees a day to local businessmen and merchants. The coffee of the time wasn’t coffee as we know it today. It wasn’t the delicious silky smooth coffee sold in the new independent coffeehouses which have become popular in London over recent years, it was a drink more akin to a bitter Turkish coffee in which the taste of grounds was obvious. However, its appeal came from the caffeine kick it gave people without them having to get drunk. Pasqua, a great early PR man, even had a pamphlet printed claiming all kinds of benefits from drinking coffee, saying it could cure many ills. We were given a little sample of what the original coffee would have been like by an actor dressed up as Pasqua and who accompanied us on our tour, breaking into speech and merriment from time to time and thoroughly entertaining us.
This small area of London in the 17th century was the core of what would become the largest city in the world for a time. Now it’s a ghostly place to be at weekends for there are few residents and most shops and cafes remain shut. But back in Pasqua’s day this was where everything exciting happened!
Pasqua opened up another coffeehouse and soon the coffee revolution had begun. These ‘houses’ were usually situated on the first floor of buildings in narrow alleys – like the one below – above shops. You had to walk up dark narrow stairs to enter and would be greeted with the words, ‘What news?’
They were places where people came to exchange news and discuss politics and philosophy, share ideas on arts and science, and read literature and poetry. In fact, you had to come to them bearing some kind of news in order to be let in! And once in the coffeehouse you were expected to sit with others. No one was allowed – or would want to – sit alone in a corner. You would sit at a table where conversation was in full flow and wait for your opportunity to contribute to the discussion. This was your entry ticket to being able to stay: you had to talk too and have something interesting to say. You only survived on your wit and flair and if it was lacking, your reputation was ruined. This is a far cry from a modern-day cafe where even if you share a table with someone you don’t know, you’re not likely to strike up conversation.
Women, of course, were not allowed in. This was the age of misogyny and appalling prejudice. If they tried to enter they’d be suspected of being prostitutes. This caused a certain amount of ill feeling from women who set up their own petition against the coffeehouses, accusing them of leading their husbands astray as they couldn’t enter the houses to bring them home!
The men answered with their own petition claiming that coffee was a kind of aphrodisiac and the ‘Viagra’ of the day. Meanwhile it wasn’t only the women complaining. The church was complaining too for the coffeehouses were venues of secular political and philosophical debate and thus judged ‘dangerous’ to one’s mental and spiritual well-being and so along with the women, the Church tried to wipe coffee from London for ever.
Pasqua began to attract a lot of other enemies, particularly in the shape of local tavern owners whose business he was taking, and in 1658 he suddenly disappeared, suspected of perhaps being killed. Whatever the reason for his disappearance, coffee didn’t disappear with him – fortunately! In fact 5 years after his death there were 82 coffeehouses in the small City of London area and by the turn of the century, there were 3,000. The early coffeehouses had their own distinct character. Don Saltero’s coffeehouse was adorned with taxidermy, at Lunt’s in Clerkenwell you could have a haircut while sipping your coffee; at others writers would come together to share chapters of new books or poetry; some offered music, art and dance and, of course, a few housed prostitutes. In a few coffee drinkers even acted as a jury to decide whether a supposed lunatic should be sent to the local madhouse or not.
Some of the coffeehouses have important heritages. Jonathan’s Coffeehouse (now the site of a private members’ club) near the Royal Exchange was where stocks and shares were first traded. Even then not everyone trusted the brokers, thinking they were trying to con people out of their savings, and the writer Daniel Defoe said they were ‘founded on delusions’.
Not far away in Lombard Street, where a Sainsbury’s Local now stands, there was once a coffeehouse where Lloyds – the insurers – began business. The canny owner would pay waiters to rush down to the docks to be the first to get news from ships docking after trips abroad and so his coffeehouse became the place where businessmen and merchants would meet to get the latest news. Lloyds still call their porters ‘waiters’.
The demise of the coffeehouse as a place of news and debate came with the arrival of the telegraph. Now news was easily and quickly transmitted. Our tour ended at Walbrook by a Starbucks – our modern form of coffeehouse. Matthew told the story of how Starbucks began: with the chairman and CEO Howard Schultz going into a bar in Milan and being blown away by the romance of coffee and how it brought people together. He went back to the US wanting to emulate what he’d seen and while we may see friends meet up – as in the TV series Friends mode – in our modern cafes, people remain insular. Our cafes are not meeting places unless you already know someone. They can be soulless places. Hope for change comes in the shape of the new independents like Taylor St Baristas and New Row Coffee, but will we ever see the day when a stranger sits down and strikes up conversation and shares news and thoughts. But then again, do we want to? It’s hard to imagine in today’s society that such a thing would be welcome. If someone you didn’t know sat at your table and started reading their poetry to you, you’d probably think them mad, or at least be disturbed. Still, maybe we could learn something from the old coffeehouses and if we share a table share at least a smile hello. And it’s certainly true in the new-style independents that they’re run by friendly people who will engage with you and chat – and even know exactly how you like your Flat White as you walk through the door!
For more information on the London Coffeehouse tour see www.unrealcityaudio.co.uk