The Rise and Fall of English Coffee Houses

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, February 2005 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of English Coffee Houses


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


COFFEE shops are now springing up all over Britain. This is not the first time that coffee houses have been so popular. The seventeenth-century coffee house contributed to England's rise to global greatness.

The first documented mention of coffee comes in the 10th century, from an Arabian doctor Rhazes. Its original purpose was medicinal. Ethiopia was the centre for the spread of coffee throughout Arabia and Africa. It was in the Yemen where the practice of roasting beans began in about 1200. The Muslims spread the custom of coffee throughout the Islamic world. The world's first coffee shop was opened in 1475 at Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).

The first English coffee house was opened in 1652 by a Greek Orthodox servant from western Turkey, Pasqua Rosee, in the City of London, already England's financial capital. He worked for a Turkish merchant named Edwards. His coffee house was sponsored by merchants from the Levant Company, the trading house that organized trade with the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey). Levant Company officials had become accustomed to drinking coffee--the coffee bean was called the 'Mahometan berry'--during their extended trips across the Ottoman Empire and wished to have coffee when back in London.

The idea soon caught on. By 1708, the square mile of the City of London and the Borough of Westminster (the centre of England's political power) soon had 500 or 600 such coffee shops. In London overall, there were well over 2,000 coffee houses, or one for every 300 inhabitants (probably more than there are now). Coffee shops were also springing up in the provincial cities. Coffee shops both reflected the specific character of their locality and reinforced it: such as business, the church, politics or the arts.

There were many reasons for their popularity. Coffee was seen as a healthy drink. It stimulated the brain's creativity and gave people energy. It was also a healthier and cheaper alternative to the alcohol (such as gin) that dominated much of England's life and contributed to so many social problems (such as drunken mothers rolling over in their sleep and suffocating their babies).

Coffee houses were very sociable places. Foreign visitors to London said that the coffee houses were the most agreeable feature in London. All men were made welcome (women tended not to be customers). The coffee houses did not have the noise and occasional drunken violence of the inns. Coffee houses were a reflection of the emerging middle class, with its emphasis on discussion, exploration of ideas, sobriety and refined sociability. Continued coffee consumption in one session (it was argued) led to a sharper mind and keener discussion, while in the inn, continued alcoholic consumption only led to a greater risk of violence. Coffee kept consumers awake, while alcohol made them drowsy. There was little risk of a 'hangover' with coffee. At a time when the purity of cold water was suspect, the water had to be heated (and so made safer) for the preparation of coffee.

The coffee shops were often run by a 'coffee woman', such as a widow. She took care of the management and made sure that the place was a pleasant place to meet. The coffee shop opposite the Houses of Parliament was called 'Alice's' after the proprietor. Women were also on the serving staff and so the coffee houses were not exclusively male preserves.

Coffee houses were a good place for men to conduct their business. Travel across London was difficult and occasionally dangerous because of the risk of robbery. Therefore people could carry out their negotiations and finalize deals in the relaxed and neutral environment of the coffee shop rather than risk a hazardous journey across town to meet. A businessman would advise his clients at which coffee house he could be found on a regular basis.

There was no pressure to buy additional cups of coffee. A person could buy one cup of coffee and make it last all day. …

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