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Coffee & Capitalism

The Wonders of the 18th Century English Coffeehouse

I’m sure many agree with me when I say that coffee lifts the spirits and makes us more enlightened individuals. Yet, the drink was as important over 300 years ago as it is today. With many of us not being able to function without our morning espresso, and baristas doubling as coffee-makers as well as therapists, Britain would not be where she is today without her coffeehouses.

Coffee was introduced to Britain in the mid-17th century, before that it was only consumed for medicinal purposes (imagine that, a coffee prescription!). It didn’t take long for people to look beyond the medicinal properties of the wonderful, black, gritty stuff and see something that would change everything. With the first recorded coffeehouse setting up shop in Oxford in 1650, a blend of scholarship, commerce, science, and gossip was born. I give you... coffeehouse culture. It wasn’t until such coffeehouses in Oxford grew, however, that they really took off as centres of social, political, philosophical, and intellectual discourse.

In 1652, Pasqua Rosée opened the first one of these houses in London, and a decade later, in 1663, they stood 80 strong. Their popularity can be explained simply by the absence of alcohol. The gentlemen of London had previously occupied themselves in alehouses, which, bearing no difference from today’s establishments, could be quite rowdy. Coffeehouses became places where serious discussion could take place, and, teeming with ideas and idols of the world of academia and scholarship, they became known as the “penny universities”. Men of all classes and social positions could pay a penny for a coffee and access to newspapers, books, and conversations with some of the finest minds in the land.

Many household names have their roots buried underneath the papers and spillages of the coffeehouses of old. The Royal Society, for example, met in London’s Grecian coffeehouse, the same place where Isaac Newton is reputed to have dissected a dolphin on a table. Another coffee entrepreneur, Edward Lloyd, opened Lloyd’s Coffee House on Tower Street around the late 1680s. The ship-insuring dealings that took place at this location went on to establish the insurance market and Lloyd’s of London. However, it was not all plain sailing for coffeehouses during this period.

In 1675, Charles II made an attempt to shut down coffeehouses, as they were associated with republican and revolutionary culture, and an end to the sale of coffee and tea was enforced. This was soon repealed, as public outcry followed (I mean, you’d be pretty upset, right?). So, the pouring continued...

Perhaps the most important coffeehouse that sprung up during this time was Johnathan’s Coffee House, and it was quite possibly the most famous. Known now as the original site of the London Stock Exchange, the house was opened by Johnathan Miles in Change (or Exchange) Alley, around 1680. Nearly two decades later, and many patrons of the coffeehouse were implicated to have been involved in two plots to assassinate Charles II and William III. But apart from coup d’états and politics, the coffeehouse on Change Alley was once a focal point for London’s financial hub. The year 1698 saw the first evidence of systematic exchange of securities in London, with Johnathan’s being used to list the prices of stocks and commodities by John Castaing.

The humble coffee shop’s trading prowess did not cease, and advanced well into the early 18th century. Johnathan’s Coffee House was the scene for events such as the South Sea Bubble and the panic of 1745, writing its name into Britain’s financial history. However, as the building succumbed to fire in the 1740s, trading moved elsewhere as clubs were formed and the London Stock Exchange was established later in the century.

Yet the history of London’s coffeehouses and their financial importance has not been forgotten. Albeit today one cannot find any “penny universities” around London, and I am certain dissections are not done on Starbucks’ tables, but plaques and hidden treasures around the capital hark back to the days of old Johnathan’s’ and Lloyd’s.

So, the next time you order an Espresso, Americano or Cappuccino, just remember its place in London’s history, and know that you are part of a long line of traitors, traders and penny university-goers.


Edited and Reviewed by Tanish Bagga.


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