Anyone for Coffee? The history of Coffee Houses

Walk down most High Streets nowadays and you’ll find plenty of cafes and coffee shops where you can pick up your favourite espresso or cappuccino, but have you ever wondered how long coffee shops have been around? We may think that they are just a recent phenomenon but coffee houses have actually been in existence in this county since the 17th century, although back then they were men only meeting places for business and political or literary debate.

Coffee was first introduced to England in the 17th century from Turkey. Originally viewed as a medicinal plant and an acquired taste - one early sampler likening it to ‘syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes’ - it quickly became popular. Coffee was drunk black and sweetened with sugar, but milk was not added. The first coffeehouse in England was opened in Oxford in 1650, followed soon after by one in London. Soon they were commonplace in larger towns. By 1675 there were more than 3000 coffee houses throughout England with a large number in London but also in the provinces. Given the Turkish connection, a popular name for coffee houses was the Turk’s Head but other included Garraway’s, Batson’s and even a Nando’s!

17th century coffee house

Coffee houses became known as places to debate matters of politics, science, literature, commerce and religion, so much so that some in London were known as ‘penny universities’, as that was the price of a cup of coffee. Several British institutions can trace their roots back to coffee houses including the London Stock Exchange, Lloyds of London and Sotheby’s and Christies auction houses.  Influential patrons included Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton. Anyone (as long as they were male) could frequent them, and some became associated with republicanism, leading King Charles II to attempt to ban them in 1675, but the public outcry was such that it was quickly withdrawn. However other coffee houses were not so illustrious and were haunts for criminals and prostitutes. 

Although some coffee houses had female staff, women were not welcome as customers and the rather tongue in cheek pamphlet published in 1674 called the Women’s Petition Against Coffee complained how the ‘newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee’ had transformed their industrious, virile men into effeminate babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffee houses! 

The coffee house fell out of favour towards the end of the 18th century as the new fashion for tea replaced coffee. They were revived in a slightly different format in the later Victorian period by the Temperance Movement which promoted abstinence from the consumption of alcohol and looked to provide other forms of entertainment to tempt people away from pubs.  A number of coffee taverns were established as a result and they became a common addition in towns and larger villages.

After World War One the Temperance Movement declined and consequently the popularity of coffee taverns. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that coffee houses were reinvented by the likes of Starbucks and Costa Coffee – who knows though what 17th century patrons would have made of a decaf skinny caramel macchiato!

Cathy Soughton - June 03 2018