Fun Historical Facts About London Coffee Culture You Probably Didn’t Know

Plaque denoting the first coffee-house

Would you ever guess that coffee became popular in Great Britain before tea and it remained that way until a century later? Can you imagine person’s sanity to be assessed by customers of a café? Did you know that the foundations of today’s London’s stock market were laid in a coffee-house? I found out these and much more amusing facts during the Historic London Coffeehouse Tour.

Coffee was introduced to Londoners in 1652 by an eccentric Greek Pasqua Rosée. He was brought to England from Turkey by his former employer, merchant Daniel Edwards. Pasqua started selling a black gritty liquid called kaveh from a wooden shack off Cornhill, next to St.Michael’s church (the place where the current Jamaica Wine House stands).

The place of the first coffee-house

The place of the first London coffee-house

Back in 17th century water in London was heavily polluted and not safe to drink, so people drank light alcohol (mainly beer) to quench their thirst. Even though the first coffee tasted rather bad and it was compared to soot, mud or excrement, it had a stimulating effect and helped to sober up, thus think more clearly. The rumours spread that it was a gateway to inspiration and a catalyst for pure thought, which only contributed to the rise of the popularity of the drink.

First coffee houses were essentially gossip houses, where people were sharing what they heard elsewhere, the knowledge often being far from accurate. The news network was taken to the next level when Lloyd’s coffee-house on Tower St. opened in 1688 (current Sainsbury’s). Little boys were employed to run to the arriving ships, find out the news from the captain and report them back to the patrons of the coffee-house.

The interior of old style coffee-house

The interiors of first coffee-houses used to be minimalistic

Back in the days respectable women were not expected to attend the cafés. Coffee houses were portrayed as places of rational thought and debates, that were considered as male domain. Women spotted in coffee houses were usually hookers.

The supposed benefits of coffee were first proclaimed in a pamphlet ‘The virtue of coffee drinking’ by the above mentioned Pasqua Rosée. It was described as a panacea from many diseases in which people faithfully believed. The notion was later shaken by women, who got upset with their men spending a lot of time in coffee houses. ‘Women’s Petition Against Coffee’ (1674) was released, saying that coffee turned men sterile and impotent, contributing to decreasing nation’s birth rate. It equaled to the punch below the waist to all the manhood of London coffee houses. Pasqua took an immediate action and released a written response, negating everything and reassuring that coffee increases the erection and sexual appetite. That’s how the debate ended.

Impersonation of Pasqua Rosee by an actor

The predecessor of London coffee culture – Pasqua Rosée, impersonated by an actor of Unreal City Audio tours

Coffeehouses were democratic theatres of judgement, where verdicts were given to writers and politicians alike. Moreover, in Hoxton Square coffeehouse the inquisitions of insanity took place. Suspected mad men were thrown into the room for coffee drinkers to prod and talk to the alleged ones. After the voting the accused was either incarcerated in the local madhouse or released.

The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse in the Exchange Alley. The prices of stocks and commodities were listed and rowdy dealers expelled from the Royal Stock Exchange were gathering there. The exchange deals made were not always fair, but such was life.

Jonathan's Coffee House Plaque

Historical place of the origins of London stock exchange

Even though coffee and tea were brought to London around the same time, at the beginning coffee was way more popular than tea due to the lower prices of it. In the 17th century public coffee houses were opening one by one and the boom lasted till the end of 18th century. There were a few reasons for a decline of coffee culture, one of them being country’s trading policy that fostered tea trade, so the popularity of tea took over coffee.

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