London’s Surprising Coffee History
London is a hotbed for culture, tradition, commerce and… coffee.
The buzzing economic and social atmosphere on the streets of the city are palpable, and this sense of productivity goes hand in hand with coffee consumption. Pretty much every street in central London has a coffee shop or at least one nearby, so it should be no surprise that coffee has a rich history in the capital.
However, there is a lot more to London’s coffee history than you might think. London’s surprising coffee culture dates back centuries, and is a major factor contributing to the hive of industriousness that we see today.
So, let’s take a closer look back into London’s coffee past, to help us understand the state of the coffee scene in the present day, and perhaps the direction it will follow in the future.
*Please note that all images in this post have been captured by the Author*
What Exactly is a Coffee House?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a coffee house as “an establishment that sells coffee and usually other refreshments and that commonly serves as an informal club for its regular customers”. This is a pretty tidy definition if you ask me, but coffee shops can mean different things to different people.
Today, coffee shops can serve as places to sit and catch up with friends, go on a date, conduct a business meeting and so much more.
However, it’s fair to say that the history of coffee houses has a chequered and quite surprising past. One that is not particularly reminiscent of the happy go lucky, quirky independent barista filled places we enjoy today.
London became a hotbed for coffee house growth and innovation in the late 1600s, mainly thanks to its wide spanning global trade links.
When Did Coffee First Arrive in England?
The coffee trade started to erupt in the early 1600s across the world. From Ethiopia, to the Middle East, Asia and on towards Europe, coffee’s journey took the world by storm.
Coffee first arrived in London in the mid 1600s, with the first official coffee house being opened by Pasqua Rosee in 1652. From there, London became the epicentre of coffee houses in Europe, which gives credence to London becoming one of the most thriving financial centres of the world.
If you want to learn more about the extensive history of coffee and how this simple psychoactive beverage took over the world, check out my article breaking down a brief history of coffee.
Whilst coffee had been consumed in England prior to 1650, it is this time period that saw the explosion of coffee houses take the capital by storm. The exact origins of the first coffee house in England are somewhat debated, with some believing it was spawned in Oxford, and others in London.
Coffee Takes Over Europe: Early 1600s
Unfortunately, coffee’s expansion throughout Europe wasn’t exactly a fun-loving affair. Most of coffee’s growth in the 1500 and 1600s can be attributed to invasions, international trade and the imposition of Christianity across the region.
Coffee was also seen as a drink of privilege back then, a far cry from its common Cup of Joe status that we have become used to.
With London’s international trading prowess, it was only a matter of time until the city inherited coffee and industry started booming as a result.
It is likely that coffee would have been traded and consumed on an ad hoc basis in the early 1600s. Since coffee was generally considered a drink of the aristocracy in those days, coffee drinking was reserved for royalty and society’s elite only.
However, coffee didn’t go mainstream in the UK until the mid 1600s.
‘Penny Universities’: 1650s
According to The History of London “Coffee houses, taverns, tea and chocolate”, “The first coffee house in England was established by a Turkish Jew named Jacob at the Angel in Oxford in 1650”.
These were commonly known as penny universities, as the admission fee was just a penny, limitless (albeit pretty revolting) coffee was served and a range of intellectual and religious debates were had.
This is a fascinating historical insight into the origins of coffee houses in England, which started life in Oxford. However, the real boom in popularity swept the nation in the mid 1600s, when coffee houses were first established in London.
It is no surprise that coffee gained such popularity, given that alcohol was largely banned across commonwealth nations during this period.
Coffee Arrives in London: 1652
Whilst coffee houses first started popping up in Oxford around 1650, it only took a couple of years for them to gain traction in the capital. The Turk’s Head was founded in 1652 by Pasqua Rosée, and this is often seen as the birth of the first coffee house culture in London. It is now known as The Jamaca Wine House (see below).
The History of London “Coffee houses, taverns, tea and chocolate” mentions that “By 1663 there were over 80 in London. By 1675 there were 3,000 coffee houses in England with many of them located in London.”
This explosion in coffee culture in London went hand in hand with a boom in industriousness, male dominated working culture, politics and new age philosophical ideas.
However, coffee houses were a very different proposition back then to what we think of them as today.
In “A Brief History of London’s Coffee House” by Max Simmons of Old Spike (February 22, 2023), it is noted that “no alcohol was sold on the premises and women were often not permitted to enter.”
There was a much greater divide between men and women in the workplace, political and social culture in these years. The only women that were permitted to enter coffee houses in the 1600s were prostitutes…
Whilst this is a far cry from what we would consider acceptable in the 21st century, these establishments proved to be fundamental in shaping the culture and socioeconomic climate of London in the 17th and 18th centuries.
London Coffee History Timeline:
Here is a chronological overview of some of London’s most prominent coffee houses throughout the 1600s and 1700s.
1. Pasqua Rosée’s Head – St. Michael’s Alley off Cornhill: 1652
Widely considered one of London’s first coffee houses, Pasqua Rosée’s Head (otherwise known as The Turk’s Head), was founded in 1652. Pasqua was a servant “to the businessman Daniel Edwards, who was an importer of goods from Turkey that included coffee” – Layers of London “Pasqua Rosee Coffee House” by Peter Edwards. The story goes that Edwards instructed Pasqua to open a public coffee offering in London on his behalf.
2. The Grecian Coffee House – Wapping Old Stairs: 1665
Another famous early London coffee house was the Gracian. Founded by the Greek George Constantine, Gracian’s was often visited by renowned scholars, poets and members of the royal society like Isaac Newton.
3. Rainbow Coffee House – Fleet Street: 1657
Opened by James Farr in the mid 1600s, Rainbow coffee house was a meeting place for the original Freemasons and the French Protestant refugee group, the Huguenots. As per the Rainbow Coffee House Wikipedia Page, public trials were also often staged there.
4. Garraway’s Coffee House – Exchange Street: 1657
Garraway’s was opened by Thomas Garraway in 1657, following the success of his previous ventures selling tea. The first sale of furs by The Hudson’s Bay Company was conducted at Garraway’s in 1671, as per the Garraway’s Coffee House Wikipedia Page.
5. The Angel Coffee House: 1657
Thought to be Garraway’s second coffee house venture, the Angel Coffee House in London was founded in 1657. As per Conor Bakhuizen of Layers of London “Angel Coffeehouse and Hotel”, Angels was a hotbed for selling colonial wares such as “coffee, tea, chocolate, and tobacco”.
6. Lloyd’s Coffee House – Tower Street: 1686
Lloyd’s coffee house was opened in 1686 by Edward Lloyd and saw the birth of the Lloyd’s of London Insurance Syndicate. Whilst Lloyd’s was popular amongst “sailors, merchants and shipowners” (as per the Lloyd’s Coffee House Wikipedia Page), it was particularly famous for the Lloyd’s list, the Lloyd’s Register and the origins of many insurance and reinsurance businesses.
7. Amsterdam Coffee House – Bartholomew Lane: 1674
Situated on Bartholomew Lane, the Amsterdam Coffee House was established in 1674 and was famous for clamping down on political descent. According to Mike Scopa of Layers of London “Politics – Amsterdam Coffee House in Bartholomew Lane”- the coffee house’s patron Peter Kidd was arrested for being “dispersers of ‘false’ news”.
8. Will’s Coffee House – Russell Street: 1663
Often frequented by prominent writers at the time, Will’s coffee house on Russell Street was a popular establishment in the mid 1600s. It was founded by William Urwin, and was popularised thanks to “regular visits from John Dryden, the English poet and dramatist” – ‘Coffee Houses’, Coffee House Culture in 18th Century London.
9. Man’s Coffee House – Charing Cross: 1674
Established by Alexander Man, Man’s coffeehouse was a popular “rendez-vous for
officers in the Army” – RPSL “Page 90 – Ian Marshall – London Coffee Houses – Standing Display January 2016”.
10. Jonathan’s Coffee House – Cornhill: 1680
Home of the original London Stock Exchange, Jonathan’s coffee house is arguably the most famous of the original caffeinated establishments. It was opened by Jonathan Miles in 1680 and is heralded as the birthplace of London’s booming financial service sector.
11. White’s Gentlemen’s Club – Mayfair: 1693
White’s is London’s oldest and most prestigious gentlemen’s club. Founded in 1693 under its original guise of a hot chocolate shop, White’s is still in operation today at its new premises in St. James’ Park.
12. Old Slaughter’s Coffee House – St. Martin’s Lane: 1692
Thomas Slaughter founded Old Slaughter’s coffee house in 1692. It was known as the coffee house on the pavement, as paved streets were pretty rare at the time (Old Slaughter’s Coffee House Wikipedia page). Old Slaughter’s was popular amongst painters, artists, architects and was actually a meeting place for what is now known as the RSPCA.
13. Nando’s Coffee House – Fleet Street: 1696
Founded in 1696, Nando’s coffee houses (often cited as short for Ferdinandos), was a popular meeting place for legal professionals. As per “Full text of “London vanished and Vanishing“, Nando’s was established under the same roof as the Rainbow coffee house.
14. Child’s Coffee House – St. Pauls: 1698
Founded in 1698, Child’s coffee house in St Pauls was one of London’s most popular and lively coffee houses. According to Mike Scopa of Layers of London “Literary houses – Child’s Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard” – Child’s was a popular watering hole for doctors, clergymen and surgeons. It was quite common for altercations and heated debates to take place amongst practitioners here.
15. Button’s Coffee House – Bow Street: 1712
The decline of the popular Will’s Coffee House in the early 1700s gave rise to the new and improved Button’s. This rival coffee house was frequented by many popular poets of the time.
London’s Coffee Houses in 2023
London coffee houses have come a very long way since their origins in the mid 17th century. Today, coffee houses are multinational corporations that offer standardised caffeinated beverages, various food and snack ranges, iced coffee and a whole lot more.
Whilst London is of course home to many of the world’s most popular coffee chains, like Starbucks, Costa, Nero and Pret, the capital also hosts a range of smaller, independent shops.
London has a rich history of coffee culture, with many of the country’s best roastaries located in the city. This has given way to a number of independent coffee houses that are well worth exploring.
Here are a few useful articles that round up the best coffee shops to visit in London today:
- The 26 best coffee shops in London, CN Traveller, Sarah James, May 2023
- Where To Find The Best Coffee In London, Vogue, Tom Howells, September 2023
- The 15 Essential Coffee Shops in London, London Eater, James Hansen, November 2022
- 40 Of The Very Best Coffee Shops In London For Your Next Caffeine Fix, Secret London, Georgie Hoole, November 2023.
Overall, London has a surprising coffee history that has paved the way not only for a rich and diverse coffee culture, but also has shaped many prominent industries in the modern day.
Coffee houses started life as penny universities, then exploded once they hit the capital, often being visited by some of the high fliers of 17th century society. Coffee houses were also known to be dark, dingy places at times, and were not always shining examples of grace and decorum.
If you want to learn more about the history of coffee, check out the Filter Stories: History of Coffee Podcast by James Harper and Jonathan Morris. I have personally learned a whole lot about coffee’s epic journey over the centuries through this podcast and can’t recommend it highly enough.