The Coffee House in Eighteenth-Century London: A Sociable Engine of Change
A characteristic, but perhaps historically inaccurate, view of eighteenth-century London life is one of amiable sociability, at least for those who could afford it. It was a period when poets, playwrights, artists, politicians, and ordinary men of business and leisure seemed to mingle together in a whirlpool of public discourse. There was an explosion of information. Newspapers were publishing the latest news weekly, or even daily; periodicals discussed moral issues and were quick to publicise the latest scandals; and fashion, popular culture and the day-to-day problems of city life were subjects which, perhaps for the first time, could be read about widely. At the heart of this dissemination was the coffee-house.
The very first edition of The Spectator, published in June 1710, had this justification for its own topicality :
“Sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s... sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman, overhear the conversation of every table in the room. I appear Sunday night at St. James’s coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner-room.... My face, is likeways very well known at the Grecian and the Cocoa-Tree...... and [I] sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s.”
The first coffee houses had opened in London more than fifty years before. By the turn of the century, they had become established as the premier meeting places for those who wished to conduct business, hear the latest news, gossip about the most recent scandals, or merely to see and be seen. As they proliferated, so their clientele tended to be increasingly attracted to others of like mind: the above extract demonstrates that those of particular interests or political persuasions would regularly meet in the same establishments.
The list of the most prominent houses is fairly well-known and includes these familiar names: Will’s, St James’s, Child’s, the Grecian, the Cocoa-tree, Jonathan’s, Button’s, and of course, Lloyd’s. Many of these were the initial beginnings of establishments that would become essential cogs within the City’s financial workings. Mercantile London in the first half of the eighteenth century was a largely unregulated financial circus: fortunes could be made and lost within the environment of the Exchange. The buying and selling of stocks and shares, the gambling on the future prices of imported goods, and the intense financial speculation on the success or failure of the seaboard trade were all activities which, while not in their infancy, were certainly expanding exponentially, and they flourished in the natural environment of the coffee house. Jonathan’s, near the Exchange in Cornhill, was the place where stocks and shares were traded, and was the forerunner of today’s Stock Exchange. Lloyd’s, located in Lombard Street, became the place to get the most up-to-date information regarding maritime trade movements, and this coffee house encouraged its customers with the publication of Lloyd’s News, a regular information sheet which evolved into today’s Lloyd’s List. It continues to serve largely the same function of providing accurate worldwide shipping information. However, given the limited access to the paper when it first started, it was read aloud in the coffee house —usually at around ten in the morning— so that it was essential to be there if you wanted the most up-to-date information.
In April 1710, The Spectator (No 49) published what might be regarded as the most complete contemporary description of the coffee house and its typical clientele. It starts in the early morning, at about six, when the narrator’s friend, Beaver the Haberdasher, holds court and according to The Spectator:
“none can pretend to guess what step will be taken in any one court of Europe until Mr Beaver throws down his pipe and declares what measures the allies must enter into upon this new posture of affairs.”
Next come the law students of Westminster, “who rise early for no other purpose but to publish their laziness”; students, it would seem, have never been taken particularly seriously when entertaining one another in public, even three hundred years ago. They are followed soon after by more serious characters with “business or good sense in their faces […] come to the coffee-house either to transact affairs or enjoy conversation.” These are the men (and exclusively men) who use the coffee house as a place of work in which to close deals, exchange information, and look for profitable opportunities in the unregulated financial environment.
Next comes someone named EUBULUS —a synonym for ‘good councillor’— who holds court until the late evening. He is the epitome of the eighteenth-century gentleman of manners: “He enjoys a great fortune handsomely, without launching into expense; and exerts many noble and useful qualities, without appearing in public employment. His wisdom and knowledge are serviceable to all that think fit to make use of them…”
Finally, at around eleven in the evening, comes “Tom the Tyrant, the first minister of the house, who gives his orders to the servants below him for the disposition of liquors, coal and cinders.”
And so the day comes to an end. This is a very picturesque description of the daily activities of a coffee-house near the Temple, the heart of the city at the time. Yet we must be cautious. Steele and Addison, the authors of The Spectator, were keen advocates of the genteel society: all its members polite and reasonable, everything and every person in the appropriate place, and conflict resolved through learned discussion. Their evocation of the coffee house has persisted through time, but its veracity must be questioned. In 1739 there were an estimated 550 coffee houses in London, and it is simply not believable that they all operated in the manner described above. Many were the haunts of criminals and traders in stolen goods, and some were the public face of brothels and illegal drinking and gambling dens. It is the wide diversity of the coffee house that makes them both so accessible and yet so elusive. A few further examples will serve to illuminate this diversity.
Alongside Lloyd’s, perhaps the most famous and therefore best-documented coffee house must be Jonathan’s, in Exchange Alley, Cornhill. It was established around 1680, and due to its location soon became the meeting place for those wishing to speculate in stocks and shares. Some time in 1697 or 1698 the behaviour of the stockbrokers had become so offensive that they were ordered to leave the Royal Exchange, and they re-established themselves at Jonathan’s. (They remained there until 1773, when the building had become much too small for their numbers and new premises were found in Threadneedle Street, where the Stock Exchange remains to this day.) At the height of the South Sea Bubble Jonathan’s was the centre for the speculators, and when the bubble burst in 1720 the effect was dramatic, not only on the British economy but also on the coffee house. In a letter of April 1721, Edward Harley, Duke of Oxford wrote:
“Nothing arises or increases here but uneasiness, discontent and clamour which reigns in every part of the city. The Exchange is the least frequented place of any of it. Jonathan’s and Garraway’s empty, and no creatures but passengers to be seen in the Alley, nor any trade stirring…”
Business soon returned to normal, however, and by the middle of the century, Jonathan’s was again the hub of market speculation. In 1761 a pamphlet was published attacking the unscrupulous behaviour of the stockbrokers, claiming that 150 of them each paid a subscription of £8 a year to give them exclusive access to the coffee house for three hours a day. This annual income of £1200 would be the equivalent of approximately £120,000 today, so business clearly was thriving.
Not all coffee houses served such an elite clientele. Some facilitated organised crime, and some were engaged in more personal activities. These establishments, by their very nature, are difficult to identify, but, located in Covent Garden, Tom King’s coffee house became well known as a place where all pleasures could be purchased for a price. Very close to the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern (then the most notorious brothel in London), this coffee house can be seen in Hogarth’s first print, Morning, from the series The Four Times of the Day. Two rakes are kissing and embracing young market girls in the foreground, while in the doorway of the coffee house in the background, a huge fight has broken out. This early morning scene would not have been unusual, for the modus operandi of Tom King’s was to open after the taverns closed around eleven o’clock, and then serve as a meeting place where those who wished to continue their evening could do so, often until dawn, when the market would open. Moll King became the sole proprietor after her husband’s death, and then retired to the villa which she had built in Haverstock Hill. When she died in 1747, she left a large fortune.
Not all coffee houses were so financially successful. Early in the century Richard Hogarth opened a coffee house in St. John’s Gateway, Clerkenwell, and a 1704 newspaper advertisement stated: “At Hogarth’s Coffee house in St John’s Gate the mid-way between Smithfield and Clerkenwell, there will meet every day at 4 a Clock some Learned Gentlemen, who speak Latin readily, where any Gentlemen that is either skilled in that Language or desirous to perfect himself thereof, will be welcome.”
This was William Hogarth’s father, compiler of a Latin dictionary and an unsuccessful teacher who, after the coffee house failed, spent some years in a debtor’s prison. This event had a lasting effect upon his son, who throughout his life ensured that he took every opportunity to secure a good income from his art, and was a leading advocate of the Copyright Act which guaranteed the financial rights of artists to their own works.
Finally, there were the gaming houses, of which White’s is probably the most famous, but there were also others such as Almack’s, in which huge sums of money could be won or lost in a single bet. Charles James Fox, for example, is reputed to have lost thousands of pounds at Almack’s, often in a single night. Before he died, Fox’s father paid off his son’s gambling debts in excess of £120,000, around £15,000,000 today. White’s was the most prestigious of these establishments, though it began as a chocolate house in 1693. Through various moves and name changes it seems to have turned into an establishment that sold tickets to the opera, masquerades and balls, and where high-stake gamblers could play. The first record of White’s Club dates from 1736, and in 1739 it was described by one writer as “a den of thieves.” The purpose behind making these clubs exclusive was twofold: it ensured that only those with sufficient standing could take part, thereby keeping out the lower orders, but it also deterred gamblers who perhaps did not have sufficient financial resources to lose heavily. The same principle applied to those establishments which were attended by those of a particular political persuasion, Whig or Tory. By becoming members-only clubs they preserved their primary function of being places where like minds could meet, and ensured that when political opportunities arose, those involved could make informed decisions with their peers.
The coffee houses, as establishments in which social interactions of the variety described above could occur, began to decline in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The reasons for this are complex, but of particular significance were the rise in popularity of tea-drinking, which could easily be enjoyed at home, and the expansion, greater availability and lower cost of the printed press. In their time the coffee houses provided an environment in which those of similar interests could meet and engage relatively safely. They made a significant contribution to our social and economic dynamic, and, as such, laid foundations for organisations which are still active today, from the large financial institutions to the small, highly exclusive private members’ clubs. However, it should be remembered that they all began in the same way, as places where men could meet and, primarily, socialise. As a fitting end, let the last words on the coffee house come from James Boswell, who recorded his experiences as a young man in mid-eighteenth century London in his private journals, and had this to say about Child’s, a popular house near St Paul’s:
“It is quite a place to my mind; dusky, comfortable and warm, with a society of citizens and physicians who talk politics very fully and are sagacious and sometimes jocular.”
This was in 1762, and who would not wish to take a seat in such a comfortable establishment? However, nothing lasts forever, and in March 1778 Boswell wrote:
“I went to drink tea at Child’s Coffee-house, my constant resort every Saturday during the winter that I lived in London. But I found it was extinguished, being now turned into a private house. It was to a certain degree a melancholy regret to find an old coffee-house, well known to the wits of Queen Anne’s reign and of which I had read in the Spectator, no more. And its being my own old acquaintance increased the regret. The extinction of anything that has given us any pleasure or comfort, or even to which we have been accustomed, gives us uneasiness.”
The days of the coffee house were over; their combination of non-alcoholic refreshment, social interaction and ready access to up-to-date news had been overtaken and such establishments were no longer required. There are parallels with the decline of public houses in our own time: people were finding other ways to socialise and communicate with one another, and what was exciting, necessary and vibrant for one generation had become old-fashioned and irrelevant for the next. We are left with the slightly romanticised ideal of the coffee house, but it should be chiefly remembered as the institution in which democratic debate and economic activity first entwined. --Paul Flux