By the turn of the eighteenth century the coffee houses of London had become the great meeting-places of the capital – for relaxation and for stimulation. Whether your drink of choice was coffee, chocolate, or expensive tea, it was here you met with your friends and encountered strangers; where you could exercise your wit, pick up the latest news, sound forth your political opinions, and hear the latest spicy gossip as it did the rounds. Some characters (like Medley in Etherege’s The Man of Mode) were news bulletins in themselves, circulating scandal as a currency – one that gained value in the telling – perhaps to crash by tomorrow.
A French traveller found London’s coffee houses remarkable: “You have all manner of news there: you have a good fire, which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a dish of coffee; you meet your friends for the transaction of business – and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more.” (Henri Misson, 1717).
Coffee houses had their individual character, and this might change over the course of a day. Early in the morning the news-mongers circulated, spreading and exchanging the overnight intelligence; later, well-informed gentlemen might stroll in and put matters right; by afternoon the atmosphere was perhaps one of after-dinner reflection; then the place would ready itself for the arrival of the wits and the theatrical crowd primed for the adventures of the evening; and by nine the critics might reappear with their judgments on the new play at the Theatre Royal.
First established in London during the Commonwealth, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the coffee houses seem to have gained a reputation for seditious conversation – places that might attract the disaffected. In December 1675 King Charles II issued a proclamation in the London Gazette to suppress all coffee houses as being the haunts of “Idle and disaffected persons” who were spreading “malicious and scandalous reports to the defamation of His Majesties Government . . . speaking evil of things they understand not.” From the following week it would be forbidden for anyone “to keep any publick Coffeehouse, or to utter or sell any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, or they will answer the contrary at their utmost Perils.” It was a Draconian move against an institution that was becoming popular, and needless to say, this attempt to end what was proving to be a profitable trade for merchants and proprietors alike, was doomed. After a huge outcry the threat was withdrawn.* (*https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/100707).
By the reign of Charles’s niece, Queen Anne (1702-14), the coffee houses – and their slightly more upmarket cousins the chocolate houses – could be numbered in their hundreds, and they had established themselves as relatively respectable places of resort. Of course, seditious sentiments might still be uttered, and quarrels over politics were liable to break out at any time. The following picture suggests what a lively and disputatious place a London coffee house of the period might be, with the bewigged clientele coming to blows:
But coffee houses were generally clubbable places, resorts of conversation, grumbling, rumour, wit, scandal, and intellectual and political debate. There was something to suit every taste:
The gentle Beau too, joins in wise debate,
Adjusts his cravat, and reforms the State.
[The Tripe Club. A Satyr (1706)]
One establishment might offer conversations in Latin, another attract projectors and men of science, another one be the resort of members of the clergy in town on church business. But you had to be careful – a confirmed Whig would no sooner think of frequenting the high Tory Cocoa-Tree in Pall Mall, than a Jacobitical Tory would settle himself at Will’s in Covent Garden at the corner of Russell Street and Bow Street.
Each establishment had its own character, and there was all the variety you could wish for. White’s Chocolate House on St James’s Street was a more aristocratic haunt notorious for the ‘deep play’ of hazard, a dicing game at which huge fortunes were made or lost in a single evening, and when the shirt on your back could be the final desperate stake.
The social mix was considerable, but in one important way they were exclusive. Unlike the many taverns and alehouses of the capital, London coffee houses were closed to women. A fair number of them, however, were run by widows. Lillywhite’s compendium lists nineteen of them, including those presided over by Widow Turnbull, Widow Nixon, Widow Lloyd, and Widow Vernon – who in 1713 carried on her business in Fleet Street after the death of her husband. This situation was probably quite common – and it made a widow well set up in business an attractive marriage prospect.
On entering, the customer deposited his penny at the bar, and was expected to seat himself with the other gentlemen. You didn’t go into a coffee house to sit alone and keep your own company. And at these so-called ‘penny universities’, newspapers, books and pamphlets were available, and some of them had their own libraries. They could be venues for auctions, lottery ticket sales, with projectors making their pitch. Business could be transacted, especially in the flourishing coffee houses in Exchange Alley, off Cheapside in the City. The most famous of these were Jonathan‘s, Garraway’s, and Lloyds – which specialised in the latest shipping news. Entering Jonathan’s you would be met with a crowd of stock-jobbers crying their wares, and could hear the price of stocks rise and fall as the deals were made all round you. When the Royal Exchange was closed to share-dealing, the trade simply moved into the warren of streets on the other side of the road, packed with brokers, bankers, and the new trade of insurance.
In contrast to the busy financial dealings in Exchange Alley, at Will’s in Covent Garden the brightest and best in the literary world gathered. In this place where the great Dryden had once held court, aspiring writers formed a coterie in the company of Addison, Swift, Wycherley, Ambrose Philips, John Dennis, and John Gay. Here, as in other coffee houses which aspired to a literary character, a young man’s reputation could be made with a witty epigram or a finely turned pastoral. It was at Will’s that the teenage Alexander Pope made friends with Swift, and brought himself to the notice of influential patrons.
Such coffee-houses had libraries that lent out books, and on the tables, beside the newspapers, would be scattered controversial pamphlets, tedious sermons, or satirical squibs. An aspiring poet might tour the coffee houses and leave behind manuscript copies of his latest inspiration, hoping they would be noticed by the cultural influencers of the day. If he was especially lucky, his piece might find its way into The Tatler, the influential periodical begun by Richard Steele in 1709. This thrice-weekly paper offered regular reports from four carefully chosen coffee houses. As Steele explained in the first number, “All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate House; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee House; Learning under the title of the Grecian; and Foreign and Domestick News you will have from St James’s Coffee House.” From those four appropriate outposts, the magazine’s persona, ‘Isaac Bickerstaff’, was able to cover the cultural field – much like the Sunday supplements do today.
Part of the joy of a coffee house was its clientele, and a newcomer might encounter a wide range of characters. In Ned Ward’s series, The Weekly Comedy: Or, the Humours of a Coffee-House (1707), his readers were offered a succession of comic scenes that featured a miscellany of characters, including Hazard (a gamester), Blunt (a plain dealer), Bite (a sharper), Nice (a beau), Whim (a projector), Trick (a Lawyer), Froth (a punster), Bays (a poet), Harlem (a news-writer), and Guzzle (a hard drinker) – a group described by Ward a “Knaves of all Trades, and Fools in Ev’ry Art.” In Ward’s typically dyspeptic words, the coffee houses were full of “a buzzing breed, / That o’er their Coffee tattle, smoke, and read.”
But these places were not just for drinking and talking. Wagers would be taken on the news – men would talk about their trades, their latest reading, pass judgment on new play, speculate on the news from Europe – the triumphs and reverses when Britain was involved in a long continental war. The coffee houses of Queen Anne’s London fed the capital’s insatiable desire for news and sociability. At a time when ‘the World’ was merely five miles across and could be walked in a couple of hours, people sensed that everything was within reach. So much was happening around you that you really ought to know about it, and the coffee houses acted as a busy exchange. Here is Lewis Theobald writing about his daily routine in The Censor, no. 61 (12 March 1717):
“As I am obliged, in order to see how the world runs, and gather observations on the humours of mankind . . . I constantly appear once a Day at the Coffee-houses in vogue, and where I expect to meet with the most matter for speculation. Were it not for these diurnal circulations, and the minutes which I take from what occurs there, I might find myself sometimes at a loss for subjects . . . I [put] on an air of inadvertence, and glean up the scatter’d papers from every table . . . being seated, and like a profound politician, with my coffee half cold, seeming to nod o’er the respective interests of Europe . . . I have often sat with pleasure to hear the Nation settled, and the Wits arraign’d; and amuse myself with the variety of conversation, which is bandied by every distinct knot of talkers. I have heard a country Squire over his pipe at one corner, sputtering about the age and strength of his October [a strong beer] and recommending the house-wifery of his daughter Penelope. At another, a company of sparks praising the beauty of a bar-keeper. A third clan would be canvassing the sermons and conduct of their parson . . . These disjointed topicks of conversation [are] played off at one time and in the self-same place . . .”
In this world, variety was a stimulus. These sociable spaces offered an unpredictable mixture of entertainment and challenge, knowledge and opportunity, escape and refreshment. The world was surely a better place for these busy harbours of the mind.