Updated: Mar 30
In 1651, in a section of the Angel Coaching Inn, Oxford, a Lebanese Jewish immigrant named Jacob founded the first coffeehouse in England, sparking a national phenomenon of explosive cultural impact.
Often misconstrued as a European import, the Angel opened just four years after the very first coffeehouse outside of the Ottoman Empire was founded in Venice in 1647. Pasqua Rosé, an ex-servant of a British trader in Smyrna, Turkey, opened London’ first coffeehouse just after the Angel, while the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, almost directly across the street in Oxford, was founded by a Syrian Jew named Cirque Jobson in 1654. Within the decade there were 82 coffeehouses in London, growing to over 550 by the middle of the 18th century.
The phenomenon seems not to have been driven by the taste of coffee (reported as deeply unpleasant and compared to mud, soot and worse), but by the culture of the coffee house as a new form of social space, fuelled by caffeine, clientele and cheap prices. For a single penny – securing unlimited refills – men would gather to debate the matters of the day, and early newspapers were sent by runners between houses. The affordability of the coffeehouse meant that knowledge was immediately more accessible, and spread faster, than ever before, tied into the period’s urban expansion and cultural revolution following the Civil War. While women were not explicitly banned from the coffeehouse, the social constraints of the time meant that the boisterous coffee culture was almost exclusively male, and these stereotypes were only further entrenched by the movement’s popularity.
Such a revolution was not uncontroversial, and the popularity of early coffeehouses in Oxford can be understood alongside the academic identity of the city. Not only was the university receptive to new trends from the Continent and further afield – and an early source explains away the clientele of the Angel as ‘some, who delighted in noveltie’ – but the opportunities of the coffeehouse for lively debate on matters academic, political or more had immediate appeal in the city. Coffeehouses acquired the nickname ‘penny universities’, and helped to bring previously elite discussions held behind college walls out into the public – open to all who paid their penny to overhear and comment. This new culture, dangerously egalitarian, was treated with early suspicion, and in 1675 Charles II attempted to ban the coffeehouse on fears of republicanism and sedition. Such was the popularity of the coffeehouse, only twenty years after its arrival, that the ban lasted a period of two weeks before the king caved under public pressure.
Socially, the early patrons of coffeehouses were sneered at as effeminate, liberal and soft. The lewd satire ‘Women’s Petition Against Coffee’, published in 1674, bemoans how the previously virile men of England, patrons of the great British pub, had become lazy and ‘Frenchified’, wasting their time in the coffeehouse. Elsewhere, coffee was praised for its opposition to alcohol, with drunken violence replaced by reasoned debate, and the Puritan movement of the mid-17th century fully supported the new culture. While the coffeehouse was fundamentally defined by its affordability, the convenience of meeting socially and the stimulating effects of caffeine, different establishments developed their own identity, and each attracted a separate clientele. In some, meetings led to a practical new use as a place of business, and the foundations of the London Stock Exchange, Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses can all be traced to the 18th century coffeehouse.
Despite the stunning popularity of the movement in the mid-18th century, the coffeehouse declined quite rapidly after this period. From the later 18th century, the easy availability and cheap price of tea imported from Britain’s colonies meant that people could increasingly drink it at home, rather than venture out to the coffeehouse. When people desired a more social space, the more hierarchical society of the later 18th century gave rise to private and exclusive members’ clubs – seen as a more refined, albeit less accessible, meeting place.
Coffeehouses drifted out of fashion, but were championed by the Temperance Movement of the Victorians, who like the earlier Puritans valued an alternative to alcohol, and promoted the coffeehouse over pubs to the working classes. Following a rise in home coffee culture, the later 20th century saw a third great revival of the coffeehouse with the emergence of espresso and specialised drinks not readily available elsewhere. In this modern age, global brands such as Starbucks brought the coffeehouse to every locale, offering a new product which drew people out of their homes once more. This worldwide impact, pushed by large brands, helped to establish a supranational coffeehouse culture, taking root in countries – such as China – which had no historical ties to the movement. The coffeehouse once more established in modern society, smaller, independent houses then gained popularity over the less bespoke chains, offering a more characterful and specialised experience to the customer.
While in the 17th century the coffeehouse movement had flourished as an exciting social revolution, bringing people and ideas together, we interact differently with shared spaces – and each other – 400 years later. Today’s café phenomenon remains a social one, but our relationships are more individualised and personal. While we still go to the coffeehouse as a meeting place, we rarely announce our conversations to an entire room of strangers, and the internet access on offer means that we can even go to these public spaces alone. This may seem a decline from the boisterous ‘Penny University’, but coffeehouses remain valuable shared spaces in our society – we are still attracted to the hubbub, valuing a public meeting place for our own relationships, while psychologists argue that the background noise of the café increases brain productivity for those who work or study there ‘alone’. The product, immeasurably improved in taste, is still as addictive and exciting as ever – an experience which has proved over centuries impossible to reproduce at home
That is not to say that the modern coffeehouse does not face challenges. The increased popularity of the café as a workspace, and clients who occupy a table for hours and buy a single drink, has even led some owners to block their Wi-Fi. It’s too simplistic, though, to argue modern social connectivity will spell the end of the social coffeehouse movement. Instead, the variety of experience, offered by more bespoke establishments than ever before, show the future of the movement. The first remarkable century of the English coffeehouse was marked not only by great expansion, but also by the adaptability of society and the coffeehouse itself as new businesses and ways of thinking were born. Today, cafes thrive on their own unique identity, with clients attracted by the comfort of the space they know and rely on. In Oxford, the Angel Coaching Inn has over the centuries been replaced by the Grand Café, offering a tourist-heavy clientele the opportunity to drink coffee in a bustling, historic setting. Elsewhere in the city, students work in cafes, and people meet in others – the coffeehouse movement remaining fundamentally social; and thriving.
By William Blackburn