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The History Of London's Coffee House Culture
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The History Of London's Coffee House Culture

Picture of Fran Lynagh
Updated: 27 October 2017
While the coffee house of London today is often filled with lone coffee drinkers on laptops, its original purpose was to serve as a hub of intellectual discussion and debate. Find out how a Sicilian man and a merchant founded London’s first coffeehouse in 1652, and how coffee culture has thrived and evolved ever since.

Owl And Kitten Cafés in 2015, What’s Next?

London coffee shops these days seem to be broadly split into two categories. First, we have the chains: bustling, commercial, and anonymous establishments, in which customers spend a maximum of fifteen minutes. Second, we have the independent, trendy cafés found in Shoreditch and the like, which are characterized by kale and mango smoothies and bespectacled folk on laptops. Both are arguably anti-social places with more and more people turning up alone to get some reading or life admin done. But, you’ll be interested to know that it didn’t always used to be this way.

Back To 1652…

Indeed, coffeehouses used to be altogether quite different. It’s time to meet a man called Pasqua Rosée. He was probably born in Sicily in the early 1600s and later met a merchant named Daniel Edwards who traded in Turkish goods. He employed Rosée as a servant and brought him over to Britain where Rosée set up London’s first ever coffeehouse in 1652. It was named The Turk’s Head and was found in St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill.

Coffee had previously been consumed only for medical purposes in Britain, but with the revolution started by Rosée, coffee took on a whole new meaning. Coffee houses became meeting places for intellectuals to debate important topics in a much more civilized setting than the ale-soaked taverns where such discussions had previously unfolded. For a small fee punters were granted admission, a coffee and a calm, alcohol-free space to exchange ideas. Interestingly, historians have found that social status was considered unimportant in London’s coffeehouses and people of all classes and political backgrounds were invited to join in conversations.

The Age Of Enlightenment

This London coffee house culture came hand in hand with the Age of Enlightenment, but what exactly was that? Sometimes called the Age of Reason, the era began in the 1620s and ended in the 1780s when it gave way to the start of Romanticism. Simply put, the Age of Enlightenment was a period during which people realized they could challenge the authority of the institutions around them and began to value reason and science over Church authority. This was a huge European intellectual movement, with main hubs in Britain and France. The common coffee house acted as a springboard for the initiation of major developments in philosophy, politics and art.

Now What?

Although the conversation in coffee houses in modern times may not be of the same ground-breaking caliber, their popularity certainly hasn’t dwindled. Rosée’s coffee house still stands in fact, in the same place, but under a different name. It’s now called Jamaica Wine House, and is no longer a coffee house, but a pub (how very British) that goes by the nickname ‘The Jampot.’