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Bookcase full of booksI’ve just returned from a lecture – at Selfridges of all places – titled Coffee Culture. Rather than discussing the ubiquitous sub-culture of addiction to caffeine and milk that is plaguing our cities worldwide, it instead looked at the fascinating history of London’s coffee houses, as they were once known, from their creation in the mid-seventeenth century to their demise in the late nineteenth.

For just over a month (until 1 March), Selfridges’ Ultra Lounge has been transformed into a library of floor-to-ceiling books. Inventive displays fill the walls. Seemingly ancient typewriters are up and running, offering an inescapable draw for anyone old enough to remember how to use a typewriter to leave a note to the next visitor on the blank white page. There’s an eclectic selection of books, all available for you to browse or even sit down and read on one of the supremely comfortable sofas. For free. There’s also a series of events and lectures.

Tonight’s lecture was given by Dr Matthew Green, with additional moments of brilliance from Somerled Mackay, who brought all of the historical quotes to life.

Matthew Green talking at lecture

First London Coffee House blue plaque

It was Pasqua Rosée, a Greek man who had spent much of his life in Turkey and on the Dalmation coast, who set up London’s first coffee house in 1652. His shack was positioned in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill and before long, queues were stretching down the alleyway, filled with weary Londoners desperately in need of a shot of the dark stuff to wake them up. Not all that different from today, you might think.

However, the very essence of the coffee shop was entirely different. Today you enter a Starbucks and find most people on their laptops, mobiles or at the very least huddled in twos and threes.

An early image of Edward Lloyd's Coffee House,...

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee houses were where one went to discuss current affairs, politics and all important matters. In fact, certain coffee shops were known for their particular specialty – St James Square for media, Westminister for politics, The City and East London for news from the colonies. And they were a much more communal affair. Long tables dominated the upper rooms (for they were rarely found on the ground floor). Once you paid your penny entrance fee, you’d be accosted with a ‘What news?’. Offer up a snippet of new news, gossip or information and your fellow coffee-drinkers would surreptitiously shuffle around the table to create a space. Several of the hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers (after the stringent laws on licensing were lifted in 1694) would be scattered across the table. The coffee houses were dominated by men. Other than those on the extreme ends of the social scale – duchesses attending an astronomy lecture and whores looking to pick up business – women did not enter coffee houses, for risk of tarring their reputation.

By the end of the 17th century, there was one coffee shop for every 180 or so Londoners (if you think that doesn’t sound like much, today it stands at about one for every 780). Interestingly, Pasqua Rosée was way ahead of his time with his branding. Rather than the head of a mermaid, he hung a sign with an image of his own head above his shack – The Turk’s Head. At a time when literacy was a skill only attributed to the upper classes, the pictures hanging above each shop dictated what it sold. Adam and Eve above an apple shop, a unicorn above an apothecary shop and, in many a case, a Turk’s head above a coffee house. [EDIT: Literacy was, it seems, more widespread in the late 17th century than I first thought. However, the tradition of having pictures instead of words above a shop still continued. Thanks to Roger for pointing this out!]

Coffee shops grew more and more popular as the British empire, and in turn, the middling classes, prospered. However, they ultimately fell out of favour as technology and methods of communicating news developed. The final traditional coffee house closed but two months after the Transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in the 1860s. Coffee houses, as a source of news, had been replaced by much faster and more accurate methods. And of course, the arrival of tea at the end of the 19th century didn’t help matters either.

Apart from a short Victorian misguided revival (in an attempt to get those darstadly scoundrels out of the alehouses), the coffee house more or less disappeared until the 1950s.

English: Cup of Costa coffee.

At first, they sprang up in Soho, at a time when teenage culture was developing and the new generation were wanting to revel in their post-war freedom. They remained fairly low-key and independent until the 1990s. Costa Coffee, first opened in 1978, was bought out by Whitbread in 1995. Pret a Manger was founded in 1986, Caffe Nero in 1997 and the first UK Starbucks opened in 1998. We’re now experiencing an ever-growing selection of ‘Third Wave’ coffee shops, set up often by Antipodeans as a backlash against the watery substances chains are pumping out. Small independents that painstakingly do everything thing they can to create The Best Cup of Coffee. It’s become a bit of a Holy Grail for many, myself included.

Matthew took an interesting viewpoint though – he said he’d be quite happy to drink instant (involuntary gasp) if there was an interesting person to sit next to and strike up conversation with. Now there’s a refreshing thought. What if coffee shops did become more like those in the days of lore, where people sat round and discussed current affairs, or interesting people they’d met, or even gave a snippet of their life story? One thing I’ve found from my travels is that every single person has a story to tell. It’s a sobering thought to think that there are 7.5 million stories wandering around London, brushing past each other on daily basis, waiting to be uncovered… if we just had the courage to strike up conversation.

Crowd of LondonersCoffee Culture was held as part of Selfridges’ Words Words Words festival, in conjunction with The Idler Academy, a bookshop (that serves coffee), has one large table and encourages discussion. They also hold a series of lectures, workshops and courses on everything from Latin to Ukuleles. 

If you’d like to hear the Coffee Culture talk in person, it’s on again on 29 February at The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Rd, W2 5QH. 

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