The London coffeehouses of the 17th & 18th centuries were the engines of creation that helped drive the Enlightenment – the European intellectual movement of the time that emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition. Their history is a fascinating one.
Modern day coffee shops such as the likes of Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Caffè Nero have their roots in the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century London, but those old coffeehouses were quite unlike the establishments we know and love today.
Coffee originated in Ethiopia in the 10th Century, reached Yemen by the 15th century and by the 16th-century coffee had spread to Persia (Iran) and Turkey.
In 1645 the first European coffeehouse opened in Venice and it became popular throughout Europe during the late 17th century.
The first coffeehouse was opened in America in 1689 and henceforth it spread throughout the world.
In 1652 Pasqua Rosée, a Greek, opened the first coffee stall in the churchyard of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London.
17th-century coffee was pretty foul compared to the coffee of today, but the caffeine in it was an addictive stimulant.
Soon coffeehouses were commonplace. Ten years later in 1663 there were over 80 coffeehouses within the City and by the start of the eighteenth century, this number had grown to over 500.
Coffeehouses were where men, and it was only men, went to meet each other and to have conversations.
Often, these men were complete strangers and having conversations with strangers was a founding principle of the coffee-houses and their very lifeblood.
Before coffeehouses, men had met in alehouses to discuss, to exchange ideas and do business but thanks to the ale such venues were noisy, often rowdy places and not conducive to holding conversations.
On the other hand, coffeehouses were quieter, more sedate venues where people, again only men I am sorry to say, could engage in more serious conversation.
Any man could gain admittance to a coffeehouse by purchasing a cup of coffee for the price of one penny. Here he could drink coffee, smoke, read the newsletters or join one of the conversational groups. It is not too surprising that such coffeehouses became known as penny universities.
It was these London coffeehouses of the 17th & 18th centuries that were the engines of creation that helped drive the Enlightenment – the European intellectual movement of the time that emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition.Did Coffee Fuel the Age of Enlightenment? – Steven Johnson
Different districts of London housed coffeehouses that catered for distinctive professions.
Coffeehouses close to the Royal Exchange in the City provided for businessmen. Politicians frequented those in the neighborhood of Westminster and St James and in the vicinity of St Paul’s Cathedral they were patronized by clergymen and theologians.
In some ways, they were early forms of what today we would call communities of practice.
The early London Coffeehouses
Many British institutions have their roots in these early coffeehouses.
The London Stock Exchange evolved from Jonathan’s Coffee-House, a coffeehouse founded by Jonathan Miles, in Exchange Alley, around 1680.
Lloyd’s Coffee House was opened by Edward Lloyd on Tower Street in around 1688 and was frequented by members of the shipping community such as merchants, sea captains, and shipowners and was a place to discuss insurance deals. The dealing that took place led to the establishment of the insurance market Lloyd’s of London and Lloyd’s Register.
William Shipley founded the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in 1754 and held its first meeting at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden.
The auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s also have their origins in coffeehouses.
Modern Day Coffee Shops
The early coffeehouses were far removed from the coffee shops of today where people sit glued to their laptops or smartphones and rarely talk with each other, never mind strangers.
They were places where people went to learn the latest news, where people actively engaged with each other in gossip, animated discussion and fierce debate on a broad range of topics from politics to religion to science.
They were social communities of sorts. They were the Internet of their day.
Things have changed over 350 years and today we get instant news from around the globe delivered to us on our smartphones, and we can enter into discussion and debate in a broad spectrum of online forums.
But these online conversations are not the same. They are not real conversations – they lack so much. The intensity, the vigor, the passion, and the humor.
I’d like to see the return of these old coffeehouses. Not for the vile coffee of the day but the real face-to-face conversation.
I’d love to walk into a Starbucks and sit down next to a total stranger and yell out “Your Servant Sir what news from Tripoli?”
- Article: Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries
- Article: London’s Coffee Houses
- Article: London cafes: the surprising history of London’s lost coffeehouses
- Article: The Enlightenment Coffeehouses
This page is part of an online book on Conversational Leadership that I am in the process of writing.
Access is currently restricted.
You can learn more on the