Public and Private Pleasures

Coffeehouses and coffee were not as closely related as one might think.

Advertisement for London coffeehouse, c.1700 © Bridgeman Images.

The story of England’s preternatural taste for coffee is well known. Originally cultivated in Ethiopia, coffee entered the Islamic world in the early 16th century, becoming a staple of first Arabic and then Turkish society. Following the bean came the coffeehouse, a new institution allowing Muslim men to socialise together publicly, outside the confines of the home. It was not until the early 17th century that English merchants and travellers began telling stories about this strange beverage of the Turks and the coffeehouses in which it was drunk; not until the 1630s that a few of the more cosmopolitan elite began experimenting with coffee in England; and not until the 1650s that the first coffeehouses were opened in London and Oxford. 

This was broadly in line with the adoption of coffee – and the coffeehouse – elsewhere in Europe: a few decades later than in the great trading cities of Italy and the Low Countries, a few years earlier than in France and Germany. But now the traditional story of English coffee becomes oddly exceptional. Consumption of coffee in Christian Europe remained relatively constrained by small crops, erratic supply lines and the Muslim domination of the market until the 18th century. It was only from the 1710s, when the Dutch began growing coffee in Java (modern Indonesia) and the French transplanted it to the Caribbean, that consumption levels even began to approach those of tea. In England, in contrast, historians argue that the popularity of coffee rapidly escalated from the 1650s, with coffeehouses proliferating in London and provincial cities and writers joking as early as the 1670s that coffee was eclipsing beer and ale as the nation’s favourite drink. 

The problem with this account is that it confuses the institution of the coffeehouse with the commodity purportedly drunk there. Thanks to the diaries of men like the civil servant Samuel Pepys and the philosopher Robert Hooke we know that coffeehouses really had become a feature of London’s public life by the 1660s; but this does not mean they served much coffee. Until the 18th century the flow of beans into London – or indeed York, Edinburgh and Dublin – remained as erratic and restricted as that into Amsterdam or Paris. To stay in business, coffeehouses needed to provide a range of consumables. Indeed, while the diaries of Pepys and Hooke are certainly crammed with coffeehouses, coffee is surprisingly absent. Pepys, for example, loved to record the foods and drinks he consumed and where he consumed them; but his only reference to coffee was in the parlour of his boss’ wife, where ‘My Lady made us drink our morning draught there – of several wines. But I drank nothing but some of her Coffee; which was purely made, with a little sugar in it’. Hooke was an inveterate lover of coffeehouses, who visited his favourites, such as Garaway’s and Jonathan’s, at least once a day throughout the 1670s. But his diary suggests he only drank coffee for a 20-month period – between May 1673 and December 1674 – and that he did so cautiously and intermittently (he finally gave up after he ‘Drank Sugared Coffee’ that ‘Agreed not’). Like his contemporaries, Hooke was much more likely to ask for chocolate, brandy, beer, tobacco, or even asparagus in coffeehouses than ever ask for coffee. 

Other records confirm that just as London coffeehouses served all manner of beverages – especially alcohol – so they were home to all manner of activities, from gaming, prostitution and foreign language lessons to drunken fights and seditious plotting. In provincial cities like Norwich and Chester the reality was slightly different, but equally messy. Court depositions (witness statements from legal cases) and inventories (lists of goods owned by people at the time of death) show that outside London, retailers did not open coffeehouses per se, but rather ‘coffee rooms’ (as they were named) inside buildings that were already functioning as alehouses and inns. These could be slightly more salubrious than other rooms, with more pictures and comfy chairs, but they were clearly part of the larger alehouse. In 1718 in Chester, for example, 17-year-old Matthew Owens, an apprentice to the alehouse keeper Benjamin Davies, testified in court that one ‘Mr Sylvester came into the kitchen, called for his pint of drink and sitting down, began to talk of the said Mr Parry, and called him a scoundrel and a lousy dog, that the said Mr Parry, being very near in the coffee room, came out to him in the kitchen’. Fuelled by alcohol, the argument between Tory and Whig soon escalated into violence.

A more accurate history of coffee in England recognises that the rise of the coffeehouse and coffee were not one and the same thing. It also acknowledges that coffeehouses and coffee rooms, while certainly masculine, were hybrid spaces in which various food and drink accompanied many different activities – that is, much like the early coffeehouses on the Continent. But this history also makes us rethink where the surge in demand for coffee really came from, once imports increased in the early 18th century. Depositions and inventories again provide an answer; and it is one that harks back to Pepys’ encounter with coffee in ‘My Lady’s’ parlour. When coffee finally begins to be mentioned in court records from the early 1700s, it is invariably in the context of women and men enjoying coffee at home: this at the very moment that coffee pots and cups begin to appear in the inventories of middle-class households. Servants in Great Yarmouth felt the apprentice Samuel Pearson was getting too much ‘liberty’ when his master and mistress started inviting him ‘to drink a dish of coffee or tea, or a glass of wine with them’ after the evening meal. In nearby Norwich, Amy Watson defended the frugality of her daughter by arguing she never bought ‘diversions’ like ‘tea, coffee, chocolate, brandy or wine but only at such time as she laid in childbirth or was indisposed’. And at a harvest feast in rural Suffolk the genteel guests of the landowner, Mr Broughton, ‘drank tea and coffee’ in the parlour and walked sometime in the garden’, while the ‘harvest men’ got drunk in the kitchen. 

All of which suggests that the English taste for coffee developed not so much in the masculine coffeehouse as the feminine parlour; that it was redolent less of the ‘public sphere’ and much more of domestic intimacies, respectability and pleasures.


Phil Withington is Professor in Social and Cultural History at the University of Sheffield.