The Coffee House Tour – The Unreal City Audio company
A history walk with a difference, a mini drama unfolds before you detailing the rise and fall of the bitter liquid, stench + chamber pots, envy + greed, betrayal and a mystery disappearnce – and all for the love of the magic bean …
On a Saturday afternoon, I am standing on the steps of St Michaels Church on Cornhill, near Bank meeting other coffee and history lovers, ready to embark on a Coffee House Tour of the City, where 360 years ago coffee changed the face of London.
Our guide and historian is Dr Matthew Green announced, “this was the Cauldron of Creativity”, where the first coffee shack set up ‘shop’ and the great and the good would gather to sip and gossip, talk, discuss, rant and pontificate – much like a live action version of Twitter today! And so our journey into the origins of London’s murky merchant life opened.
Led by the engaging, extremely knowledgeable and entertaining Dr Green, we were led to St Michael’s alley where the alluring smell of coffee would have mingled with the steaming fog and fugs of smoke, sweat and urine of 17c London to Jamaica Winehouse.
This was the site of the first ‘coffee shop’ set up by the enterprising and entrepreneurial Pasqua Rosée, who was born in Ragusa in Sicily. A merchant named Daniel Edwards, a member of the Levant Company and a trader in Turkish goods, encountered Rosée at Smyrna in Anatolia, employed him as a man-servant and brought him back to Britain.
They eventually parted company and Pasqua launched is ‘coffee shop’ in 1650s at the heart of the city, (there now stands a churchyard garden).
It was really no more than a smoky shack – roofless and looked like a glorified stall with a brightly coloured canopy, from which the colourful Pasqua, be-turbaned as the ‘proprietor’ of this enterprising coffee endeavrou would have provided an aromatic liquid, black, bitter and gritty to the passers by.
I found this quote, which made me laugh out loud, as the coffee we sampled was no different, although our samples were very aromatic, they were bitter, strong and only the first inch was drinkable before the ‘Twain Experience’ hit you:
“Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. The cup is small, it is smeared with grounds; the coffee is black, thick, unsavory of smell, and execrable in taste. The bottom of the cup has a muddy sediment in it half an inch deep. This goes down your throat, and portions of it lodge by the way, and produce a tickling aggravation that keeps you barking and coughing for an hour.”
~Mark Twain (1835-1910) The Innocents Abroad (1869)
As Dr Green was regaling us with ribald 17c stories, someone from above screeched expletives, (using far riper language than befits this post) from a window above to “SHUUUUUT UUUUP and go away” – I had assumed it was part of the ‘street theatre experience’ but no, someone lives at the top of the winehouse! We responded by sniggering and scurrying off.
The garish coloured awning would bedeck the shack and the hubbub of people would congregate to meet, jest, gossip and argue fuelled by the new ebony elixir– coffee. The coffee would be served in a dish and city merchants would meet at this churchyard shack to discuss business, share tips and seal deals before going back to trade; the rival alehouses would look on in despair as Rose sold 600 dishes of coffee a day! Coffee was promoted as the sophisticated alternative to ale and its (alleged!) less desirous, violent side effects!
People were desperate to drink this stuff, even though many thought it tasted disgusting – “of soot, ash, mud and sh*t!”
We learned of wild and hyperbolic claims for this humble, ebony elixir and its curative powers over “dropsy, gout, scurvy, hypochondria”; even those ruined by a trade gone wrong were addicted to the ‘stuff of dreams’ and proclaimed after drinking it their ‘head became full of bees buzzing to 40 distinct melodies”. It was a drink for the sophisticated not to be compared to the violent results from imbibing ale!
By 1670’s Coffee houses were integral to society, but like many a private members club, women were not allowed to enter except for prostitutes, which created a tide of opposition and soon enough women petitioned against the coffee houses which encouraged their men to idle their time, that they were ‘corrosive to the essence of masculinity and turn men into women – and French women at that’. (entente cordiale between French and English was never strong at this time!)
“Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.”
~The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674)
It was a founding principle of Coffee shops to encourage conversation, a hub for ‘creative thoughts’ it was a competitive but democratic place, a great leveller for the ‘coffee house politicians’ who had an outlet, and could hear and voice their opinions and exchange and let flow unregulated ideas and knowledge.
They were pungent places, where men wore perfume, mingled with sweat and smoke – you were expected to divulge a tidbit of gossip, news, or a nugget of a rumour before you sat down. The reliability of this news or rumour was doubtful and men would frequently head to other coffeeshops to hear what was being said in order to check the veracity of the said rumour/news – a case of chasing Chinese whispers!
Without providing too many spoilers, we were led by Dr Green, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, through labyrinthine alleys, to courtyards and 17c drinking dens and churches, passing disused doorways and noble buildings that are now faceless Supermarkets (boo! hiss!) A whirlwind of facts and history was experienced and absorbed in a short space of time but made so accessible and enjoyable.
I shall not divulge the secret recipe for the bitter brew that was passed onto us, as for the Chamber pots and the mystery disappearance? Well, you will just have to find out for yourself.
We should also give a little nod of thanks that the public and the coffee entrepeneurs of 17c were so united, if it had been up to King Charles II, it may have been a different matter and ”coffee culture’ may never have entered our lexicon:
A PROCLAMATION FOR THE SUPPRESSION OF COFFEE HOUSES: Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of Coffee Houses of late years set up and kept within this Kingdom…and the great resort of idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many tradesmen and others, do herein misspend much of their time, which might and probably would be employed in and about their Lawful Calling and Affairs; but also for that in such houses…divers, false, malitious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of His Majesty’s Government, and to the disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath though it fit and necessary, that the said Coffee Houses be (for the Future) put down and suppressed…
~King Charles II of England, December 23, 1675 (This rule was revoked on January 8, due to widespread citizen protest.)
Thus reprieved, the coffee house continued in popularity and by 1680’s there were some 2,000 coffee houses/establishments in London!
And on that note, a retreat to the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was recommended for some coffee-free imbibing.
Some links you might find useful: