St Michael’s Alley was the centre of the 17th century London coffee house phenomenon.
The church of St Michael was in existence by 1133 and ended up in the possession of the Drapers’ Company. After a fire at the church in 1421, tenements were built along with the creation of St Michael’s Alley, just off of Cornhill
. The first coffee house in London was opened there in 1652.
Pasqua Roseé, who was a Greek Armenian, ran it as a side-business to his main profession of being valet to the businessman Daniel Edwards. Edwards was an importer of goods from the Ottomon Empire and this included coffee. Edwards had been helped in this particular import idea by Pasqua Roseé who beforehand had been a servant for a Levant merchant in Smyrna, Turkey and had there developed a taste for Turkish coffee. Before working for Daniel Edwards, Roseé - whose real name was Harutiun Vartian - had previously established a coffee house in Oxford the previous year with no discernible success. The accepted story of the creation of London’s first coffee house runs that visitors to the Edwards house were served with this exotic drink from the East and were amazed by it. While coffee had been known as a ’medicine’ in western Europe for a few decades previously, such was the clamour for it as a beverage rather than a medicine that Edwards helped set up Pasqua Roseé in a London business selling coffee.
Roseé’s head in profile wearing a turban and a ’Turkish’ moustache in the St Michael’s Alley establishment became the look of the sign for all coffee houses, starting with this one. This first coffee house was little more than a shed in the churchyard of St Michael’s Cornhill
London coffee house, 17th century (click to enlarge)
Pasqua Roseé was soon selling over 600 coffees daily. Luckily for him, coffee quickly came to be seen as an antidote to the drunkenness, violence and lust that polite society considered rampant in the capital. Roseé triggered a coffee house boom. Such establishments became hugely-popular gathering places and a centre for business talk, spawning many copycat rival establishments around London.
By 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses within the City and became places to spend all day drinking and pontificating. The term ’coffee-house politician’ arose, referring to somebody who had opinions (but not necessarily knowledge) and shared them with anyone who’d listen. In a typical coffee house, well-dressed men would sit around tables strewn with newspapers, pamphlets and newsletters. Coffee would cost a penny, come with unlimited refills and would begin the process of listening and talking to strangers for hours on end. The establishments were great society levellers too. As long as one was male and could afford a penny, paupers and landowners could mix there and stay all day. They gained the alternative name of ’Penny Universities’.
In 1739, there were 551 coffee houses in London.
Early coffee houses were different from one another. Lunt’s in Clerkenwell Green offered haircuts and lectures. Don Saltero’s in Chelsea attracted scientists. Isaac Newton dissected a dolphin on the table of the Grecian Coffeehouse. Moll King’s in Covent Garden maintained a directory of prostitutes whereas the nearby Bedford Coffeehouse had a ‘theatrical thermometer’ with temperatures ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘execrable’, rating local plays. The Hoxton Square Coffeehouse offered inquisitions of insanity - a suspected madman would be tied up and wheeled into the coffee room. A coffee drinkers’ jury would talk to him and vote on whether to incarcerate the accused in the local madhouse.
Perhaps most importantly in retrospect, coffee houses inspired new ideas. Stocks and shares were first traded in Jonathan’s beside the Royal Exchange
. Lloyd’s on Lombard Street
had a maritime clientele where the exchange of ideas led to the invention of the insurance industry. Coffee houses boosted the popularity of printed news media. Auctions in salesrooms attached to coffee houses provided the start for the great auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
As the centuries moved on, the social lubrication found in coffee houses moved on to the public house. The addition of alcohol in the mix kept the talk going but suppressed the usefulness of the ideas.
In a twist of coffee fate, the location of the house that Roseé shared with Edwards at 38 Walbrook
, is now occupied by Starbucks.