How London Became Addicted To Coffee

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 7 months ago
How London Became Addicted To Coffee
Image: Shutterstock

At a time when a brief  'thanks' is the limit of conversation between strangers in cafes, it's hard to imagine that London's coffee houses were once considered the height of civility. But when coffee first arrived in London — in a much more bitter, vulgar form that our modern-day caramel lattes — it was the drink of the intellectuals.

Coffee's arrival in London

The advent of coffee in the capital is harder to trace than that of tea, although we do know that coffee arrived earlier, as result of travel to the Ottoman Empire. The Levant Trading Company, and later the British and Dutch East India companies, were among early importers of coffee to England. When it arrived, coffee would be stored in warehouses such as those in Shad Thames and at Hay's Galleria.

Image: Creative Commons

The first coffee was a very basic drink, made well in advance and reheated when served. This was long before the days of filtering, and the niceties of milk and sugar weren't added until much later. It wasn't much enjoyed by people at the time, who drank it for its stimulant qualities rather than its taste. Advert and posters of questionable scientific basis were published by proprietors of early coffee houses to get people hooked on the drink — the one pictured above can be seen in the British Museum.

London's first coffee houses

Image: Londonist

The iconic lantern of Cornhill's Jamaica Wine House screams 'history'. But the eponymous grape juice is a mere descendant of the site's beverage history. The modern-day watering hole sits on the site of London's first coffee house — a rather grand description for what was effectively a shed serving up a bitter liquid.

As a blue plaque informs 21st century passers-by, Pasqua Rosee opened a coffee house in 1652. Although the premises bore Rosee's name and picture, a Daniel Edwards was the driving force behind it. A member of the Levant Company and a Turkish goods trader, Edwards employed Rosee as a servant. It's thought that Edwards' visitors enjoyed coffee so much, he employed Rosee to sell it to the public, although an alternative story is that the two had a falling out and Rosee set up the business alone, having been introduced to coffee by Edwards. Either way, it was a popular venture, reportedly selling 600 servings of coffee every day. Samuel Pepys mentions a visit in his diary in December 1660 — a big year for Pepys, as he also discovered tea.

Image: Shutterstock

Over to the west Oxford was ahead of the game. The scholarly city was home to 'penny universities' (named for the penny entry fee and academic conversation of coffee houses) before London got its first whiff of a coffee shop. In fact, it may be due to their success in Oxford that they came to London at all. Pasqua Rosee opened a coffee house in Oxford in 1651 before bringing it to London a year later — and his wasn't the only coffee house operating in Oxford at the time.

Coffee houses were civilised. Women were banned (although some had female staff members), and male writers, politicians, journalists, poets and other members of the educated classes would gather there to discuss the issues of the day. Different venues had different focuses — political chat was much more rife in the coffee houses of Westminster, while theatrical reviews were offered freely by patrons in the West End.

Tavern owners saw Rosee's enterprise as something of a threat to their custom, but that didn't stop coffee's rise in popularity, with several other coffee houses popping up in subsequent years. Rosee himself apparently had plans to open a second branch nearby — London's first mini-chain, perhaps? — but they never came to fruition.

Interestingly, London's first tea was sold in a coffee house, operating out of Exchange Alley in the City around 1657-58.

Button's Coffee House, Russell Street

This Starbucks occupies the site where Button's Coffee House is thought to have been. Image: Londonist

Other establishments of note included Button's Coffee House, which opened in Covent Garden's Russell Street in 1712 and functioned as the unofficial offices of a newspaper named the Guardian (nothing to do with the modern newspaper). So persistent was the presence of Guardian writers in Button's, that a letterbox in the shape of a lion's head was installed on the exterior of the building, for the public to submit news for publication. Alas, the newspaper lasted barely seven months, but the lion can still be seen at Woburn Abbey today.

Lloyd's Coffee House

Inside the modern Lloyd's of London building (not on the same site as the coffee house). Photo: Londonist

Modern insurance market Lloyd's of London — famous for its Lutine Bell — exists today thanks to a 17th-18th century business called Lloyd's Coffee House. A popular meeting place for sailors, merchants and shipowners, relationships forged here led to the establishment of Lloyd's of London, and several other businesses of seafaring matters.

Tom King's Coffee House, Covent Garden

An oil on canvas version of Hogarth's Morning. Image: Public Domain

Not all early coffee houses were high-brow. Tom King's Coffee House — later known as Moll King's Coffee House — was located in Covent Garden in mid-18th century and was a venue of ill repute. Its opening hours ran from the time the local taverns shut, until dawn. Coffee was reportedly an afterthought, with alcohol being served, and the business functioning primarily as a brothel, of sorts. To satisfy a legal loophole, there were no beds on the premises, bar the Kings' own. Instead, introductions between prostitutes and customers were made on the premises, before they were taken elsewhere to get down to business. King's Coffee House features in Hogarth's Morning, showing two men pawing at girls in Covent Garden Piazza in the early hours.

Bar Italia, Soho

Image: Bar Italia

Soho's Bar Italia is not one of London's earliest coffee shops by any stretch, but its 1949 birth date makes it London's longest running coffee shop, serving the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones in its time. Its impressive tenure is nonetheless obliterated by Oxford's Queen's Lane Coffee House, which has been operating continuously since 1654.  

For making your own coffee at home, hit up nearby Algerian Coffee Stores, which has been around since 1887, specialising in tea and coffee blends, plus the equipment you need for brewing your own.

Coffee houses under threat

Traditional taverns and ale houses weren't the only ones threatened by these new-fangled coffee houses. King Charles II banned the establishments in 1675. The official line was that they disturbed the peace and promoted idleness, but the King was no doubt fearful that they provided the ideal environment for rebellious meetings and the plotting of treason.

Unfortunately for the king, several of his minsters were coffee lovers and opposed the ban. It was abolished before it even took effect, and London's caffeine takeover continued apace.

Arrival of the coffee giants

Image: Shutterstock

Whatever your opinion of the quality of their coffee, there's no denying that chain coffee shops have taken over London. But when did these modern-day incarnations emerge?

The capital's first Starbucks opened on Chelsea's Kings Road in 1998, a BBC report at the time stating that it "intended to be the first of 500 stores in Europe." 20 years later, London alone often feels like it's close to that number. You can still grab a latte at that early settler, at 123 King's Road. Until recently, standing on a specific spot on Villiers Street near Embankment allowed you to see three branches of the chain. One's now closed, rendering it one of several places in the capital where two Starbucks are visible.

London's first Starbucks. Image: Google Maps

Pret a Manger predates Starbucks, opening its first branch in Hampstead in 1983, although as its name suggests, the focus was more on the food than the takeaway coffee. Despite its Italian-sounding moniker, Costa was established here in London, beginning as a coffee roastery in 1971 before opening its own store in Vauxhall Bridge Road in 1978.

Coffee ghost signs

'The Albion Coffee House' can just about be made out. Image: Google Maps

Ghosts of the London coffee industry can still be seen around town — and we're not just talking about a boarded-up Costa. Squint up at the house by bus stop KC on Kennington Lane (pictured above) for a nod to the building's history as Albion Coffee House, apparently a regular haunt of Charlie Chaplin's father.

Harder to spot is an old advertisement for 'The Royal Coffee & Dining Rooms', located on Holloway Road, overlooking St Mary Magdalene Garden.

'James Ashby & Sons Ltd Embassy Tea & Coffee' can be made out on the side of 195-205 Union Street in Southwark. Although the building was under threat in 2008, it's still standing — and the sign still mostly visible — today.

Keep your eyes peeled in the vicinity of Tooley Street and Hay's Galleria for old signposts to the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum. Alas, the museum closed in 2008 following the death of its founder, Edward Bramah, but for a few years it was a fascinating snapshot of the history of the tea and coffee trades in the capital.

London's most unusual coffees and coffee houses

A Luwak (civet cat) eating coffee beans. Image: Shutterstock

As with most things, London's taken coffee, ran with it, and made it weird. These days, rainbow lattes and themed coffees aren't uncommon, but perhaps the oddest — and certainly the most expensive — coffee sold in London was Kopi Luwak, which went on sale in the capital in 2011 at £70 a cup. It's made using the droppings of Luwaks (civets) in Sumatra, who eat coffee cherries and excrete the beans. The controversial harvesting method has faced criticism from animal rights groups, with Harrods calling for tougher regulations of the production process, and the man responsible for first bringing the coffee to London regretting the move.

As for unusual coffee houses, we offer you the tale of the 'fellatio cafe'. There were once plans to open a 'blowjob cafe' in Paddington, where customers would drink their coffee while receiving a blowjob from an escort. Unsurprisingly, the venture never took off. Surprisingly, the plans appeared in 2016, rather than the 16th century, as you might expect.

Other odd historical coffee houses included a venue where only Latin was spoken, one which doubled up as a barber shop, and a location with walls festooned in taxidermy.

Coffee meets booze in a match made in heaven

Image: Shutterstock

Coffee in our cocktails is something we've long been accustomed to thanks to the Espresso Martini, which itself was invented here in London. The story goes, legendary bartender Dick Bradsell whipped up the vodka and coffee blend while working at Soho Brasserie, as a response to a young woman's request for a drink that would "wake her up and fuck her up".

Coffee's infiltrated other drinks too. Greenwich-based Meantime Brewery launched a 'Beerista' range in 2017, including a coffee porter.

Coffee roasteries in London today

The Coffee Bar at Harrods

Today, coffee's not only served in London, the beans are roasted here too. Caffè Nero prepares its special coffee blend in its Battersea-based Roastery, before shipping it to branches all over London and beyond to go into your morning latte.

The coffee sold in cafes at Tate art galleries is produced inside a second world war bunker in the grounds of Tate Britain. It roasts a whopping 22,000 kilos of coffee every year.

Both of these are off-limits to the public, but if you want to watch your coffee being freshly roasted before it's served, head to The Roastery and Bake Hall in Harrods, where beans are prepared in house, allowing Harrods control over the quality. Sit back at the marble bar counter in the art deco hall and listen out for the bell, which rings every 15 minutes to announce that freshly-baked bread is ready.

It's funny how things have come full circle. Thinkers of the day would meet at coffee houses to share the news of the day and discuss it, pontificate and write about it. In today's freelance economy, a large number of the articles you read online everyday are probably written in coffee shops, by journalists poring over iPads and Mac Books. Their immediate audience is much smaller — good grief, modern day Londoners wouldn't discuss the news with strangers — but their worldwide audience is much, much wider. All powered by a good old cup of Joe.

Last Updated 28 July 2023