Step Back In Time To London's 1950s Coffee House Craze

By Zoe Craig Last edited 87 months ago

Last Updated 08 March 2017

Step Back In Time To London's 1950s Coffee House Craze

Take a trip back to 1950s Soho with this brilliantly odd, and sometimes hilarious, film from the Look at Life team.

The year is 1959, and our narrator is tackling the subject of London's coffee house boom.

There are a few supremely stilted actors helping him with his task, but if you can look past them, you'll get an amazing glimpse of another era.

According to the video, London's coffee bar boom kicked off in 1952, when the first espresso machine arrived in Soho. (We can't help wondering if the ragazzi at Bar Italia — operating in Soho since 1949 — might have something to quibble about here....)

If the new coffee craze was indeed a boom time for coffee house owners, it was a shaky one: for every three coffee houses opening in the 1950s, the film suggests two closed down.

Moka Bar, one of Soho's first coffee bars, served thousands of coffees between 1953 and 1972.

Lingering clients blocking tables aren't just a problem in the 21st century, it seems, although at least our 1950s predecessors weren't using the electricity to power their phones and laptops as well as making one coffee last four hours.

But there's a touch of London's earlier history in the film too: explaining how Lloyd's of London began life as a coffee house frequented by insurance brokers back in the 17th century, before insisting that the successful coffee houses of the 50s should cater for a similarly specialised clientele — and there's gorgeous footage of the places that did.

Look out for 2i's Coffee Bar, which was located at 59 Old Compton Street from 1956 to 1970; here with a band playing live on the premises.

Outside the legendary 2i's.

It was downstairs at 2i's, on a 18-inch wide stage made of milk crates and planks, that Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Hank Marvin, Wee Willie Harris, Adam Faith, Joe Brown, Screaming Lord Sutch, Johnny Kidd, Jet Harris, and Mickie Most (to name but a few) played to a select crowd of around 20 'jive cats'.

2i's is now marked by a green plaque.

Other Soho cliques are also explored: writers and actors frequent Legrain on Gerrard Street, around the corner from Wardour Street, then nicknamed 'Film Row' for its many resident film companies.

'Film producers' ham it up at Legrain.

'Invisible' coffee house The French has a characterful clientele (watch out for Iron Foot Jack and an amazing-looking astrologer); students and 'other assorted eggheads' fund a leftie publication drinking coffee and playing chess in sunglasses at Le Partisan; while Sam Widges on D'Arblay Street has artists as its most frequent patrons.

Artists at Sam Widges coffee house.

We love the idea of people paying for their coffee in paintings: can you spot a Francis Bacon on the wall, as one commenter has suggested?

Finally, there's a trip to Le Macabre (cue spooky music!), then at 23 Meard Street, a frankly bizarre horror-themed coffee house with coffins for tables, replica skulls for ashtrays, white skeletons painted onto the black walls, and a jukebox of funereal music.

Skull ashtrays at Le Macabre on Meard Street.

Look out, too for a flash of The Stockpot, which survived at 18 Old Compton Street until 2015 (it's now a Patty & Bun) and a couple of young Shadows playing in the 2is clip.