The Origins of Coffee Houses by Sue Whitman

Sue Whiteman

In 1651 Daniel Edwards a merchant and a trader of Turkish goods, developed a taste for an exciting Arabic drink while working in the Middle East and decided to import it to London.  He was a member of the Levant Company and employed an eccentric Greek called Pasqua Rosee as his man servant who he then brought back to Britain. Pasqua’s background is not clear, it is thought however, he was probably born to a Greek community and later moved to Smyrna, Asia in the seventeenth century. 

Arriving in London 1652, Pasqua set about opening a coffee stall in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill and before long he was selling six hundred bowls a day of this exotic brew called coffee. His success attracted a great deal of attention much to the annoyance of local publicans in the ale house trade, Rosee’s business sign was a portrait of himself and they accused him of intruding on their establishments. Cheap and potent gin was widely available and drunkenness had been allowed to grip the city. 

Pasqua was not a freeman of the city, which excluded him of running any trade in London. Daniel Edwards sponsored an apprentice called Christopher Bowman to become Rosee’s business partner and once he had finished his apprenticeship and became a freeman of the city of London on 22 February 1654, the two became business partners and moved the establishment into new premises in nearby St. Michael’s Alley.  The Jamaica Wine House now apparently occupies the same space. In 1672 Pasqua Rosee moved to Paris and opened the first coffee shop in the French capital on the Place – Saint – Germain.  

In about 1665, The Grecian Coffee House, Wapping Old Stairs, London was first established by George Constantine, a former Greek mariner.  His enterprise was such a success he was able to move his premises to a more central location in Devereux Court off Fleet Street.  In the early eighteenth century it was frequented by members of the Royal Society (a learned society of scientists) including Sir Isaac Newton and during one gathering of scientists, between them they dissected a dolphin on a nearby table, hopefully cleared of the used coffee cups beforehand. 

By the middle of the eighteenth century, coffee houses had become an important part of London life, the rapid growth and popularity of these coffee houses acted as an alternative public and social place where men could go and discuss current business issues, read the papers and people watch. Many patrons spent so much time in their favourite coffee house they would have their post directed there.  Richard Steele, editor of the Tatler received his post and sourced much of the news for the pages of the Tatler at his favoured choice of coffee house.

Like today’s internet, websites or weblogs are used for gathering information typically focusing on a specific topic or a political viewpoint.  The coffee houses were lively outlets in which information was exchanged on a broad range of topics and anyone could enter and actively join in the academic discussion. 

Sue Whiteman

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