Coffee House Culture: A Guest Post by Toni Mount

In England, under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime, drunkenness was considered an ungodly sin but, at the time, as for centuries before, ale or beer were the safest drinks. Water might be a more godly drink but the danger of swallowing disease-causing agents with every mouthful was understood, even if microbes wouldn’t be discovered for another two centuries.

Therefore, the earliest imports of a new beverage—coffee—at the beginning of the
seventeenth century escalated after Cromwell came to power, bringing a safe non-alcoholic drink to the sober Puritans. No one seems to have realised—except perhaps Newton—that what was common to both beer brewing and coffee-making was the boiling of the water, thus making them safe to drink.

The first coffee-house in the Christian world opened in London in the 1650s, during the Commonwealth. Coffee had originated in the mountains of Ethiopia and gradually spread through the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire, a suitable non-alcoholic beverage.

European merchants brought it home and its quality as a stimulant was quickly realised. Physicians were soon recommending coffee’s medicinal virtues as a cure-all and even an aphrodisiac—for men only. Dr William Harvey, famous for working out how blood circulated, used to drink coffee with his brother Elias and the ritual was so much a part of their lives, William bequeathed his coffee pot to Elias in his will. Although the Harveys drank their coffee at home, the new idea of a public house which served coffee, rather than alcohol, soon became popular with the Puritans, especially in London.

A coffee-house was not only a place to buy refreshment; it was a social event, a male-only meeting place. Another recent innovation was available there too: newspapers for customers to read and share. For those who could not read, articles would be read aloud and the subject matter discussed at length over the coffee. Coffee-houses served as libraries and debating chambers; they provided periodicals—the Tatler and the Spectator both began here. Customers usually paid a penny for a cup and coffee-houses were sometimes called ‘penny universities’, reflecting the intellectual stimulation visitors could expect. Steele’s London Gazette mocked the tendency for learning and education in specific subjects:

‘All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment, shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Grecian; Foreign and Domestic News, you will have from the St James’s Coffee-house…’

The almost entirely male clientele was fairly well-off, often professional. Members of the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, could extend their normal meetings at Gresham College with informal discussions of the latest experiments at Garraway’s Coffee-house in Exchange Alley, not far away. With coffee-houses proliferating across the city, the government did what it could to license such establishments. The trouble was that scientific innovation was not the only topic of discussion in those places. By 1675, after fifteen years of the returned monarchy, the shine had faded on the reinstated Crown.

Both king and government were suffering from paranoia, fearing plots and sedition at every turn, certain that coffee-houses were at the heart of any treasonous intent. So convinced were the authorities that this was true, on 29th December 1675 a royal proclamation was printed and put up in conspicuous places that everyone should know the king’s order that coffee-houses throughout the kingdom were to be closed down on 10th January, in less than two weeks time. The document declared that such establishments were frequented by idle and disaffected persons, as well as taking tradesmen away from their proper employment. Worse still ‘divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of his Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm’. Therefore, it was deemed ‘fit and necessary that the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put Down and Suppressed’.

Robert Hooke, secretary and devisor of experiments at the Royal Society, repaired to
Garraway’s to discuss the disastrous proclamation with fellow-member and society treasurer, Abraham Hill. After eating his midday dinner at home in Gresham College, where lodgings went with his post as Professor of Geometry, Hooke returned to Garraway’s to meet a friend.

Later, he went to the coffee-house next door, Jonathan’s, to talk about his ‘new contrivance for flying’ with another friend before he got into an argument with three strangers over the earlier royal proclamation.

There were reckoned to be around a thousand coffee-houses in London alone, according to a report of 1673, and their closure would not only put the proprietors out of business but change the social heart of the city. Within the first week of January, Thomas Garraway, owner of Hooke’s favourite coffee-house, and two of his fellow traders raised a petition to present at Court against the suppression of their means of livelihood. There were three main points to their argument. Firstly, in London at least, coffee-houses were licensed, each licence to run until a given end date. In which case, they proposed, under the law, could their businesses be closed down before the licences expired? Secondly, they were hard-working citizens and was it not unjust to rob them of their livelihoods at such short notice, leaving them with vast stocks of coffee unsold and unsalable, except at absurdly low prices because there would be a glut on the market? Thirdly – and probably most persuasive to the government authorities – there was an excise tax paid on coffee at the point of sale of six pence per gallon, amounting to a lucrative income for the Royal Exchequer. These revenues would be lost if the proclamation came in to force.

The Privy Council received the petition, then sent Garraway and his associates away, so the matter could be debated behind closed doors. When Garraway and one associate, Mr Taylor, were called back, they were required to make concessions, offering to accept that the licences would be reissued at greater cost and have stringent new clauses. Also, they would be required by law to report anything they overheard being discussed in their establishments that might be ‘prejudicial to the Government’. They humbly admitted the ‘Miscarriages and Abuses committed in such Coffee-houses’ and, reluctantly, Garraway and Taylor consented on behalf of their fellow tradesmen to act as spies for the king and to pay £500 to guarantee the coffee-retailers’ compliance. All this earned them a six-month reprieve until 24th June: time to sell off their stock and make other arrangements for their future employment. On Monday 10th January, Hooke was back at Garraway’s discussing the matter with a one-eyed, itinerant painter.

In the event, the coffee-houses were never closed down, although the threat to do so was revived in 1679. Coffee-house proprietors were required to report any seditious discussion or libellous papers discovered within two days, to either one of the king’s ministers or to a Justice of the Peace. Failure to do so would result in the revocation of their licences. Many fell victim to these unpaid spies, including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Shaftesbury whose political views were broadcast too freely in Jonathan’s Coffee-house.

Other establishments, such as the Amsterdam Coffee-house, became notorious as gathering places for religious dissidents and political fanatics of all kinds but the right of the public to maintain their freedom of speech won through eventually.

Coffee was not the only novel beverage in town: chocolate and tea were becoming popular, if only for the affluent. Samuel Pepys sometimes drank chocolate for breakfast with his wife.

Tea was also for consumption at home, although some coffee-houses served bowls of tea also. Here is Sir Kenelm Digby’s recipe for tea in a form we would not recognise today. It is taken from his cookery book: The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Kt., Opened, published in 1671:

To near a pint of tea take two yolks of new-laid eggs and beat them very fine with as much sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of liquor. When they are very well mixed pour your tea on the eggs and sugar and stir them together. In these parts we let the hot water remain too long soaking upon the tea. The water is to remain on the tea no longer than whilst you can say the Miserere Psalm very slowly.’

To accompany the new beverages, cakes and biscuits began to appear in their lighter, more modern forms and less like the boiled puddings of earlier times. Some locally-invented recipes became so popular they can still be purchased today: Banbury, Eccles and Chorley cakes, Bath buns and Chelsea buns still bear the names of their places of origin. But puddings, boiled in cloths, still thrived in their own right.

A Frenchman, Monsieur Misson, visiting in the 1690s wrote:

‘Blessed be he that invented pudding, for it is a Manna that hits the Palates of all sorts of People; ah! what an excellent thing is an English pudding!’

In January 1684, a few members of the Royal Society met in Garraway’s to continue their discussions, begun at the society, in a more informal setting. Robert Hooke was there, of course, along with young Edmund Halley—later of Halley’s comet fame—and Christopher Wren. Both Hooke and Wren were deeply involved in the on-going rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of 1666 with Wren’s most famous project—St Paul’s Cathedral—still barely begun because of lack of funding and continuing disagreements over the final design.

The Church was not proving an easy patron to deal with and Wren had to use every ounce of his diplomacy and tact in an effort to get the building started. One difficulty was that Dean Sancroft and the Chapter of St Paul’s wanted a gothic cathedral with a tall spire, as far as possible like the medieval structure it was to replace. Yet their chosen architect had radically new ideas. It was as well that Wren had a regular income as the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and occasional payments from the Crown as the King’s Surveyor—when the Exchequer remembered and could afford them—otherwise he would have been a poor man, waiting for remuneration from the Church authorities.

Despite these problems, Wren had time to take coffee with his friends. Discussions in that January of 1684 had to avoid politics and religion because King Charles was again paranoid about treasonous plans being hatched in such establishments. And no wonder. The previous year, in March 1683, the king and his brother James, Duke of York – after whom New York was named – were staying at the royal estate at Newmarket to enjoy the horse racing there. They must have thought how unfortunate it was that a fire at the king’s house meant they had to return home to London earlier than intended.

It was not until June, three months later, that the two men learned how fortuitous that fire had been. Unknown to the royal race-goers, a plot had been afoot to assassinate them both at Rye House, a property near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. The scheme was simple: the king and the duke would pass Rye House en route from Newmarket to London. The house was on a stretch of narrow road down which the royal party would have to ride and it was the ideal place to ambush and kill them. Since the fire caused the king to leave earlier than planned, the would-be assassins were not yet in place. The non-event became known as the Rye House Plot and led to the execution of a number of influential lords and politicians.

Another far more innocent yet consequential plot was set in motion by Hooke, Halley, and Wren over their bowls of coffee on that icy January day. London was in the unrelenting grip of the ‘Little Ice Age’. The River Thames was frozen over but these three were having heated discussions about planetary motions and the part played by gravity in governing the planets’ orbits around the Sun. Everyone accepted that gravity worked but how did it affect a large body such as a planet? Halley suggested gravity would decrease according to the inverse square of the distance of the planet from the source of the gravitational pull: mainly the Sun but with influence from other planets.

Simply put, the inverse square law states that the intensity of gravity, light, heat and other forms of electro-magnetic radiation decrease as the distance from the source increases, according to the formula 1/distance 2.

Easily written but intensely difficult to work out, taking into account so many variables: the planet’s size and proximity to other planets and their masses; the fact that orbits were elliptical, not circular, the presence of moons and whether their influences combined or counteracted to affect the planet. It was believed, correctly, though mathematical proof still awaited formulation, that the Moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth was sufficiently strong to cause the tides. So many factors had to be considered.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hooke, ever boastful of his accomplishments, real and fictitious, claimed he had done the mathematics already, proving that the inverse square law did apply to gravity and this caused the planetary orbits to be elliptical in shape. Wren was doubtful and demanded that Hooke show him the calculations. He even offered one of his most valuable books as a prize. Hooke could not produce his work and the prize went unclaimed. But Halley was more determined and began an exciting piece of research, showing that Kepler’s third law suggested that the inverse square law applied to gravitational attraction and presented his results at the Royal Society’s meeting on 24th January 1684.

Back in the coffee-house, Halley, Hooke, and Wren continued their discussions as to whether or not the inverse square law implies elliptical orbits for the planets but failed to come up with indisputable mathematical proof. Halley would persevere with the work on these problems but a personal tragedy distracted him during the spring, following his father’s mysterious disappearance and death during The Great Frost. The young man became embroiled in litigation against his step-mother over his inheritance but in August 1684, Halley was once again pursuing the problem, wrestling with the cumbersome calculations. Halley then took the pivotal step of visiting Isaac Newton in Cambridge, hoping the talented professor could assist with the mathematics required. The calculations Newton produced in answer to Halley’s enquiries eventually became the foundation for Newton’s seminal book: Principia Mathematica.

Isaac Newton never seems to have joined the coffee-house culture. He preferred water but, as I mentioned, for many this was a drink to be avoided because it made you ill which, with unsanitary water supplies, could often be the case. No one had yet realised that boiling water could make it safe to drink – unless Newton had already made this discovery too.

For nine decades Isaac Newton strode the world of science and discovery, religion and
thought—from 17th-century Lincolnshire farm-boy to one of the most influential scientists of all time – his discoveries have relevance for us today and for our future. This fascinating new biography looks at his world, his times, the people he influenced and the breakthroughs in science and thought that would change the world.

Toni Mount’s first career was in science, leading to many years in a second profession in teaching. Her love of history led to a third career as a writer with her first book, released by Amberley Publishing in 2014, Everyday Life in Medieval London. She continues to teach history to adults both in person and online and has now written many successful non-fiction and fiction books. This latest study allows her to return to her first love, science, and the chance to bring a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous characters.

The World of Isaac Newton by Toni Mount, is due for release on 15th October 2020. You can visit her website or contact her via social media:

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