Hogarth St Johns Coffee House

Following on the recent debate about Harris and Hoole:-

  • Do we actually want/need another coffee shop?
  • Should it be allowed to sell alcohol between 11.00am and 10.00pm?…

…I decided to step out and count the number of coffee outlets we have in St Margarets. I started my census at the little “Expresso” kiosk down by the roundabout - “one” - but by the time I reached the coffee shop on St Margarets Station - “five” - and faced with the prospect of at least seven more to come I gave up… so much coffee, so little time.

Coffee House 1660

The recent spread of coffee shops is not a new phenomenon. Something very similar happened in London in 1652 after the first coffee shop was opened by a Turkish merchant in St Michaels Alley. Coffee drinking became very popular indeed and within a few years similar establishments had opened up all over town. In 1719 French writer and traveller Henri Misson was inspired to recommend a couple of his favourites…

“You have all Manner of News there: You have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please: you have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the Transaction of Business, and all for a Penny, if you don’t care to spend more.”

Other visitors were far less happy with the British “coffee experience”. In 1782 German writer C.P Moritz cautioned fellow travellers…

“I would always advise those who wish to drink coffee in England to mention beforehand how many cups are to be made with half an ounce, or else the people will probably bring them a prodigious quantity of brown fluid.”

It wasn’t just coffee that 17th century café society was drinking. One coffee house in Queen’s Head Alley is credited with the introduction of an ‘excellent West Indian drink called chocolate’ and although it was more expensive than coffee by 1685 it was regarded as nutritious, beneficial to health and ‘a Diet and Phisick with the Gentry.’

East India Company

Reacting to the growing popularity of coffee the Dutch East India Company started to import Chinese tea into London at the staggering price of £3/10 shillings a pound, (equivalent to about £400 a pound in today’s money. Although within ten years the price of tea had dropped to about £2 a pound (about £275 in today’s money) it didn’t become cheap enough for general consumption for another 100 years.

Tea was served in the Chinese fashion, without milk. In fact it seems that very little milk was drunk at the time - whereas ‘whey’, the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled, was popular and considered more wholesome than milk. Samuel Pepys, whose diary you may remember provided the names ‘Harris’ and ‘Hoole’, often patronised ‘whey-houses’ drinking ‘ a great deal of whey.’ Stomach churning I would say.

coffeehouse 1660

By the 1750’s tea had fallen dramatically in price. As a result it had become far more popular than both coffee and chocolate which were still expensive. Towards the end of the century many of London’s once famous coffee houses had disappeared. There was a brief revival in the 1950’s with the introduction of “frothy coffee” and rock ‘n’ roll …but now coffee consciousness is back with a vengeance.

Is there a lesson here? If we change our collective taste and go for ‘a nice cup of tea’ rather than a “caffe lungo”, “expresso granita” or “moccaccino” (I had to look these up!) would we have fewer coffee shops and more places that might sell a gallon of paraffin, a box of chisels and a bucket of whitewash? Ask me in 100 years time.

HandH Cup of coffee

As for the debate, Harris and Hoole seem to have quietly settled in and appear busy. They have abandoned their application to sell alcohol between 11.00am and 10.00pm.

– from Martyn Day