Coffee houses and developing political activism

Coffee Houses were first viewed with suspicion in Europe. Brought here from the East, they were considered to be a very strange and dangerous concept. They did indeed prove to be dangerous. Within Coffee Shops many radical discussions were held. The new way of socialising attracted those open to new ideas, thinkers, radicals. Coffee Shop politics came to be well known.

17th Century Coffee House

The first Coffee house in Britain opened in 1652. It was an instant success. Soon after, in 1656 a second Coffee house opened. By 1663 there were 83 in London. They had almost instantly become the preserve of men. The emerging middle classes took to Coffee and found the Coffee house an ideal place to have business or political discussion. They soon became noted for such, Richard Steele describing the male use of Coffee Houses as them:

deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality

The time being spent in Coffee houses and the depth of discussion in which men engaged there led to a female petition against Coffee Houses in 1674. A more serious threat to the new Coffee culture came from the establishment. Opposed to Coffee houses, Charles II issued Royal Proclamations against them in 1675.

Coffee Houses were not exclusive clubs. There was no requirement to be wealthy or to be of noble birth. There was a fee to enter, typically a penny. This meant that for the middle classes, the upwardly mobile businessmen, students and visitors to London, a Coffee House was affordable: but not affordable for everyone. This led to a culture in which educated men were meeting and engaging in all manner of discussions. Charles’ fear was that the discussions were seditious, revolutionary, dangerous.

The Coffee Houses became places where professionals met. This included politicians and the media of the day. Gossip was spread, ideas thrashed out into business plans or policies and political ideals explored. They also became very popular. Figures vary from a count of 551 at the dawn of the 18th Century to contemporary claims of up to 8000. The Coffee Houses were a range of sizes, from the small and cosy to those seating close to a hundred.

Coffee Houses were not unique to London or Great Britain. They had been brought here from the East and there were similar in rival cities such as Amsterdam and Venice. The number of them, the size and their cultural significance makes them stand out though. In Venice there were limits on the number of seats allowed on the more famous squares, Amsterdam simply didn’t have anywhere near as many.

What impact did Coffee House culture have?

A range of things were discussed in Coffee Houses. One of the most significant and long lasting was the result of a Coffee House opened in 1712 by Joseph Addison. Addison was a playwright. Each evening a group of distinguished literary figures met in his Coffee House and debated literary works. Items began to be sent to Addison for review. These then became selected and printed on a weekly bulletin. The bulletin was called the Guardian, from which the newspaper emerged.

British Library. An article by Matthew White exploring the development of the Coffee House as a place of Business and Politics in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Public Domain Review. An article outlining the origins and early stages of Coffee House culture in Great Britain.

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