Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Bitter Trade: London’s Coffeehouses and the Glorious Revolution, essays by Piers Alexander and Dr. Matthew Green

As you sit back with a cup of caffeinated brew this Saturday, let's journey back in time to late 17th-century London, where the humble coffeehouse a favorite hangout for creative types still today was the place to be for provocative discussion and subversive activity.  I'm grateful to novelist Piers Alexander and historian Dr. Matthew Green for contributing essays on this fascinating subject.  Their jointly written post (the first of its type that I've published!) drew me into a richly described world I hadn't previously discovered and want to spend more time in.

I've just begun reading The Bitter Trade, Piers' new novel, and am enjoying it very much: its tense atmosphere of religious strife, intriguing characters, and colorful turns of phrase.  His excerpt and essay will give readers a good taste for what's in store.  I also plan to check out Matt's tours of the city's historic coffeehouses next time I'm in London.  Please read on!


The Bitter Trade: London’s Coffeehouses
and the Glorious Revolution
Piers Alexander and Dr Matthew Green 

Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink
Piers Alexander

The serving-girl brought my coffee, and I lifted the dish to my nose as I had seen van Stijn do in the Moor’s Head. The smell was of dark earth, its spicy sting mixed with the soft womanly strength of soup on a cold day. It was as good as a lover’s first kiss. Its tendrils climbed under the skin of my face and smoothed out my frowns and aches.

I blew across the foamy brown surface and took a sip. My tongue burst into life. Stars sparkled in my eyes, and I could hear every throat-clearing and chair-scraping in the room.

“One shilling,” demanded the maid. A shilling for a teaspoonful of black dust?
- The Bitter Trade

While researching The Bitter Trade, my novel set in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, I became fascinated with the role of coffeehouses in disrupting the pattern of society, thought and commerce. I like stories about underdogs and outsiders, and London in the late seventeenth century was one of the rare places when people could rise up through society if their wits were sharp and their spirits bold. The coffeehouses were central to this: unlicensed, threatening to the establishment (Charles II even briefly closed them all down), hotbeds of discussion and networking.

The Bitter Trade’s protagonist, Calumny Spinks, is a half-Huguenot redhead who is forced to make a fortune quickly to save his father’s life, and is drawn into the murky world of London coffee racketeering. He soon realises that greater forces are at work: coffeehouses in those days were used as an early postal system, and were riddled with spies and gossip. It was a particularly tense time, with the Dutch ruler, William of Orange, threatening to invade at any time and depose the unpopular Catholic King James II.

I am a coffee addict, and I happily followed the trail of coffee back through the Ottoman Empire to its roots as a mild drug used by Yemeni mystics to access the divine. I think it’s no accident that (independent!) coffeehouses are frequented by troublemakers, writers, app developers and trendsetters: coffee is a creative irritant. Brewed properly, it disturbs conventional thinking, brings strangers together, turns its back on consumerism and allows artists and revolutionaries to spend hours huddled over a little table for a tiny fee.

Not to say that all coffee is equal. I was lucky enough to go on one of Dr Matt Green’s walks around London’s lost coffeehouses. He is vehement about the difference between a mass market coffee chain and the kind of free-flowing, organic connections you can make in an independent coffeehouse. It’s a theme I love: that it’s better, like my protagonist Cal, to be poor, under threat, struggling, than to be part of the controlling cynical corporatisation of life. As I wrote the scene when he first enters a coffeehouse in defiance of his hardbitten Dissenting father, it brought back the feeling of coming to London as an eighteen-year-old: high on the stink and jostle and sensuality of it all.

Matt takes us on a whistlestop tour of coffeehouse history below: fuelled like all good stories by sex, lies and money. If the taste grabs you, I highly recommend reading The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse or – even better – joining him on a tour of the city’s coffeehouses and chocolate houses. As eye-opening as a triple espresso.

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is available on all ebook stores.
Paperback editions published June 2014 

Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love
Dr Matthew Green

From the frontispiece of Ned Ward’s satirical poem Vulgus Brittanicus (1710)

London’s coffee craze began in 1652 when Pasqua Rosée, the Greek servant of a coffee-loving British Levant merchant, opened London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee shack) against the stone wall of St Michael’s churchyard in a labyrinth of alleys off Cornhill. Coffee was a smash hit; within a couple of years, Pasqua was selling over 600 dishes of coffee a day, to the horror of the local tavern keepers. For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.

Early coffeehouses were smoky candlelit forums for commercial transactions, spirited debate, and the exchange of information, ideas, and lies. Customers sat around long communal tables strewn with every type of media imaginable listening in to each other’s conversations, interjecting whenever they pleased, and reflecting upon the newspapers. Talking to strangers, an alien concept in most coffee shops today, was actively encouraged. Much of the conversation centred upon news: as each new customer went in, they’d be assailed by cries of “What news have you?” or more formally, “Your servant, sir, what news from Tripoli?” or, if you were in the Latin Coffeehouse, “Quid Novi!” That coffeehouses functioned as post-boxes for many customers reinforced this news-gathering function. This was the Internet of its day, and it fuelled speculative bubbles in a way we’d find all too familiar.

Coffeehouse around 1700

Sex and Caffeine

No respectable women would have been seen dead in a coffeehouse. It wasn’t long before wives became frustrated at the amount of time their husbands were idling away “deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality”, as Richard Steele put it in the Tatler, all from the comfort of a fireside bench. In 1674, years of simmering resentment erupted into the volcano of fury that was the Women’s Petition Against Coffee. The fair sex lambasted the “Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE” which, as they saw it, had reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts. Retaliation was swift and acerbic in the form of the vulgar Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, which claimed it was “base adulterate wine” and “muddy ale” that made men impotent. Coffee, in fact, was the Viagra of the day, making “the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, add[ing] a spiritual ascendency to the sperm”.

Hogarth’s depiction of Moll and Tom King’s coffee-shack from The Four Times of Day (1736). Though it is early morning, the night has only just begun for the drunken rakes and prostitutes spilling out of the coffeehouse.

Strangled by transatlantic cables

Many of London’s coffeehouses were ultimately transformed into (less interesting) private members' clubs and were killed off by the twin threats of tea and the telegraph from the early nineteenth century. London's sole surviving eighteenth-century coffeehouse, the Baltic, closed its doors in 1866, a fortnight after a message had been successfully transmitted from London to New York via the transatlantic cable for the first time.

Dr Matthew Green graduated from Oxford University in 2011 with a PhD in the impact of the mass media in 18th-century London. He works as a writer, broadcaster, freelance journalist, and lecturer. He is the co-founder of Unreal City Audio (, which produces immersive, critically-acclaimed tours of London as live events and audio downloads. His limited edition hand-sewn pamphlet, The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse, published by Idler Books, is on sale now:

He is currently writing The Time Traveller’s Guide to London, to be published by Penguin in March 2015.


  1. I screwed up and posted the comment to this very interesting contribution to Reading the Past on the previous subject's page. Argh.

    Thank you for putting this up. Informative and interesting, both.

    These sorts of essays are a terrific addition to your site, in my opinion, anyway. :)
    Love, C.

    1. When this post first arrived in my box, I was sitting at my desk having my morning coffee, which I found entirely fitting.

      This one is among my favorite guest posts - plenty of detail on a topic that was new to me, and written in a lively, witty manner.

      Glad you liked it too! I'll have one more guest essay tomorrow, and then it's back to just me for a time. :)

  2. Just You is just fine! :)

    Love, C.