The evolution of the coffee shop in the UK

Today, we’re used to seeing coffee shops on every street across the UK, and with specialty coffee consumption growing at pace, it doesn’t seem like this is going to stop any time soon. 

However, it might come as a surprise that this is a trend that’s been centuries in the making. In the mid-18th century, there were estimated to be several thousand coffeehouses in London alone. If we had the same number of coffee shops per capita as we did back then, they would vastly outnumber those found in our towns and cities today.

So, how did the origins of the UK coffee shop come to create an industry worth an estimated US $102 billion today? How did they become a part of our everyday lives? And have coffee shops – and the people that visit them – really changed that much in the past few centuries?

I spoke with two world-renowned coffee experts to learn more about the history of coffee shop culture in the UK and how things have changed. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our tour of specialty coffee shops in London.

london coffee shop

From humble beginnings to “penny universities”

In the mid-16th century, the humble coffee shop arrived in Europe via the Ottoman Empire. Its roots can be traced back to Constantinople, where two Syrian brothers set up what is recognised as one of the first coffee shops in the world. 

Professor Jonathan Morris is the author of Coffee: A Global History and presenter of the podcast A History of Coffee. He says that even early coffee shops – known then as coffeehouses – had an inherently welcoming quality.

“Those early Arabic coffeehouses treated people as equal, in the sense that you got served in the order you came in and you were seated in the order you came in,” he says. “They provided a democratic atmosphere.” 

It took another century or so for coffee to travel to Europe. The first opened in Oxford, UK, in 1650 or 1651. A year or two later, a man by the name of Pasqua Rosée (believed to be from somewhere near modern-day Croatia) established the first coffee shop in London. 

Rosée was a manservant to a merchant who set up a coffee stall in London’s St Michael’s Alley in 1652. He then went on to open a permanent coffeehouse two years later, before following it up with another in Paris in 1672.

The location and timing is significant, because it immediately attracted two types of customers: merchants, who worked nearby, and members of the public who wished to discuss the current events of the time – namely the final days of the English Civil War. 

In time, there came to be a third type of customer: the virtuosi. These were intellectuals – self-proclaimed or otherwise – who gathered to discuss and share ideas which were often groundbreaking or outlandish for the time. 

Robert Thurston is Emeritus Professor of History at Miami University and the author of Coffee: From Bean to Barista.

He says: “The clientele was somewhat democratic. The best word to describe it was [an atmosphere of] ‘wit’. If you could bring wit to the coffeehouse, you could sit there and talk to other people.”

That element of democracy may explain why coffeehouses soon came to be known as “penny universities”. Ordinary people could attend for the price of a penny, read newspapers, and become involved in the discussions and debates of the day. This was, however, not the case for women – as coffeehouses were off-limits to them unless they were employed there.

london cbd

London’s coffeehouses of legend

Famous institutions that are still in existence can trace their origins to coffeehouses founded centuries ago. For instance, Lloyd’s Coffeehouse had so many deals struck between merchants and sailors within its walls that it eventually became Lloyd’s of London – one of the largest and oldest insurance markets in the world.

Similarly, Jonathan’s, a coffeehouse that survived fires and several moves over the years, was one of the first places where stocks and commodities were traded. When a group of rowdy traders were expelled from The Royal Exchange, Jonathan’s became the London Stock Exchange.  

It’s also said that at White’s on St James’s Street, customers would place large wagers on how long other customers would live. This rather morbid practice, it is believed, came to birth the life insurance industry.

Similarly, The Spectator, the world’s longest running weekly publication, had its beginnings in the coffeehouses of early 18th century London. Joseph Addison, a politician of the time, was considered a brilliant writer but a terrible public speaker. 

At that time, conversation was important, but the democratic nature of the coffeehouse meant a patron was also free to listen and spectate on the discussions of others. And so, publishing what he heard, Addison created The Spectator. Today, the publication respects this heritage, with a blog on its website titled Coffee House.

London’s coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries were also, surprisingly, early examples of coworking spaces. Patrons commandeered tables with their papers, pencils, and mugs of coffee, settling in for a day’s work. 

However, in the latter parts of the 18th century, coffeehouses began selling alcohol, and subsequently became more rowdy. 

Jonathan says: “[Coinciding with] the height of the popularity of the coffeehouse is the development of the gin craze. Coffeehouses started putting alcohol on offer, and pubs put coffee into their offerings, so things started to blend together.”

london coffee shop

A modern history: Cappuccinos and counterculture

Following the emergence of alcohol, the line between pub and coffee shop started to blur, and it took around 200 years before England’s coffeehouses saw any sort of resurgence. 

However, in the 1950s, the UK underwent a number of significant social changes, welcoming immigrants from former colonies and Commonwealth countries.   

Subsequently, in the 1950s and 1960s, London’s Soho area became youthful, diverse, and eclectic; in turn, coffee shops started to emerge. 

Some famous examples include La Macabre, a cafe decorated with black walls, cobwebs, skulls, and coffins, and Moka Bar, the first espresso bar in London. The novelty, affordability, and the lack of any age restriction meant that by the early 1960s, these places became popular symbols of the counterculture. 

“These Soho coffee shops were inspired by Italian espresso,” Jonathan says. “However, what they really were were places teenagers went because they didn’t want to be with their parents in the pub.”

Coffee shops and those catering to a teenage crowd at that time could be lively places, playing music from a jukebox or a live band. This atmosphere encouraged customers to dance, while others simply carried on with their conversations.  

Professor Morris adds: “There was an excitement around coffee in the 1950s when it came off rationing, but coffee was very much secondary to the social side of things.”

Coffee shops would be open from early morning to late in the evening, and the type of customer varied depending on the time of day. 

Before long, the clientele of a typical coffee shop had become more diverse than ever. It included everyone: factory workers, office workers, business people, musicians, and people of all nationalities. 

It was, as Jonathan said of Ottoman cafés, very democratic – even at a time when the same couldn’t always be said of English society in general.

By the mid-1960s, however, things had changed once more. The UK was the popular music capital of the world, and teenagers migrated towards live music venues, nightclubs, and record shops. Coffee shops took a back seat as the decade came to a close.  

Then, as branded instant became more popular through the 1970s and 1980s, the clientele began drinking their coffee elsewhere. Almost as soon as the resurgence had begun, the bubble burst.

Coffeehouses were replaced by swathes of cafés selling cheap breakfasts, tea, and instant coffee. The coffee shop was to make no more inroads in the UK for another few decades.

london coffee shop

The emergence of the specialty coffee scene in the UK

Fast forward to 2005, and Soho was once again at the epicentre of the latest development of the UK coffee shop. 

Peter Hall, an Australian, and Cameron Maclure, a New Zealander, wanted somewhere they could enjoy a quality cup of coffee like those they enjoyed back home. Their solution was to open Flat White on Berwick Street. It was, for all intents and purposes, the spiritual successor to those 1950s Soho espresso bars.

The coffee scenes in both Australia and New Zealand were already a lot more advanced at the time. Both were focused on delivering better-tasting beverages, concentrating on the production, roasting, and preparation of high quality coffee. They also provided something that hadn’t always been a feature of UK coffeehouses: a high level of service.

Initially, customers were Australian and New Zealand expats seeking out good coffee, but soon office workers and weekend brunchers developed a taste for this new, exciting take on a 300-year-old tradition.

london coffee shop

In the years since Hall and Maclure opened Flat White in 2005, specialty coffee shops have opened in droves across London, and are now expanding to smaller cities across the UK. 

The country’s capital has now become a hotbed for coffee innovation in Europe, and plenty of micro roasters have started to emerge in the city, too. The outlook for specialty coffee in the UK is certainly positive, but what will come next? Whatever happens, it’s set to be an interesting few years – that’s for sure.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on how London’s specialty coffee scene is evolving.

Photo credits: Unsplash

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