London’s first coffee house

In 1971 three men sat down and decided to open a coffee supply company in Seattle which within 40 years would become the largest coffeehouse company in the world.

Their choice of name would be prophetic for they chose a fictional seafarer. Their first favoured name was Pequod named after a whaling boat from Moby Dick this was rejected in favour of Starbuck the ship’s chief mate.

[T]he coffee shop we know today came about after Howard Schultz, who had joined the company the previous year; he travelled to Italy and saw potential to develop a similar coffee house culture in Seattle.

Using a coffee house to relax, talk with friends, meet and conduct business might have been novel to Howard Schultz but in London 300 years ago this was precisely what Londoners did in coffee houses. Only of the business conducted would have been marine insurance, for the type of boat featured in Moby Dick. According to Dr. Matthew Green who conducts coffee house tours of London the Starbucks in Russell Street, Covent Garden occupies the same site that 300 years ago stood Button’s Coffee House. It was here that people gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Journalists would gather stories with poets and play writers would meet to discuss and critique each other’s work.

Nailed to a wall where Starbucks community board now resides was the marble head of a lion with open jaws in which Button’s customers were invited to pop stories for weekly publication.

London’s coffee culture had started in 1652 by a Greek, Pasqua Roseé and it wasn’t long before he was selling 600 dishes of coffee a day. The beverage was seen as an antidote to drunkenness and the coffee houses popularity would give rise to London becoming the world’s insurance capital.

The coffee houses became the centre for free thought as well as business and by 1663 there were 82 coffee houses within the old Roman walls of the City. By the 18th century London had over 550 coffee houses each with its own identity unlike today’s homogenised Starbucks.

London’s coffee houses would transform Britain. The exchange of ideas would make it the centre for invention and the arts.

The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s close to the Royal Exchange. Lloyd’s Coffee House on Lombard Street (now a Sainsbury’s) attracted merchants, ships’ captains and stockbrokers.

How did the beverage taste? The 18th century palate found it comparable to ink or soot for it was a thick, gritty but addictive drink which gave a physical boost.

Starbucks might product a more sophisticated brew but the convivial atmosphere where debate and communicating (with laptops) did not originate in Seattle but within London’s Roman walls by a Greek.

2 thoughts on “London’s first coffee house”

  1. I get a little impatient with the continual mentions of Starbuck’s as though this chain somehow began to new wave of “coffee culture” in Britain. It didn’t. In fact, Starbuck’s was the new kid on the block, starting in the US only in 1998.

    To mention but two other well represented chains, Caffè Nero was started by Gerry Ford in 1997 and Costa started even earlier: it was set up in 1971 by Sergio and Bruno Costa. Today it is part of the Whitbread group.

    In my opinion, both these chains knock spots off Starbuck’s, in terms of both customer service and quality of product. While Starbuck’s remains resolutely pseudo-American, both Costa and Nero have known how to adapt to British social norms.

    We might also mention Pret A Manger (no accents, please, we’re British…) which has become extremely successful (recently branching out into the pseudo-Japanese chain Itsu) and attracts a broad clientele of students and business people. Pret started in 1984.

    Starbuck’s is a johnny-come-lately who can claim neither innovation nor superiority of service and the sooner commentators recognize this fact, the better.


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