This article has been updated from a series of articles first published in 2007.

The Importance of the Coffeehouse in England

As I said before, the coffeehouse, established for the drinking of one beverage, was soon invaded by the other. Thomas Garway’s was among the first ten or twelve in London. When very young, Pope was taken to meet the aged Poet Laureate John Dryden at Will’s in Bow Street, where Dryden held court for years, his armchair in its “settled and prescriptive place” by the hearth in winter and out on a balcony in summer. Pepys, too, loved the coffeehouse atmosphere where, as he put it, a man “could toss his mind.”

It was the one place where a bishop and highwayman–both sure to be well-mannered–might enjoy one another’s company unmolested. The democratic character of these establishments worried some members of the government enough that in 1675, they persuaded Charles II to suppress them as centers of sedition. A remarkable thing happened. Men of all parties set up such an outcry at being denied their favorite haunts that the king canceled his proclamation only eleven days after issuing it. By the time of Queen Anne, there were some five hundred of these “nurseries of idleness” in London.

It is not too much to claim that the coffeehouses produced and polished the wit of the eighteenth century, that without them Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, or Gulliver’s Travels would make much poorer reading. This is why they were called “penny universities,” a reference both to the conversation they bred and the penny admittance fee. A cup of tea or coffee cost twopence, usually, and chocolate a halfpenny more. A pipe of tobacco cost a penny, and newspapers were free. According to Richard Steele, all a man who wished to join a group of talkers did was to light his pipe from the candle on the table before them; this served as adequate introduction.

Steele and his friend Joseph Addison had become the first Englishmen to earn a livelihood as writers. The coffeehouses served not only as rooms for reading their periodicals, the Tatler and the Spectator, but provided much of the material for them and a refuge for the authors as well. What Will’s was to Dryden, Button’s on Russel Street was to Addison. There, safe from his highborn wife, he enjoyed his friends and wrote his regular columns, like the one in 1711, advising his fellow citizens that all well-regulated households served tea in the morning, taking care that a copy of his Spectator should invariably be part of the tea equipage. Addison’s citizen visits the coffeehouse daily, there to drink tea. His fine lady, modeled on his wife no doubt, drinks tea every morning and before going out to the opera at night. Jonathan Swift had his beloved niece Stella send her letters to his preferred St. James Coffee House, where he was familiarly known as the mad parson. The list is endless.

The course of the eighteenth century in England witnessed the flourishing of another peculiar institution called the tea garden. Unlike the male-only purview of the coffeehouse, the whole idea of the tea garden was for ladies and gentlemen to take their tea together out of doors and surrounded by entertainments, or at least temptations: a great ballroom with orchestra, hidden arbors, flowered walks, bowling greens, sometimes concerts, gambling, racing, or fireworks at night. These gardens, usually extensive, lovely, and filled with good cheer, became more and more numerous toward 1750. Box office draws included appearances by such artists as Mozart and Handel. They attracted everybody that loves eating, drinking, staring, or crowding, as Horace Walpole said of the 1742 opening of Ranelagh Gardens. Everybody from the royal family down was there, and everybody — Henry Fielding and Dr. Johnson included — returned often. Half a century later it was a a similar garden that Lord Nelson met his beloved Emma, later Lady Hamilton, whom Sir Joshua Reynolds, I think it was, even portrayed in her former role of fair tea maker. Girls nubile and quick-tongued enough to be hired as tea makers made Ranelagh, Vauxhall, Marylebone, Covent and the other tea gardens popular, as many a memoir attests, but they were tea gardens thanks chiefly to tea’s fashionability. Though they made the drink more fashionable still, admittedly, mainly these were important places for the men and women of this most amusing and attractive society to meet and consort freely, outside all bounds of class and caste. In New York as in London and elsewhere, the gardens disappeared along with the coffeehouses once both had served their purpose.

The Aerated Bread Company Ltd (A.B.C.) was a British company founded and headquartered in London. Although it is often remembered as running a large chain of tea rooms in Britain and other parts of the world, it was originally established in 1862 by John Dauglish as a bakery using a revolutionary new method he had developed, with the tea rooms starting in 1864.