… Heaven in Pity First sent amongst us this All-Healing Berry,
Coffee arrives, that grave and wholesome Liquor,That heals the stomach, makes the genius quicker,Relieves the memory, revives the sad,
And cheers the Spirits, without making mad. — Anon. (1674)
As you drink your coffee of choice in the conviviality of a good Oxford coffee house, here are a few facts about genus coffea and the extraordinary impact it had on the already turbulent times of mid-17th century England. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Oxford looms large in that story.
Oxford is the first place in England to record the brewing of coffee, by one Nathaniel Conopios, a Cretan cleric.
John Evelyn’s diary entry for 10 May 1637 records: “There came in my time to the College [Balliol] one Nathaniel, out of Greece, from Cyril, the patriarch of Constantinople… He was the first I ever saw drink coffee.”
In 1650/51 the first coffee house in England was opened by ‘one Jacob’, from Lebanon, at The Angel (formerly The Tabard) Inn, now the site of The Grand Café on the High Street.
London, as ever, quickly followed Oxford, opening its first coffee house in 1652.
Back in Oxford, in 1654 a second coffee house opened, opposite the Angel. Now The Queen’s Lane Coffee House, it has been serving coffee ever since.
In 1665, University students and fellows successfully petitioned Arthur Tillyard, Royalist, gentleman and apothecary, to open Tillyard’s Yard, by All Souls college. Tillyard’s was soon adopted by Oxford’s leading experimental philosophers and The Chemical Club was born. Soon renamed The Oxford Coffee Club, it became the most famous coffee house in Oxford.
It was here that Wren, Boyle, Locke, Evelyn, Lower, Wilkins, Wallis and others took their work out of the college and into the public sphere, while further developing the role and scope of a ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’.
Also in 1665, Parliament, escaping plague in London, arrived in Oxford. Establishing itself in the Divinity School
and House of Convocation, a ‘coffee house for the parliament men’ was soon flourishing in ‘a room in the Divinity School’. Can’t do without a dish or two of the stuff, y’know.
Divinity School, Bodliean Library
For a time the argument for the sobriety and good and enterprising fellowship of the coffee house, plus the healthy enervating qualities of the bean, outweighed the voice of its critics.
However, as consumption rose, prices fell and all but the very poorest of men might now afford a dish or two on a regular basis, served up in a ‘Multitude of Coffee-Houses’ where all society – of whatever class or station – might meet, debate and form opinion. Coffee mania ruled!
Naturally, the regime of Charles II grew increasingly mistrustful of coffee drinking and the ever growing number of rowdy ‘political’ societies it engendered. His bill to ban coffee and coffe house, was, however, withdrawn on 8th January, 1676, just two days before its enactment.
At Oxford, meanwhile, the absence of a common meeting room in colleges had further encouraged the growth of coffee houses and coffee drinking, particularly among undergraduates. Colleges' adopted their own Coffee House: Malbon's by Trinity College, Horseman's by All Souls, Corpus, Merton and Oriel.
Pamphlets, radical literature and unmonitored discussion were also freely available, much to the concern of both Council and Proctors. At the infamous, and popluar, Bigg's Coffee House, other delights were said to be on offer. But the baning of students frequenting such places seems to have had little effect on their continued patronage! By the late 1600s, at the height of 'coffee mania', there were 14 coffee houses in Oxford before their gradual decline in popularity. In all, however, 52 coffee houses are recorded in Oxford over the next 150 years, though the location of most of them has yet to be established.
Seal's (1805 - 1840), on the corner of Holywell Street and Catte Street, reputedly designed by John Vanbrugh of Blenheim Palace fame, originally opened in 1762 as Baggs Coffee House. Architecturally it was the most resplendent coffee house in Oxford. In 1880, the building, now Adam's Coffee House, was demolished to make way for the India Institute.
In the UK today, an estimated 70 million cups of coffee are drunk each day. with around 800,000 Brits visiting 14,022 coffee shops at least four times a week. Overall the annual UK market is worth £5b, including retail coffee sales of over £1b.
Look out for our recommendations for good coffee houses in Oxford. If you have a favourite, then let us know and we'll check it out.