Making A Living as a Coffeehouse Owner in 17th Century London

Written by Lori Thiessen

When coffee first arrived in the mid-1660’s in London, it wasn’t a great business to get involved in unlike today’s coffee market, judging from the plethora of thriving cafes. So coffeehouse owners had to develop sideline businesses. In the previous two articles, I touched on auctions (art and books) and newspapers as lucrative sidelines.

But these were far from the only ways in which coffeehouse owners made money. There were hosting debating societies like the Rota, or selling tickets to attend concerts, author readings and other types of gatherings which were held at the coffeehouse. Some coffeehouses also acted as post offices where people could send and receive mail, though the postal service in those days was quite a hap-hazard affair.

Perhaps the most famous business to develop out of a coffeehouse is the international insurer, Lloyd’s of London. Located near the docks in London, Edward Lloyd not only sold coffee but held ships’ auctions, sold insurance and published financial news, under the title Lloyd’s News. Eventually, Lloyd’s Coffeehouse allowed insurance merchants to work out of the coffeehouse for an annual subscription (Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee).

But as with any endeavour, there is the unsavory underbelly which is usually far more interesting than the legal, upright side of business. The coffeehouse business was no exception. Auction not only included books and art but also slaves. Gambling (dicing, cards, etc.) proved to be a good moneymaker so long as the authorities didn’t get wind of it. The oldest profession, prostitution, found a good home in some of the more seedy establishments, like Tom King’s Coffeehouse.

Moll King, the owner and proprietor of King’s Coffeehouse after Tom died, was brought up on charges of running a bagnio or disorderly house but her defense was that there were no beds in the place (Markman Ellis, The Coffee-house). Ah, the saving-grace of loopholes. King’s Coffeehouse was so well-known for selling something other than coffee that author Henry Fielding immortalized the place in his Covent Garden Tragedy (1732). Any coffeehouse that operated into the wee hours of the morning was under suspicion for being the front for a brothel.

I find it interesting that the coffeehouses or cafes of today really are just places to drink coffee or tea and socialize, work or read quietly. In Vancouver, there are a few cafes that allow their patrons to smoke marijuana, not unlike Amsterdam but these aren’t prevalent. Unless I’m completely naïve (of which I have been rightly accused at times), most coffee shops today are quite a tame social creature compared to certain ones of yesteryear.

Q: What would you think of a coffee shop that sold much more than just coffee or food?

Until Next Time,

May your coffee always be freshly brewed!

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