The Brief History of Coffee in Great Britain

British people almost always drink their coffee with milk but sugar is down to personal preference and probably fifty percent of coffee drinkers would add sugar to their coffee beverage.

Currently, the UK is amidst the middle of a coffee drinking boom. There are hardly any towns or city high streets without at least one coffee shop, usually many choices are available. However, if you went back in time, just twenty years ago, the town or city high street looked very different with hardly any coffee shops open.

There are various styles of coffee served today in the UK.

Introduction of Coffee into Great Britain?

It all started in the late 16th century. Many travelers returning from Turkey and the Middle East talked about Coffa, the ‘black drink’. It was described as “black as soot, and tasting much like it too”. Soot being the remains of burnt coal, nowadays a scarce resource. Another traveler’s description was that it was “more wholesome than pleasant”.

Generally, the consensus was that the taste was not a particularly nice experience, but it was thought to be healthy with medicinal benefits.

In the late 16th and early 17th century, explorers from Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and The Netherlands, were all able to regularly drink coffee. This was because they were busy discovering and colonizing lands, and therefore had access to the foods and drinks available in these parts of the world.

During this period of time, all of the available coffee came from Arabia (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen) as it was not yet found or imported to elsewhere. The strong desire of the colonializing powers in this region to obtain coffea seeds, grow and consume more coffee was relatively easy as many of those conquered lands were ideal for growing the coffea shrub from which coffee beans are extracted. Arabia did attempt to maintain its monopoly on the coffea shrub but the Europeans managed to obtain seeds and found that they were able to grow it in their newly conquered empires. 

It was soon brought to Europe, but it caused controversy and debate in Italy due to its Ottoman origins. Some priests disagreed with its consumption, however this stopped shortly after the Pope had tasted coffee and approved of it.

Leonhard Rauwolf wrote in 1583 that both the British East India (Shipping) Company and the Dutch East India (Shipping) Company brought coffee for the first time into England, Great Britain. However, the first reports of coffee actually being consumed in England wasn’t until 1637, when an Oxford University academic named John Evelyn wrote that a Greek visitor to the university was the first person he ever saw drink coffee.

It was not long after that, that the sight of coffee drinking became much more common. Incidentally, it was in Oxford where allegedly the first UK coffee shop opened for business.

Introduction of Coffee Shops in Great Britain?

The first coffee shop alleged to have opened in Great Britain was in Oxford, England, located approximately 90 km (55 miles) west of London City center. It was opened in 1650 by a Jewish man named Jacob. The coffee shop was named “The Angel” and remains in operation today, but now as a wine bar and with a different name “The Grand Café”.

The first coffee shop to have opened in London, England was in 1652 by a Greek man named Pasqua Rosée, a servant of Daniel Edwards, a successful trader of Turkish goods. Its location is in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, London and the coffee used at the shop was sourced from Turkey by Daniel Edwards’ importation business. Ironically, this is now also a wine bar, known as “Jamaica Wine House”.

The Appeal of Coffee to Britons

Pasqua Rosée was said to have sold up to 600 cups of coffee every day. He marketed coffee as a digestif, to be drank before meals. Rosée published an article promoting coffee’s many health benefits, particularly its ability to prevent sleepiness, scurvy, gout and many other health related problems.

Other coffee sellers were also quick to note coffee’s potential medicinal properties and advertised coffee in this way too.

By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee shops throughout England. Popularity spread rapidly in Europe, and then into America. In Britain, the coffee shop became a common feature in cities and towns, making the drink available and familiar to millions of people.  

The coffee shop became a sociable meeting place, where writers, artists, scholars, politicians and businessmen would meet, discuss and debate. They became so popular that the King of England tried to dissuade customers from visiting, by stating that scandals about the monarchy were discussed at these coffee shops. However, this attempt at suppression did not work, and people continued to flock to coffee shops.

The diary of Samuel Pepys mentions that going to the coffee shop was for a conversation. It was not a quiet place to sit and drink, rather, it was lively where strangers were welcomed, to strike up conversation with their neighbor and debate topics.

The coffee shop had become a meeting place that encouraged creative thinking. Academics and scientists gave lectures, and the shops became known as “penny universities.” The cost of a cup of coffee was a mere penny and for that price, men could raise their intellect by hearing new theories and innovative discussions. World renown Sir Isaac Newton said that his “Principia Mathematica” originated during a coffee shop discussion. Similarly, in the Middle East coffee shops were known as “schools for the wise.”

The roots of many great British institutions can be traced back to the coffee shop. The London Stock Exchange (1698), the auction houses of Christies (1766) and Sotheby’s (1744) and Lloyd’s of London Insurance (1686) were first discussed at coffee shops and developed into real and successful businesses.

Coffee Causes Disruption in Great Britain

Just as quickly as the coffee shop era grew in popularity, so did an opposition to the culture. The opposition was being vocalized especially so by Anthony Wood an Oxford academic who in 1677, expressed that once serious students of the university would now not show up at the university grounds for lectures. Instead, they were all to be found in deep discussions at the coffee shops.

Others joined in the arguing, condemning the socialization as it was reducing workplace productivity. Women complained that their husbands neglected their household duties and marital responsibilities, even to the point that the excessive caffeine intake was causing a lack of libido and physical deficiencies in the bedroom.

Further, women were banned from coffee shops in Great Britain, which was the situation across most of Europe with Germany being an exception. The coffee shop was strictly dominated by males; with the only women found nearby coffee shops being those engaged in prostitution.

As the Industrial Revolution (1760-1820) gained momentum, social habits changed and the number of coffee shops began to decline. Some of the nicer ones became gentleman’s clubs, with the others reverting to ale houses (pubs). By the end of the 19th century, the majority of British coffee shops had gone, although they continued to be popular in Europe.

The Demise of Coffee in Great Britain?

During the late 18th century, coffee started to fall out of fashion, being replaced by tea. This was mainly due to two reasons 1) the increase of import taxation, making coffee more expensive to drink; and 2) that coffee was not always able to be grown in the countries conquered by the British.

Coffee drinking did not stop completely, however. The Victorian era (1837-1901) encouraged coffee drinking at coffee shops over consuming alcohol at the pub. Nevertheless, Britain’s coffee drinking history was being forgotten and gradually replaced by tea drinkers. In this era, most of Britain’s coffee came from Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) which had been colonized by the British in the late 18th century.

Disaster struck the coffee industry in the 1860’s when coffea shrubs were damaged by fungal disease without any immediate action being taken to curb the disease. By the time the severity was realised, it was too late and the coffee industry in Britain was wrecked.

The British East India (Shipping) Company commenced promoting tea as an alternative. It was not long before tea took over as Britain’s favorite hot drink. Sri Lanka today is actually far more famous for its Ceylon tea production than coffee. It continues to be grown where the diseased coffea shrubs once grew on the plantations established by the British.

Tea was a drink that could be made at home easily, which contributed to the decline of coffee drinking.

The Future of Coffee in Great Britain?

Coffee shops began their revival in the 1950s. Changes in people’s behavior as a result of World War II, gave young people more independence, and they experienced less restrictions from their parents. Coffee shops, particularly those located in trendy parts of London provided the answer to hang-out with friends and be seen.

Coffee remains to this day one of the most popular, commonly consumed hot beverages. Its popularity may be because of its flavor, caffeine content or smell, maybe even due to people’s increasingly busy lives, with more people working non-standard hours and disrupting the body’s natural sleeping patterns.  Coffee may be the answer!

The Mintel Coffee UK (2008) Report, found that Britons alone were consuming 70 million cups a year. Although, this still puts coffee consumption in a strong second place behind tea. A more recent article published by the British Coffee Association, stated that Briton’s now drink in excess of 95 million cups per day, with tea drinkers just slightly ahead at 100 million cups of tea per day. That equates to 650 cups of coffee per adult Briton per year!!

The coffee shop is once again a social hub, to meet friends, treat yourself, have an in-depth chat, or just for a mini-break and forget about your worrying day. They are designed to be sociable spaces, welcoming females and children more so than pubs, with free wi-fi connectivity and being located at both shopping centers and business parks… the future of coffee shop drinking is rosy.

UK Coffee shop sales are showing strong signs of growth. Sales in UK coffee shops have increased by 37% during the last five years, with current forecasts for this rate to continue, making estimated total sales of over £4 billion a year by 2022.

Read more: History of American Coffee Culture

Scroll to Top