Above: Ornate stone sign on a wall in Change Alley, recording the site of Garraway’s Coffee House.
From the historical perspective, it is sad to consider that if you asked someone walking past you in the street to name a coffee shop (any coffee shop), the answer would almost certainly be either ‘Starbucks’ or ‘Costa’. The first coffee shop – or ‘coffee house’ as they called them back then – opened in London in 1652. It was in St Michael’s Alley which runs south off the street called Cornhill. There is a City Plaque on the wall stating that the coffee house opened at the sign of ‘the Pasqua Rosee’s Head’. There is still a coffee shop and wine bar on the site today – but not the same one!
Suddenly, during the 17th century, coffee houses became ‘the thing’. Whereas people had met in ale-houses, taverns or public houses for centuries, they were being seen as rather rowdy and unseemly. The newer coffee houses became trendy and were definitely the place in which to be seen. Whereas taverns were where people had a drink – with or without the company of friends – coffee houses became places to meet for hours and socialise with your friends. This applied, of course, to those who did not have a workplace to attend! Chocolate houses also started to emerge but they seem to have been taken less seriously than the coffee house. If you think there is an ‘epidemic’ of coffee shops today then it might be worth pointing out that in 1676 coffee houses had become so numerous in London that Charles II tried in vain to suppress them. A few decades later, in 1702, when Anne became queen, there were said to be 500 coffee houses in London. They would have been mainly the City of London and Westminster. By 1800 the number was estimated to have risen to 8,000 across the same area. That is a staggering increase that Costa could only dream of today.
Above: One of the very few prints that exist of Garraway’s.
For anyone who knew the City in the 17th century, if you asked them to name a coffee house, the answer would almost certainly have been ‘Garraway’s’. It was not that it was larger than other coffee houses but its fame spread far and wide. Sadly the premises no longer exist but there is an ornate sign on the wall marking its exact site in Change Alley.
The story of Garraway’s Coffee House started in 1656 when Thomas Garraway became the first man to sell tea in the City [Lillywhite; n433 p202]. Tea in those days cost between £0.80 and £2.50 (Pounds Sterling) per pound in weight which was an enormous price. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, the figure of £2.50 in 1656 would be equivalent to about £550.00 in today’s values. That is an unbelievably vast sum for one pound of tea (by weight)
Garraway’s Coffee House and the equally well-known Jonothan’s Coffee House nearby both stood in Change Alley. This alley was at the hub of the financial world in the City of London. It still exists, lying between Cornhill and Lombard Street. It is not a single alleyway. It actually has no less than five entrances – two from Cornhill, two from Lombard Street and one from Birchin Lane.
Unlike taverns, coffee houses tended to be frequented by men of a particular profession. In this case, Garraway’s was primarily the haunt of merchants and medical men. Eminent doctors were to be found in the establishment, each one sitting at a particular table, surrounded by patients, surgeons, and apothecaries. In addition, fashionable physicians had their special seats in the coffee room where their patients met and consulted them.
As for the merchants, many of them met there to discuss business. In particular, it was a place of great resort in the time of the South Sea Bubble when hundreds, if not thousands, of investors, went bankrupt as shares reached unsustainable levels and the inevitable consequences were that people lost the entire value of their shares.
It will be noted that Garraway’s Coffee House was founded 10 years before the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the City in 1666. After the Great Fire, the coffee house was rebuilt. About 80 years later, in 1748, the building burnt down once again – this time due to a disastrous fire in the area of Cornhill. Many of the buildings in the vicinity had to be rebuilt once more, including Garraway’s. The establishment finally closed on 11 August 1866 and became the site of a bank. An ornamental stone plaque marking the site of the famous coffee house can be seen on the wall in Change Alley. Sadly, the walls of the alley are mainly tiled and hardly present the visitor with a historic setting.
As well as being a place of drinking and socialising, Garraway’s was also well-known for selling wines and spirits by the bottle or by the crate of bottles. Wines were sold at Garraway’s in 1673 ‘by the candle’ – meaning that the boxes of wines were sold by auction for a limited time, determined by the time it took for an inch of the candle to burn. At the commencement of the sale, the auctioneer would read a description of the goods and the conditions on which they were to be disposed of. A piece of candle, usually an inch long, was lighted and bidding would commence. The last bidder at the time the light went out was then declared the purchaser. During the 18th century, Garraway’s became well-known for the sale of bottles of fine wines. In later times it was also famous for selling bottles of expensive brandy.