Vic Keegan: How the City of London’s tea and coffee shops bubbled up

Vic Keegan: How the City of London’s tea and coffee shops bubbled up

The City of London is famous for finance but should also be noted for tea and coffee. Its renown in this respect is centuries old. On Tuesday 25 September 1660 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that following a meeting “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away”. Pepys doesn’t say where he got the tea from, but it is likely to have come from Garraways in Exchange Alley – now officially called Change Alley – which was best known as a coffee house, but in 1657 had broken new ground in London by also selling tea.

London’s first coffee house, though maybe coffee shack would be a better description, was opened by Pasqua Rosée, a servant of an English merchant, in St Michael’s Alley off Cornhill on the exact site of today’s Jamaica Wine House (picture below), a lovely inn which sells a wide range of alcoholic and other beverages though, curiously, not coffee.

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By the early 18th century it is reckoned that London had more coffee houses than any other city in the world except for Constantinople. Each was a hive of political, business and social activity, which people of all classes could enjoy for the price of a penny entrance fee. Pepys appears to have been the first to have recorded the introduction of both drinks, which transformed the financial and social face of London.

The rise of City coffee houses has been well documented, but that of tea less so. It wasn’t consumed as much because it was so expensive despite Garraways bringing its price down sharply. Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal, who married Charles II in 1662, is credited with popularising tea-drinking among courtly circles. But it wasn’t until 1784, when Richard Twining of the Twining tea dynasty persuaded William Pitt the Younger to reduce the tax on tea from an incredible 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent through the operation of the Commutation Act, that tea sales really took off.

This ended a century of punitive taxation which had turned smuggling into a major industry and greatly helped the East India Company – of which Twining was a director – in its lucrative trade selling Indian opium to China. It was paid in silver, which was used for buying tea.

Another milestone in the history of tea was passed in 1864 when the Aerated Bread Company, better known as ABC, which had already revolutionised bread-making, opened the first tea shop on the forecourt of Fenchurch Street station (pictured below). ABC’s tea shops expanded quickly from this small beginning and by 1923 there were 250 of them in London.

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The tea rooms were game-changing because during the Victorian they offered one of the first public places where a woman could eat a meal with women friends, or even by herself, without a male escort. They also provided jobs. As Evangeline Holland has observed: “For ladies who had fallen on hard times, or even aristocratic women wanting to express their independence (and earn a little money), tea rooms were an extremely lucrative business. Tea rooms were also significant to the growth of female independence and a separate feminine sphere, and many of them were a hotbed of agitation for women’s suffrage”.

It is easy to chart the rise of tea and coffee in the City in a romantic manner, but of course there is also a deeply sinister side to the story. Merchants who traded shares and other commodities in the coffee houses were often investing in companies whose profits came from the slave trade to the West Indies, on which coffee production depended. The success of tea is inextricably linked to the shameful history of the East India Company. The City is still coming to terms with its past involvement in these activities.

This is the nineteenth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. All the previous articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series

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