Vic Keegan: The City of London’s coffee house cluster

Vic Keegan: The City of London’s coffee house cluster

If you walk from Gracechurch Street along Bishopsgate to Liverpool Street it is easy to feel overpowered by the gigantic office blocks that have blotted out much of the skyline. They are there for a reason, of course – to maintain the City of London’s position as one the world’s leading financial centres.

This may look like a triumph of money over history. Yet if you find your way into the area between Cornhill and Lombard Street you may be surprised. It is like falling into a time warp – a network of alleyways that have hardly changed since medieval times.

To find your way around, forget GPS and mobile phones. Instead, use the 18th Century map reproduced above. All the buildings it shows were destroyed or damaged in a fire which began in what was then called Exchange Alley on Friday 25 March 1748, but the serpentine lanes are still much as they were. Here, history has triumphed over height.

It is fashionable today to talk about clusters of like-minded companies or start-ups as catalysts of change, yet that is exactly what was happening in these streets around 300 years ago in the form of an agglomeration of coffee houses, from which a direct line to the success of today’s London’s financial district can be traced.

If you had entered Exchange Alley – now called Change Alley – from Cornhill you would first have passed the New Union and Drapers coffee houses. A few yards on you would have had a choice between two of the most famous, not to say notorious, of them all: on your left Jonathan’s and on your right Sam’s, both of which played crucial roles in the emergence of stockjobbing or the trading of stocks and shares.

After paying the customary one penny entrance fee – there was no class distinction if you had the money – you were free to gossip with acquaintances and newcomers about news and rumours of companies here or abroad. Both kinds were involved in one of the great financial frauds of the time, the so-called South Sea Bubble, which burst in 1720, leaving hundreds of people deprived of savings they had invested. At school we learned about how South Sea Company attracted speculators on an industrial scale, though hardly anything about the slave trading that lay behind it.

Even after that scandal Sam’s continued be the go-to place for the get rich quick dreamers of the day. If crypto-currency had been around back then, Sam’s would have been in the thick of it. Jonathan’s is often thought to have been the inspiration for Thomas Rowlandson’s famous cartoon A Mad Dog in a Coffee House (below, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art), which shows posters of ship movements on the wall.


Following Exchange Alley round to the left brought you Garraways. Its name was derived from that of its original owner, Thomas Garway, who, among other things, is credited with being the first person to sell tea in England on a retail basis, beginning in 1657. Garraways (pictured below) claimed to have dramatically brought down the price of tea in leaf form from upwards of six pounds per pound in weight.

Garraways began to serve coffee too after the pioneering initiative of Pasqua Rosée, who established the Jamaica Coffee House on the other side of Birchin Lane – the very first such establishment in London. At Garraways you could buy and sell anything from books and paintings to South Sea Company stock. It lasted for over 200 years.

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Still further along Exchange Alley, a left turn would have brought you to the Eldridge Barber shop – where the Great Fire of 1748 actually started – and the Jerusalem Coffee House, the most powerful of them all, not least because it was owned by the East India Company, the biggest corporation in the world before its ignominious fall from grace. The Jerusalem was a popular meeting place for traders and shipowners, particularly those with an interest in the east, and an early rival of the Lloyds coffee house on Greater Tower Street, or just Tower Street as it was then known.

Also in the area was Tom’s Coffee House, which had artistic as well as business vibes. David Garrick, one of the greatest actors of his age, was known to frequent it and Colley Cibber, the actor manager, was a customer. The poet Thomas Chatterton, who died tragically young, told his sister that he needed to be writing at Tom’s because “my present profession obliges me to frequent places of the best resort”.

The family home of Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one of Britain’s best-loved poems, was in Cornhill, around the corner from Birchin Lane. Gray’s father Philip, a scrivener and broker, would have been familiar with some of the almost 20 coffee houses crammed into this small space.

Had those who started and ran them known that the cluster of coffee houses that thrived in this part of the City would lead to the giant skyscrapers that dominate the area today, they would have been astounded. From little acorns…

This is the ninth 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. The previous eight articles are here. On London policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: Culture, EC BID supported series

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