By the late 18th century London was awash with coffee houses. They were the social media of their time, doing what the likes of Twitter and Etsy do today. In an era before newspapers became popular these men-only institutions provided a forum for gossip, news and transactions – plus, of course, a cup of coffee – in return for a penny entrance fee.
Their ability to stir political discussion was regarded as so subversive by Charles II that he issued a proclamation in 1675 to suppress them on the grounds that they were spreading “malicious and scandalous reports to the defamation of His Majesty’s Government … speaking evil of things they understand not”.
This did not succeed, and equally unsuccessful was the Women’s Petition against Coffee raised a year earlier which the historian Dr Mathew Green reminds us ranted against the abominable liquor called coffee which had “reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts”.
The clientele of the Grecian Coffee House in Devereux Court would not have described themselves that way. Rather, they saw themselves as intellectuals. Walk down the narrow passage of Devereux Court from the Strand (see yellow line in map below) and you will come to the Devereux pub. This is the actual building in which the coffee house was located. It was built by the brilliant but notorious Nicholas Barbon in the 1670s. Barbon had a reputation as a jerry builder with scant regard for planning laws, yet many of his buildings are still standing proud, which might explain the eerie, timeless atmosphere of Devereux Court.
If it was an intelligent conversation you were looking for, the coffee house there was the place. It was established in 1676 and patronised during its heyday by eminent men of learning, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane, astronomer royal Edmund Halley, and Joseph Addison, founder of the Spectator. Later on, that American genius Benjamin Franklin used to go there to drink with the Learned Club, a spin-off of the Royal Society.
Sometimes its debates got out of hand. A Dr. King reported that one evening a dispute between two gentlemen about the accent of a Greek word sparked such hostility that the two decided to settle it with their swords. They stepped into Devereux Court where one of them – Dr. King thinks his name was Fitzgerald – was “run through the body, and died on the spot”.
There was another coffee house in Devereux Court with a less dramatic but very historic link to the present. Tom’s Coffee House, established in 1702, about 25 years after the Grecian. It was pretty well where 9 Devereux Court (show in the main photo) is today. It wasn’t anything special, but in 1706 it was acquired by Thomas Twining and became attached to Twining’s pioneering tea shop in the same building, at the Strand end.
The emergence of tea which, unlike coffee, was easy to produce, was one of the causes of the decline of the once ubiquitous coffee houses. Another reason was that, unlike coffee houses, tea shops welcomed women.
Twinings is a remarkable company. Its shop facing on to Strand is more or less as it was 300 years ago, and although it is now owned by Associated British Foods it still prides itself on its history. It claims that its logo, created in 1787, is the oldest in the world in continuous use. It also claims to be London’s longest-standing ratepayer, having occupied 216 the Strand since 1706.
Its long narrow hallway is garlanded with teas of all kinds, giving it an addictive aroma. This might at least divert our attention from the fact that Devereux Court was named after Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who led a failed coup against the government of Elizabeth I and was executed for treason. He would have been better advised to have expressed his differences with the monarch in a coffee house.
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