British Muslim Heritage
The London Coffee House

'Just before you, you will observe a long window with the words
“COFFEE ROOM” legibly printed on it.'
[Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby]

No one can be entirely sure when London’s first “coffee-house” appeared. Many existed, but many were also subsequently destroyed by the 1666 Great Fire of London, and presumably records and manuscripts shared their fate. All we now have is a motley collection of letters, diaries such as that of the famous Samuel Pepys, church records, archives from neighbouring institutions such as the Royal Exchange, and some brief references to coffee-houses in the contemporary literature.

The earliest account of the existence of a coffee-house in the capital is found in a 1652 reference to a Ragusian man-servant known as Pasqua Rosee. Mr Rosee had been brought to England from Ottoman Smyrna by his former employer, Mr Daniel Edwards, a “Turkey merchant” (one who dealt in coffee and other such luxury items). After a falling out with his boss, Pasqua Rosee then teamed up and went into business with another employee of Mr Edwards’, his old coachman. The two unlikely business partners proceeded to establish a coffee-house in Cornhill, known in some accounts as “The Turk’s Head”. It is claimed that this is how coffee first came to these sceptred isles, about 100 years after the first coffee-houses opened in Turkey. However, the Elizabethan essayist Francis Bacon, in his Historia Vitae et Mortis, which was published as early as 1605, warned the public against the dangerous properties of coffee and this implies that some contact at least had existed prior to the establishing of the actual coffee-house.

What is certain, however, is that the origin of coffee can be traced back to Mocha in the Yemen, and it can only have found its way to Britain by way of the Muslim world and its Mediterranean trade routes. Queen Elizabeth I shared her father’s attraction to things Islamic. She managed to make her European neighbours somewhat discontented by building not only firm diplomatic relations with her new-found Moroccan and Ottoman friends, but she also established good trading relations, and a sea-faring agreement.

It is likely that these good relations would have initiated the sudden influx of coffee and other luxury goods of the time from the Muslim world to England, by way of London in the main-part (See: Muslim Impact on Daily Life). Advertisements found in pamphlets and newspapers of the time refer to coffe e as “the right Turkie berry”, which implies its introduction by way of not simply the Muslim world, but specifically either by the Ottomans, or the Mediterranean trading routes.

Coffee was either in existence prior to the date that Pasqua Rosee would have us believe, or it suited the English palate because coffee-houses sprung up in their hundreds all over London over the following decades. Names came and went and proprietors changed, and the old was replaced by the new. Nevertheless coffee-houses became a much-loved London institution from the post-Elizabethan period straight through to the early twentieth century, and right up to their modern and far inadequate descendants. Few of these buildings can still be found, but probably none of them exists as their former selves. The Blitz stole away much of this part of London’s history.

Whether some of these coffee-houses were actually run by Muslim proprietors at one time is a matter for conjecture. However, what can be found in the records are a number of very interesting names. Up to 57 different “Turk’s Head” coffee-houses were recorded in one form or other. We also find “The Jerusalem Coffee-house”; various types of the “Blackamoor” or “Ye Blackmore’s Head”; “The Oriental Cigar Divan”; “The Saracen’s Head” (of Dickens fame); “The Africa and Senegal Coffee-house”; “The Sultaness”; “The Sultan’s Head”; “Solyman’s Coffee House”; “Morat Ye Great”, and many, many more examples can be found, among them the first Indian restaurant of London, “The Hindoostanee” of 1810.

Each coffee-house has its own interesting history. They were all certainly influenced by the Ottoman coffee-house model, which does raise questions about the origins of at least the first few proprietors. Coffee-houses served not only coffee, but some of them offered the lure of tobacco and hookah pipes; tea was also served as it found its way over from the China seas (also initially via the Muslim world). The serving staff seems to have dressed the part, and a “black boy” seeking refuge from the West Indies was sometimes employed as a star attraction to customers. The signs outside, and with them the coffee tokens that were used to purchase, were often be-turbaned.

The “Great Turk Coffee House” (also known as “Morat Ye Great”) in Exchange Alley in 1662 is a case in point. Apparently, inside could be found a bust of “Sultan Almurath IV” himself, “the most detestable tyrant that ever ruled the Ottoman Empire”. The customer could not only find coffee, tea and tobacco here, but also chocolate and a range of sherbets, which, according to the Mercurius Publicus (12-19 March 1662), were “made in Turkie; made of lemons, roses, and violets perfumed”. Another chronicler of the time has suggested that “Morat” was actually the name of the proprietor himself.

The London Gazette of 2-8 September, 1658 advertised what is purported to be the first place to sell tea: “That Excellent, and by all Physitians approved, China Drink, called by Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house, in Sweeting’s Rents by the Royal Exchange, London”. The tokens for the coffee-house bore the Sultaness’ veiled head. Its origins are otherwise obscure, other than it may have moved to the site of Morat Ye Great after its destruction in the Great Fire. The Sultaness Coffee House was also mentioned by Charles Dickens in a number of his works, notably Little Dorrit, and this implies the survival of this particular coffee-house for about two hundred years.

The Hindoostanee of 1810, London’s first curry house, was set up by a Mr Sake Dean Mahomet who travelled here from Bengal. He settled first in Ireland, where he married his Irish wife, and then moved to London where he started his elaborately decorated coffee-house at 34 George Street, off Portman Square (now a sushi bar). His proprietorship does not seem to have lasted too long as he then moved on to establish a highly successful Indian Vapour Baths and Shampooing Establishment in Brighton Pavilion, and soon after became King George IV’s “shampooing surgeon”. The Hindoostanee, however, certainly lasted until 1833, when it is last mentioned in accounts.

These coffee-houses took London society by storm for about 400 years. They functioned not only as social venues, but many artists and writers began to congregate and hold meetings in them; business and banking transactions took place in them; Freemasons had their Lodge meetings in them. Many coffee-houses, due to their sea-born connections, even set up a postal system for collecting and carrying letters abroad, which annoyed the struggling Postal Service no end. Often they went hand in hand with Turkish baths, which were also becoming a popular London feature. Whatever the local ethos of the area, whether it be one of literary prowess or ill-repute, the coffee-house became the main focal-point for all of this activity. They even gained a reputation for being meeting places for religious or political dissidents, and hence at one point in the mid to late seventeenth century were “under suspicion as being centres of intrigue and treasonable-talk”.

However, on a lighter note, intellectuals and scientists also used coffee-houses to launch their latest projects to the Press; and the sea-born trading companies such as the East India Company, the African Company and the Levant Company all made use of coffee-houses, often to store their records. Newspapers, journals and pamphlets were circulated. Many a literary figure wrote about coffee-houses, and about “moors” generally. Though not often complementary as such, see Shakespeare’s “superstitious moor”, nevertheless it can still be said that Muslims influenced the lives of the Tudors, Stuarts and their heirs sufficiently that they found their way into the plays, novels, magazines and poems of the time. And a society’s literature is one of the best indicators of its cultural state. It is even possible to find a satirical ode written about them:

                      The Character of a Coffee-House
                      And if you see the great Morat
                      With shash on's head instead of hat,
                      Or any Sultan in his dress,
                      Or picture of a Sultaness,
                      Or John's admired curl'd pate,
                      Or th' great Mogul in's Chair of State,
                      Or Constantine the Grecian,
                      Who 14 years was th' only man
                      That made coffee for th' great Bashaw,
                      Although the man he never saw;
                      Of if you see a coffee-cup
                      Filled from a Turkish pot, hung up
                      Withing the clouds, and round it Pipes,
                      Wax candles, stoppers, these are types
                      And certain signs (with many more
                      Would be too long to write them ore'),
                      Which plainly do spectators tell
                      That in that house they coffee sell.
                                                           [Anonymous, 1665]

Some historians of this period have also noted that the prevalence of names such as “Turk’s Head” or “Solyman’s Coffee House” refer to Sulayman the Magnificent, one of the great Renaissance monarchs of the 16th century. His rule had made such an impression not only on the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, but also subsequently on the population at large, that his name was adopted as the main pulling factor for these coffee-houses, “where Turkey coffee was sold”. This also showed how the diplomatic trends of the time would then influence the lives, perspectives and aspirations of the general populace.

In fact, they influenced people so much that the styles and even clothing of the Islamic world were adopted into British society. Another anonymous writer, “W.P.” (possibly one and the same, whose work was entitled, A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses) wrote, “the English imitate all other people in their ridiculous Fashions… [and] With the Barbarous Indian he smoaks Tobacco. With the Turk he drinks Coffee”. Hence in a later period, you find Hogarth’s portrait of himself wearing a turban (quite ironic in view of his opinions about coffee). It seems, in fact, that turban-wearing became common for coffee-house goers generally. This and other such eccentricities worried certain sections of society, and so in 1674 there arose “The Women’s Petition Against Coffee” as they complained that their husbands were turning “as unfruitful as the deserts”, or as other commentators have called it, “turning Turk”. Other petitions ensued, and even Charles II thought it wise to abolish coffee and other foreign drinks, which ban did not last long.

Coffee went on trial as a substance that would morally corrupt and attract “renegades from Christianity”. This hysteria was not helped by the appearance of an early translation of the Qur’an, which was associated with the religious tolerance that had previously existed. The Qur’an came to be associated with the coffee. The antics of the Barbary corsairs did not improve the popularity of the Muslims and a strange dichotomy developed, whereby London society was split into those who supported coffee and those who did not.

However, this was all in keeping with the cultural fascination with the East that had sprung up on a large scale and which, during the Georgian period, also translated itself into the Orientalist movement in art, literature and then finally in academia.   

One surviving bastion of all things to do with coffee stills harks back to an older world. Established in 1887, the Algerian Coffee Stores can be found at 52 Old Compton Street, and it is worth a visit if only to breathe in the spectacular flavours (See Eating Out in Muslim London).

[Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are taken from Bryant Lillywhite, “London Coffee Houses]. | British Muslim Heritage