London's Original and All-Inspiring Coffee House.
The site of London's first coffee house has been serving refreshments of one kind or another for 360 years.
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’.
In 1654, to circumvent resistance from local alehouse traders, he accepted Christoper Bowman as a business partner because he was a freeman of the city of London. Bowman had been the coachman of Alderman Thomas Hodges, Edwards' father-in-law.
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.
Initially, Rosee's coffee shop appears to have been no more than a mere shed next to the churchyard in St. Michaels Alley.
In 1658, the coffee shop was moved into better premises, a largish house in St. Michaels Alley, although at this point, the enterprise was under the direction of Christopher Bowman, Rosee having disappeared from the picture.
Coffee was a smash hit; within a couple of years, Pasqua was selling over 600 dishes of coffee a day to the horror of the local tavern keepers. For anyone who’s ever tried seventeenth-century style coffee, this can come as something of a shock — unless, that is, you like your brew “black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love”, as an old Turkish proverb recommends, and shot through with grit.
It’s not just that our taste buds have grown more discerning accustomed as we are to silky-smooth Flat Whites; contemporaries found it disgusting too. One early sampler likened it to a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes” while others were reminded of oil, ink, soot, mud, damp and s**t.
Nonetheless, people loved how the “bitter Mohammedan gruel”, as The London Spy described it in 1701, kindled conversations, fired debates, sparked ideas, and, as Pasqua himself pointed out in his handbill The Virtue of the Coffee Drink (1652), made one “fit for business” — his stall was a stone’s throw from that great entrepôt of international commerce, the Royal Exchange.
Remember — until the mid-seventeenth century, most people in England were either slightly — or very — drunk all of the time. Drink London’s fetid river water at your own peril; most people wisely favoured watered-down ale or beer (“small beer”). The arrival of coffee, then, triggered a dawn of sobriety that laid the foundations for truly spectacular economic growth in the decades that followed as people thought clearly for the first time. The stock exchange, insurance industry, and auctioneering: all burst into life in 17th-century coffeehouses — in Jonathan’s, Lloyd’s, and Garraway’s — spawning the credit, security, and markets that facilitated the dramatic expansion of Britain’s network of global trade in Asia, Africa and America.
The meteoric success of Pasqua’s shack triggered a coffeehouse boom.
From 1670 to 1685, the number of London coffee-houses began to multiply, and also began to gain political importance due to their popularity as places of debate. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England. (Pasqua Rosée also established the first coffeehouse in Paris in 1672 and held a city-wide coffee monopoly until Procopio Cutò opened the Café Procope in 1686).
The Jamaica Wine House now reputedly occupies the same space, it is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
The building that currently stands on the site is a 19th-century public house. This pub's licence was acquired by Shepherd Neame and the premises were reopened after a restoration that finished in April 2009.
There is a wood-panelled bar with three sections on the ground floor, and downstairs an elegant restaurant. Many of the original features are still here, including the 19th century cooker once used to roast coffee beans.
The 2 upper storeys are similar with carved ornamental panels above the windows. Access to these storeys is by a separate entrance marked 'Jamaica Buildings' in the bay to the north. A link block in similar style joins this building to the church of St Michael, Cornhill. This incorporates a vaulted passage at ground floor level which gives access through round-arched openings to the church and churchyard. This has Gothic detailing to match the church and is dated 1868. It forms part of the alterations to the church by Scott.
Rosée’s original shop-bill, or handbill, the first advertisement for coffee, is in the British Museum, and from it the accompanying photograph was made for this work. It sets forth in direct fashion: "The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink First publiquely made and sold in England, by Pasqua Rosée ... in St. Michaels Alley in Cornhill ... at the Signe of his own Head."
The handbill published in 1652 to promote the launch of Pasqua Rosée’s coffeehouse telling people how to drink coffee and hailing it as the miracle cure for just about every ailment under the sun including dropsy, scurvy, gout, scrofula and even “mis-carryings in childbearing women”.
A small body-colour drawing of the interior of a London coffeehouse from c. 1705.