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'Devil's Ordinaries' and 'Chapels of Ease': a Comparative Study of London's Coffeehouses and Taverns 1660-1720

R. Charlie Small[1], Department of History, University of Warwick



Coffeehouses, a permanent fixture of today's London streets, originated in the mid-seventeenth century. They have traditionally been seen as the origins of the 'public sphere', spaces where enlightened public discourse could occur and could shape political actions and the social imaginations of their patrons. By comparing coffeehouses with taverns, another staple of London's streets, this article argues that siting the origins of the public sphere solely in the coffeehouse is incorrect, and that such public space was also available in the tavern. Through an assessment of three shared aspects of coffeehouses and taverns, namely their provision of space, drinks and print, it is argued that the public sphere arose not only earlier than previously thought, but also that it was to be seen in taverns as much as coffeehouses.

Keywords: Public sphere, coffeehouses, taverns, partisan discourse, print culture



To Tavern said? I recall it, No;
Me thinks I rather to a Temple go,
Where the great Room (and who would judg it less?)
A Church is, and the rest Chappels of ease.
At least a Presence, fit to entertain,
(As once thy Predecessor) Kings again.
(Stevenson, 1673: 51)

Restoration London, a growing, bustling, metropolis was a city where taverns, coffeehouses and other public houses competed as sites of drink-based conviviality, and provided public space for discussion. While not all of London's taverns could be hailed as a 'Temple' as in the verses quoted above, they can be considered as important social spaces worthy of public debate within the diverse proliferation of public houses in London across the period 1660-1720. Coffeehouses and taverns, institutions primarily focused upon the selling of drinks to middling patrons, differed from inns which had a role in providing accommodation and servicing the coaching trade as 'mixed business complexes' (Chartres, 1977: 27). Coffeehouses and taverns were, unlike inns, similar spaces which existed primarily for the serving of drinks and so can be seen in a comparative light.

This article will differ from previous studies of coffeehouses, taverns and other public houses in specifically using a comparative perspective to assess their impact in fostering the public sphere. The public sphere, initially outlined by Jürgen Habermas as 'the sphere of private people come together as a public', is discursive space which enabled 'people's public use of their reason' (Habermas, 1989: 27). Unlike other studies it will examine the contemporary dichotomy which appears. Through this, stronger comparisons can be made of their similar provision of public 'space' available within London. Instead of coffeehouses seen simply as sober institutions, or taverns as those blighted by brawls and drunkenness, this article will argue that taverns and coffeehouses, while ostensibly different institutions, were markedly similar in this period. Therefore it assesses whether the rapid growth of coffeehouses from the time of the Restoration reduced the political significance of taverns, thereby ensuring that only the coffeehouses provided the necessary space to foster the creation of a bourgeois public sphere. As Habermas argues, it was in the coffeehouse in its 'golden age between 1680 and 1730' from which a British public sphere (Habermas, 1989: 32). This article argues that a dynamic, discursive public sphere existed within London across multiple venues, including the tavern. Thus through this comparative study a different means by which to study political space will illuminate the nature of these public places in London at this time.

The first section will briefly review the concept of space and the public sphere in recent academic debate. It will then propose the methodology of the article, outlining and justifying the extent and limits of its scope. The article will then compare three shared features of taverns and coffeehouses: as space for political discussion, as providers of different drinks and of print material. This survey will construct an image of a similar public sphere existing in both coffeehouses and taverns.


Coffeehouses, Taverns and the Public Sphere

Coffeehouses have long been associated with the provision of discursive public space. As nineteenth-century Whig historian Thomas Macaulay wrote, coffeehouses 'were the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself' (Macaulay, 1913: 360). These new institutions were vastly different from the old world of taverns and alehouses, which were sites of the 'backward and entirely separate existence of "the rustic Englishman"' (Pincus, 1995: 808). Macaulay imagined a space existing in late seventeenth-century London which was urban in nature and inaccessible to all but polite bourgeois members of metropolitan society, to enable public discourse on political matters. Notably this Whig interpretation continued into the twentieth century; Habermas, in his seminal work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, claimed that the coffeehouse was 'an archetypal public space' as Pincus intimates (Pincus, 1995: 808). The coffeehouses were seen as

centres of criticism - literary at first, then also political - in which began to emerge, between aristocratic society and bourgeois intellectuals a certain parity of the educated (Habermas, 1989: 32).

This new public sphere, as opposed to the private sphere, was the location where individuals met to form political and social conceptions of themselves, it is

a functional element in the political realm...given normative status of an organ for the self-articulation of civil society with a state authority corresponding to its needs (Habermas, 1989, 74).

This implies that the public sphere that was fostered by the London coffeehouses was bourgeois, elite and polite as opposed to popular and radical.

This image has been revised by others, however. David Zaret, writing in response to the English translation of Habermas's work in 1989, argued that his definition was 'flawed by errors of omission', and 'truncated...because of its close adherence to a Marxist framework' (Zaret, 1992: 213). Habermas's framework limits too severely the potential size of the public sphere within the context of an elite bourgeois class. Brian Cowan criticises Habermas for a definition which relies too much upon 'straightforward opposition between the state and civil society' (Cowan, 2005: 150). Instead, he contends that 'the coffeehouse an important new site in which the negotiation of early modern power took place' (Cowan, 2005: 151). Pincus broadened the remit of the Habermasian public sphere when examining Charles II's abortive attempt to close down all coffeehouses in the December of 1675. In the face of popular disapproval with the proposal, it was quickly repealed. Pincus argues

that the coffeehouse, and by implication the public sphere, had much broader support than either the King or Parliament had in 1642. The political world was not evenly divided on the issue of coffeehouses (Pincus, 1995: 831).

This suggests that, unlike Habermas's contention that coffeehouses were reserved for the elite, instead they can be seen as having far wider support and participation than traditionally perceived. With Peter Lake, Pincus has built upon this interpretation, arguing that 'the "public sphere" has been moving backward in time' and that this means one can chart 'a narrative of the emergence of the public sphere...[which] can be used to talk coherently about the entire period from the Reformation into the eighteenth century' (Pincus and Lake, 2006: 270). Revisionism has thus resulted in a broader and deeper public sphere than the narrow bourgeois image produced by Habermas. The public sphere can therefore be reconstructed beyond the coffeehouses and into other social environments.

Unlike coffeehouses, taverns have been somewhat neglected in recent debate. While Clark (1983) and Chartres (1977) covered the alehouse and inn respectively, taverns have been under-studied in general, more often made passing reference to in other works such as Miller who described debate as 'the raison d' être of taverns, coffeehouses and clubs, where it combined sociability and conviviality' (Miller, 1995: 367). Contentions that taverns were discursive spaces such as these have not hitherto been expanded into discussions of public sphere more generally, unlike coffeehouses.

This article thus looks at the role of the London tavern in tandem with the coffeehouse in this period. It will build on the revisions of Habermas's model by Pincus, Lake and Zaret in visualising the London public sphere as both earlier and broader in the period 1660-1720.Through a comparative lens it will cast both coffeehouses and taverns as sites of socialisation and public interaction and involvement in politics. This new interpretation will thus augment understandings of political involvement through the comparison of two similar public spaces, their patrons, and the discussions held within.

Three aspects of coffeehouse and tavern activity which collectively shaped the space within will now be explored. First, we will look at both institutions as facilitators of political debate; secondly, their function as locations for the dissemination of print material, and finally their role as providers of alcoholic and caffeinated beverages. All three areas have elements of crossover in the period 1660-1720, and the following section will analyse each for their respective impact on space across taverns and coffeehouses in London. Through adopting Pincus's argument that a broader public sphere existed we will show how the public experienced different spaces within the two types of establishment, although at times this distinction would blur.


The Provision of Space

Habermas's public sphere is a useful analytic tool in describing the spaces of the tavern and coffeehouse because it conceptualises the notion of public space as a crucial element in facilitating public opinion and a 'public' consciousness. However, this article disregards the original outline of the public sphere as one limited to certain bourgeois coffeehouse males and instead adopts the modified definition of David Zaret as 'a widely-accessible area, forum, realm or space for political communication that involves public opinion in support of contested claims' (Zaret, 2009: 175). Pincus and Lake similarly argue that at the centre of public sphere was a partisan divide. For, 'by the 1680s it was clear that two competing visions of England's economic future had emerged' (Pincus and Lake, 2006: 283). The attack on the coffeehouses by Charles II suggests some form of political divide between Whigs and Tories over coffeehouse and tavern, although how far this extended is contentious.

Contemporaries could distinguish between these spaces, as can be seen in the religious overtones of some prints. One tract describes the coffeehouse as 'the Devil's Ordinary' (Anon, 1663: 2). These motivations were significant for it was a time of deep religious divides. James Van Horn Melton describes how partisan politics did not shy away from a political-religious crossover:

Whig alehouses did a bustling business on Guy Fawkes Day and the birthday of Elizabeth I, when tavern celebrations were likely to end down the street in a pope-burning procession (Van Horn Melton, 2001: 232-3).

Despite this, there was an association of coffee with republicanism and alcohol with loyalty at the Restoration:

Coffeehouses...were in competition with the traditional English loyal recreations of church-ales, cockfighting, and lawn bowling. They drew people away from alehouses and taverns (Pincus, 1995: 823).

However, it appears later that the partisan divide weakened. For example, one coffeehouse, 'the Cocoa Tree, served as the [Tory] party's London headquarters' from 1715-1760, implying they were not entirely spaces for Whig politicking (Van Horn Melton, 2001: 243). Meanwhile, at the trial of Popish Plot agitator Stephen College, witness John Smith explained how the treasonous conversation continued 'between the Coffee-House and the Tavern where we went to dine', showing how Whiggish agitators used both spaces (Bassett and Fish, 1681: 27).

Pincus and Lake contend that 'coffeehouses [became] spaces in which merchants, tradesmen, aristocrats, and clerics assembled in urban settings to discuss news, politics, and trade - political economy' (Pincus and Lake, 2006: 283). This concept allows for understanding the public sphere that coffeehouses and arguably taverns fostered. Samuel Pepys, for example, caught up on news about the Restoration in an alehouse, writing in one diary entry how 'Lock told us the substance of the letter that went from Monk to Parliament' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 50) - highlighting how this particular space is likewise a valid site for political discourse. Pepys's diary provides a number of examples of these sites acting as forums for discourse. It was not simply in coffeehouses that public discussion occurred; in October 1660 he met inventor Ralph Greatorex. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as a 'maker of scientific instruments' (Bendall, 2008: online) and in the alehouse he 'did show [Pepys] the matter manner of [an invention,] the lamp-glasses' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 273). This provision of scientific discussion in an alehouse implies that such spaces were not simply locations for intoxication, but also for public discussion. Later he would see the newly invented catamaran, 'the double-bottomed boat' at the Royall Oak tavern (Pepys, 1972 [1665]: 38). Scientific expositions were therefore not limited to the alehouse, but taverns were similarly used for such matters. Significantly both types of public house could serve as a public space for the dissemination of new political, social and scientific ideas, although the alehouse did differ from the tavern as a space which solely focused on drinks. As Clark writes '[s]erving food was never regarded as one of the principle duties of the alehouse-keeper', suggesting the alehouse could not foster quite the same elite space a tavern or coffeehouse could, and seen in John Smith's testimony.

Dudley Ryder's diary provides a number of examples of political discussion in taverns in the period 1715-6. On 30 July 1715 Ryder noted how

One Mr Wadsworth...was complaining of the dissenters and railing at them very vehemently...However, Mr. Wadsworth was sufficiently answered both by myself and Mr Crisp who spoke very warmly upon this occasion (Ryder, 1939 [1715]: 65).

Debate on religion and political matter was therefore not the preserve of the coffeehouse. The tavern was also decided upon by his diary group as a superior location for debate over the coffeehouse. For there,

our conversation went on very briskly and merrily and Mr. Porter and Heathcote attributed it to the spirit of the wine and took this occasion to recommend the tavern before the coffee-house (Ryder, 1939 [1715]: 368)

In this case the improved sociability of alcohol appears to be behind the motivation to change location. The use of either venue as a favourable site for the club highlights the fluidity of the spaces within; however, the distinguishing feature, a divide between coffee and alcohol, implies that a distinct sociability existed within each venue. Public sphere activity can thus be seen as occurring within the tavern space interchangeably from the coffeehouse space although there is also evidence of similar activity extending to the alehouse, as seen in Pepys's experience of Greatorex.

The coffeehouse also fostered debate in this period, and could be seen as a public forum for outing truth. Joseph Glanvill advocated the space for demonstrating falsehood 'but, mischief on't, I'm fallen again under your Correction, and must expect you should demonstrate to the next Coffee-House that I told a Lie' (Glanvill, 1671: 28). The image which emerges is one of coffeehouses and taverns as mixed-purpose spaces; drunk or sobering, and used for politics by both partisan sides. As Knights contends, the importance of coffeehouses as sources for partisan debate is often over-exaggerated, for 'public discourse had long flourished in alehouses, taverns and inns' (Knights, 2005: 249). There was, therefore, similarity of space between the two establishments, which enabled patrons to swap between venues when desired.


Role of Print

Print appears significant in shaping the public sphere and has been described by Zaret as being 'democracy's handmaiden' (Zaret, 2000: 254). In this sense, it is an enabling medium, providing for the dissemination of political ideas and expanding access to the political public sphere to all those within physical or verbal reach of its message. It is therefore key to comprehending the nature of the space provided by public houses such as coffeehouses and taverns. Bryant Lillywhite, in his study of London coffeehouses, noted how Button's Coffee House, opened c.1712 by propagandist Joseph Addison, was 'noted for the Lion's Head Letter-box', in which intelligence and tips were solicited for political purposes (Lillywhite, 1963: 143). In this sense coffeehouses and print were united: there even existed 'news-junkies [who] went to coffee-houses specifically to read the variety of articles and manuscript libels that would be on display' (Knights, 2005: 250). Taverns too, featured print and printed works within them.

People went [to taverns & coffeehouses] to read and discuss a wider range of material than most could afford. Ballad-singing, too, was a social activity and...could have political connotations (Miller, 1995: 367).

As consequence of this, vocal representations of discussion, in the form of ballads and poems, can be comprehended alongside 'written' print as fostering a public sphere within the environment within which they were performed: in taverns and other public houses to a wide audience of literature and illiterate. As Marsh argues, 'ballads in such a social setting were designed to incite debate, banter and contest' (Marsh, 2004: 175). Therefore the discussion of foreign affairs in the 1697 ballad 'A / New COPY / OF / VERSES, / OF / Monsieurs Boasting, or England's Cause of Triumph' can be inferred as exemplary of tavern patrons (and likely patrons of alehouses or other spaces where it would be sung), digesting and also actively engaged in political discussion of issues such as

How the French Preparations by Sea and by Land,
Has threaten'd each Nation on every hand.
(Anon., 1697: 1)

From this one can see how the French military threat is at issue, and that the ballad's extended focus upon international matters is indicative of a public interest in such affairs. Another ballad directly compares politics with coffee consumption, with the lines

Let Politick Statesmen Grave Coffee Espouse,
While we in more general Liquors Carous;
Let News-Letters, Libels, and Banter fill up,
The Article-skull'd Fops, while we Tipple the Cup
(Thompson, 1682: 1).

If we consider this ballad as sung by tavern patrons it is clear a divide is created, fostering the opinion of the writer that coffee creates 'fops' who produce both news-letters and libels and implying those 'statesmen' are more deceitful than truthful as consequence of their coffee-drinking.

Later periodicals and journals by the likes of Jonathan Swift and Addison also generated debate. Dudley Ryder, while visiting the British coffeehouse, 'looked over many of the Examiners [a work of Swift]' and mused that 'his article must do a great deal of harm at least in hardening the Tories against any possibility of conviction' (Ryder, 1939 [1715]: 62). While Ryder was not necessarily representative of all London coffeehouse patrons, the existence of a number of editions of the Examiner held there shows how one coffeehouse owner saw the advantage of providing such prints for dissemination to its customers. Coffeehouse and tavern sociability appear to complement each other, as they were connected through the availability of print. The printed materials could incite debate and discussion, be used in song and disseminated beyond the boundaries of those who were able to read it, or could introduce news and foreign affairs to the patrons of those establishments. While Addison's periodicals incited debate in the 1700s and 1710s, the use of print to wage debate is visible earlier with Glanvill's tract and other prints. As Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham argue, 'literacy of all kinds was closely intertwined with aurality' (Crick and Walsham, 2004: 18). This meant that a combination of reading and verbal communication was very much at the heart of public debate at this time, and the messages of printed works, because of their permanence, could thus be disseminated further afield.

Thus in both taverns and coffeehouses it was not simply those who could read, but also those within ear shot who could participate within the public sphere. Discussion was possible at multiple levels and not simply the preserve of the educated, literate classes.


The Provision of Different Drinks

The differences between the varying products retailed in these spaces could also impact upon the shape of any public sphere they created. As Van Horn Melton believes, 'the mood of the coffee-house, like that of the tavern, was informal and spontaneous', and they had similarities; however, contemporaries did nevertheless see a divide because of the typical drinks available (Van Horn Melton, 2001: 247). Van Horn Melton himself notes how coffeehouse 'sociability had all the spontaneity of the tavern, with none of its raucousness and violence' (Van Horn Melton, 2001: 247). In the response to A Character of a Coffee-House, the author compares the atmosphere of taverns and alehouses with the coffeehouse:

A Tavern reckoning soon breeds a Purse-Consumption, In an Ale-house you must gorge your self with Pot after Pot, sit dully alone or be drawn in to club for others reckonings, be frown'd on by your Landlady...But here for a penny or two you may spend 2 or 3 hours, have the shelter of a House, the warmth of a Fire, the diversion of Company and conveniency if you please of taking a Pipe of Tobacco. (Anon., 1673: 3).

Naturally, as a response to the anti-coffee A Character, it fervently attacks those who consume alcohol and advocates the coffeehouse. A strong divide between coffeehouse and tavern is thus visible. As Pincus notes, Charles II's abortive attempt to ban coffeehouses in December 1675 was largely because of 'the government's perception that they perpetuated the cultural divisions between cavalier and puritan' (Pincus, 1995: 823). By this, he means civil war divisions perpetuated as a distinction between coffeehouses and taverns (and alehouses). This divide in the Restoration period is indicative of both partisan political schism and the differing perception of the drinks on party political lines. It is also reflected in popular song as one ballad, 'The Tavern Huff' contrasts the ability to 'Drink Wine and be wise' with coffee, arguing that those who argue it is politically beneficial are lying: 'That says it create Politicians,/He's a politick Fool' (C. F., 1674: 78). However, as Cowan illustrates, coffeehouses were not entirely 'dry' locations. Some retailed 'other alcoholic liquors such as rum, mead, metheglin, cider, perry, usquebaugh, brandy, aquavitae, strong-waters, beer, and ale' (Cowan, 2005: 82).

Thus a distinction based upon drinks alone is not clear-cut, as there is evidence of coffeehouses selling alcohol, and, for Clark, by the 1720s 'alehouse inventories quite frequently list coffee-making equipment' (Clark, 1983: 214); from this it can be deduced that these drinking establishments probably competed with coffeehouses directly across the period. What appears when examining the impact of these different drinks is therefore somewhat ambiguous; coffeehouses were akin to taverns and taverns akin to coffeehouses. As Cowan contends, 'coffeehouses did not look much different from taverns or alehouses on the outside, or even on the inside' (Cowan, 2005: 79). He illustrates this with a painting by Joseph Highmore, entitled Figures in a Tavern or a Coffeehouse, noting that 'It is not clear whether coffee or alcoholic drinks are being served. Certainly the table, pipes, and servant staff would be appropriate for either a tavern or a coffeehouse' (Cowan, 2005: 81). This spatial ambiguity highlights how patrons took to both spaces equally and used either for political debate, business and sociability. As seen in Ryder's Diary, one could quite easily swap between either type of establishment with ease based upon preference. However, Pepys did seem to appreciate political debate more within the coffeehouse than the tavern, with comments upon discourses at the Rota club where he described hearing 'exceedingly good argument' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 17) one evening, and another he engaged in 'admirable discourse till late at night' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 14). In taverns, he tended to record his consumption habits, noting, for example, that he 'drank a quart of wine' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 38) or, travelling to the 'Sun tavern in expectation of a dinner' (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 57). Nevertheless he caught up on news of a murder in a tavern on 1 December 1660 (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 307), and discussed business in one later that month (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 316) implying a mixed use of these spaces.

Within the context of a public house public sphere, it is clear that both establishments provided, at times, spaces for debate and discussion. Patrons would socialise, but also discuss politics, trade and news. However, as open public venues, by their very nature they are transient spaces: without patrons they no longer sustain the public sphere. Thus it is telling that after the Restoration it was a number of months before Pepys re-entered a coffeehouse: after the demise of the Rota club on 21 February 1660 he visited one the very next day (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 63), and then did not enter another until November that year (Pepys, 1970 [1660]: 280). Without the club, the space becomes seemingly irrelevant, and he spent his time in taverns and alehouses instead. The transience of space is key to understanding any conception of the public sphere, for it cannot be said to be permanent, but rather a concept which could expand to various public spaces at different times, depending upon circumstances. Time, alongside space, is therefore critical in conceptualising the spaces provided by taverns and coffeehouses.



This brief study has shown how coffeehouses and taverns in seventeenth-century London both provided spaces for debate and discussion, similarly sold both sobering and alcoholic drinks, and through the availability of print educated many more than just those able to read. In a revision of traditional historiography, one can see the coffeehouse as a site not dissimilar to the tavern, and crucially the provision of alcohol and coffee in both suggests that as similar sites of consumption, the intoxicated state of those within them did not vary so much and, it could be claimed, this was of less relevance than today's understanding of a clear divide between 'drunken' alcohol consumption and 'sober' coffee consumption. It is clear that from this outline study, the situation was not so effectively demarcated. However, further research could shed more light on the ambiguous nature of sobriety and its impact in the period.




Professor Mark Knights (Warwick), for providing supervision of this project which formed part of my undergraduate thesis.

Professor Beat Kümin (Warwick), for both teaching a module on the 'World of the Tavern', and for providing additional support in producing this work.



[1] R. Charlie Small recently completed his MA in History at the University of Warwick. His dissertation examined the drinking culture of the eighteenth-century Royal Navy, continuing the theme of studying the significance of drinking spaces. He is now undertaking research work with the History department at Warwick, with a view to returning to further study in a year, following some time focusing upon language-learning abroad.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Small, R. C., ''Devil's Ordinaries' and 'Chapels of Ease': a Comparative Study of London's Coffeehouses and Taverns 1660-1720', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 5, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.