"Coffee in Georgian-Era England
"No coffee, I thank you, for me -- I never take coffee. A little tea if you please, sir,by and bye…” Jane Austen’s Emma
In my upcoming novel, A Return to Norland, one of my characters is involved with coffee plantations in the West Indies, which meant I had to do a little research on coffee in general, and to what extent it was part of the daily lives of Georgian England.
Coffee had been introduced to English society in the 1600s, and by 1675 there were over 3,000 coffee shops spread over England. We are told that the atmosphere in these cafes was as much a part of the attraction as the drink, I guess not unlike today’s cafes, where people go for the ambience, and to be seen, as much as for the coffee itself.
However, unlike today’s cafes, those coffee houses in England from the 1700s onwards, were seen as places where men would gather to discuss erudite subject matter, discuss political issues, catch up with the day’s news and so forth. Commonly referred to as ‘penny universities’ they provided a place where people (males only unfortunately) could learn as much sipping coffee and listening to the discussions, as they could in a lecture room! The majority of those frequenting the coffee houses were people of higher social status. Coffee houses were the equivalent of today’s think-tanks, basically. Some famous businesses, notably Lloyd’s of London, were born in coffee houses of the 18th century.
Over time, coffee houses adapted to the social circles and needs of different coffee-drinking populaces. For example, The Coffee House, a favoured haunt of merchants and sailors, saw shipping information was shared and deals conducted. The Grecian Coffee-House in Devereux Court catered to the Whigs; the Rainbow attracted Freemasons and French refugee Huguenots. Slaughter’s on St. Martin’s Lane, boasted an artistic clientele. Still other coffee houses, including the Moll King’s coffee house Covent Garden, catered to lower class tastes
Many virtues have been ascribed to this berry, which it never possessed; and much undeserved censure has been thrown upon its use. It is certainly good in weakness of the stomach, head-ache, and want of appetite; in lethargic and sleepy diseases; but it is not good for lean and bilious people, nor for women in a state of pregnancy. Its invigorating qualities are strongly experienced, by taking it when the stomach is over-loaded with food, nauseated with surfeit, or weakened by intemperance; and it certainly takes away that listlessness and languor, which nervous people so severely feel, after any deviation to excess, fatigue, or irregularity. It is said to be of use in the gravel; and a dish of strong coffee, without milk or sugar, taken frequently in the height of an asthmatic fit, contributes much to its abatement. In the wet and damp seasons, to which the climate of England is so subject, there is no doubt but great advantage must result from the use of coffee.
Coffee was not just reserved for coffee houses, however, and was a very common beverage on the breakfast table in many homes, and at many other times of the day also. Austen talks of coffee in almost all her novels, with the quote above coming from the novel Emma, where Miss Bates eschews an afternoon pick-me-up coffee, for the staple of English society, tea. But it is drunk with appreciation in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and –on no fewer than six occasions – in Pride and Prejudice. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, when the gentlemen returned to the drawing room from their after-dinner port, they enjoyed coffee with the ladies, and Elizabeth is the one in charge of pouring the coffee-pot.
In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1799, Austen noted that coffee was regularly on the breakfast table while her brother was home, noting, ‘It is rather impertinent to suggest any household care to a housekeeper, but I just venture to say that the coffee-mill will be wanted every day while Edward is at Steventon, as he always drinks coffee for breakfast’.
Although coffee was a popular drink, tea retained its place as the national drink. By the beginning of the 1800s, coffee houses had begun to wane in popularity. This was partly due to elite clubs and societies becoming more closed-door, and at the same time, the British East India Company influenced government policies to stimulate the demand for tea. Therefore, public coffee houses had slowly begun to disappear by Austen’s time, and had almost completely vanished by the 1830s, although coffee continued to be drunk in the home as a popular beverage.