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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Coffee Houses in Norwich

Coffee Houses in Norwich

In 1680 the first Coffee House in Norwich was opened, soon to be followed by others. Coffee houses were to remain as popular meeting places for men until the nineteenth century.

Arrival in England

Coffee was first imported into England from the Yemen around 1650 and its arrival coincided with a period of immense upheaval due to the Civil War and Commonwealth. Enterprising men (and occasionally women) opened establishments where almost any man was welcome, irrespective of his social position or religious persuasion, to partake of this beverage and to speak his mind reasonably freely.   The social climate in England was just right for these unique new institutions to flourish.   Coffee houses have been described as the first neutral indoor spaces in our history and as the forerunners of the modern office.

Just a few years earlier there would have been no place where a random group of men could meet openly without fear of arrest. An aristocrat could gather his friends together in his castle or hall but they had to be careful what they said and everything that took place inside a church building was strictly under the control of the clergy.  The common man was never expected to have more than one or two people, other than family members or employees, in his home, any larger gatherings could attract the attention of the authorities. There were many inns and taverns but generally speaking they were patronised by the lower social orders and still subject to eavesdropping and official scrutiny.

Of course men could always put their heads together and mutter in the market place or at the village fair, or they could slope away deep into the woods to discuss politics or religion, but discovery could be fatal, and it‘s not very convenient in the English climate anyway! It is not possible to enforce the law so rigidly in time of war, especially when the government needed the assistance of so many men who identified with the world of dissent and radicalism.  By the time the Monarchy had been restored in 1660, political and religious dissent had become so well established and the concept of liberty of conscience so deeply rooted in so many minds that it was impossible to suppress it, in spite of various attempts to do so.

London coffee houses

In 1652 the first coffee house opened in London, hundreds soon following all around England. This mix of aristocrats, merchants, craftsmen and even apprentices, all discussing the latest news and airing their views was not to everyone‘s liking.   King Charles II was certainly alarmed at this degree of open association and potential sedition.  In 1675 he issued a proclamation closing down all coffee houses, but society had moved on to the extent that there was a mass outcry and they were soon reopened. 

In addition to coffee, tea and chocolate, various other exotic fare was provided along with exhibitions of curiosities such as animals, freaks, or paintings, and the latest newspapers.  This regular supply of London papers was a particular attraction in provincial cities such as Norwich, enabling the citizens to keep up to date with the latest news in a way not previously known.

Norwich coffee houses

Chase‘s Norwich directory 1783  lists three coffee houses, all in Market Place: Johnson‘s at No.43, Tuck‘s at 39 and Coleman‘s at 25, the compiler commenting that whilst the many excellent inns and taverns were not handsome or spacious enough, the coffee houses were sufficiently good.   Others were known to exist in St. Andrew‘s and Tombland, whilst The Gate was situated in the Upper Close.  Names that have come down to us are Brady‘s, Blomefields, Rummer, Upper Half Moon, Lower Half Moon, Popinjay, and Loyal. 

Many men developed a personal preference for one particular establishment and if it was known what time a prominent personality could always be found at his favourite coffee house, other men would go there seeking his acquaintance and friendship.  One of history‘s classic examples is that of Dr. Johnson in London. For much his life he was the centre of a social circle that met in whichever coffee house was his favourite at the time. There would have been many similar cases in Norwich.  Philip Stannard, for instance, one of Norwich‘s leading textile manufacturers, writing to a friend in 1753, says that he has sent 6 bottles of wine to "our coffee house", presumably the one they frequented.

Merchants and craftsmen soon began to realise that it was more pleasant to carry out business deals in the comfort of a coffee house rather than amidst the noise and smells of a workshop, printing house or warehouse.  A merchant expecting a cargo of exotic goods from the Indies would post a list of the cargo in his regular coffee house rather than meeting prospective customers at the dockside.  Men could then negotiate deals over a cup of coffee.  Various establishments became associated with certain trades and professions.  The name that has lasted to this day is that of Lloyd‘s Coffee House in London‘s Lombard Street, known to be the place where wealthy merchants who undertook to insure shipping cargoes were always to be found.  When they later relocated to purpose-built premises they took the name of the coffee house with them.

In Norwich Brady‘s Coffee House was known for the distribution of political tracts whilst the Union became the venue for meetings of The Union Lodge.      Property was sold at some venues, and others were associated with one or another political party. Parliamentary candidates were sometimes chosen during meetings in a coffee house.  The sale of tickets for concerts, balls and assemblies was another service offered by these establishments.    A notice in the Norwich Mercury on Saturday March 31st 1744 advertised an Assembly at Chapel-Fields House and some Shakespearean plays, stating that tickets were available from Gray‘s Coffee House.

Blythe‘s Norwich Guide and Directory 1842 mentions one called the Excise in Lower Goat Lane and others run by Richard Murray in Westlegate Street, Edward Netherwood in St. Mary‘s Plain and, George Rix in Golden Ball Street, but as the nineteenth century proceeded coffee houses gradually began to lose their popularity.

Change in use

As the professional and commercial world became more complex, business transactions began to move out of the coffee houses into purpose built offices.  (We have already commented on Lloyd‘s of London.)  Freedom of speech was now taken for granted, whilst the wide and vaguely defined range of activities ceased to be an attraction. Men wanted a more specific reason for meeting together.  Alongside the original coffee houses there had also grown up a few private societies for the discussion of specialised subjects, the Royal Society being the most famous example.  By the late seventeenth century these societies were mushrooming, prime examples being Wilberforce‘s Evangelical Society or Wedgewood‘s Lunar Club.  Norwich had its United Friars founded in 1785 and the Speculative Society of 1790.  Private Gentleman‘s Club also began to appear such as the Pall Mall, Savage or United Services clubs in London and the Norfolk Club in Norwich.  Other clubs had a sporting purpose or perhaps a literary one, or were dedicated to music, chess or drama.  Coffee slowly gave way to tea and alcohol.   The tavern became more respectable, developing into our familiar public house and was joined by the tea-shop and Lyons Corner Houses.

Today Norwich is home to a thousand and one clubs. Some seek to satisfy minds through literary discussions or music and others to benefit the body with an array of exercise machines or a swimming pool.  On Saturday nights many clubs in the city open their doors to countless younger adults seeking friendship, alcohol and sexual partners.  The smallest club might contain just a few lads playing snooker whilst our biggest club is frequently host to some twenty five thousand members on a Saturday afternoon.  Few people today are aware of those original coffee houses or know of their unique contribution to the development of our modern society. 

Sources/Further Reading:

•·       Chase‘s Directory.  Norwich Millenium Library, Local Studies Dept.

•·        Philip Stannard.   Correspondence.  Norfolk Records Society Vol. 11.   Local Studies Dept.

•·        Norwich  Mercury  Sat. 31 March 1744

•·        Blythe‘s Directory.  Norwich Millenium Library, Local Studies Dept.

Ted Doe

September 2008