Early modern Parliament and Coffee

The History of Parliament team is very fond of a cup of coffee to help power through a day of research, particularly when trying to stay focused working from home! Coffee has a long and interesting place within parliamentary history as Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-90 project, explores…

On 12 March 1739 Lord Delawarr reported from a committee tasked with investigating the publication of a protest signed by a number of lords against the Spanish Convention. The committee had heard testimony from one of the doorkeepers, who had been sent to discover the source of the publication, tracking it down to a printer named James Watson. On examination, Watson revealed that he had received the text of the protest at a coffee house ‘by a man whom he never saw before; who told him, “That a friend and well-wisher of his sent it him”’. He also admitted that he had acquired the list of the lords who voted against the Convention at another unnamed coffee house, where it was lying on a table with the rest of the newspapers. He claimed not to be able to remember at which coffee house (or houses) all of this had taken place, but when pressed agreed to bring the text from which he had worked for the committee to inspect. The source of the leak was established to be Mr Price, one of the clerks in the Parliament Office.

Parliament had long had a close relationship with coffee, as the Westminster complex included a number of well-known coffee houses and stalls where members could purchase refreshments. When Parliament was forced to decamp to Oxford in 1681, the coffee-shops went with them. Roger North noted with surprise finding all of his

lobby acquaintance, as crank and busy at their work, sailing about from one place to another, and often fixing in the lobby coffee house, as if they were at their old Parliament Post at Westminster.

By the middle of the 18th century many of these places had become institutions in their own right, their proprietors jealous of their perquisites and eager to take advantage of major events. In 1765 Sarah Butler, proprietor of one of the best known establishments, Waghorns, petitioned the lord great chamberlain to allow her to open her doors during the trial of Lord Byron, arguing that it would be ‘of great advantage to her as well as of use to many lords’. She had been given similar permission five years previously for the trial of Earl Ferrers, on condition that none ‘but those that have tickets’ might make use of her facilities. Although at times lucrative, being a coffee-shop owner in Westminster could be an uncertain occupation. In 1770 Robert Quarme, the deputy Black Rod, petitioned the duke of Ancaster on behalf of Mr Wells, proprietor of Alice’s Coffee House in Old Palace Yard. Wells’s house had been pulled down during the improvement works at the palace and although new accommodation had been provided he needed permission to use a door leading from his house into the Court of Requests. Quarme insisted that he was fully deserving:

He is a very sober, honest, worthy man, and one that I can vouch for

Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard, Thomas Sandby, 18th c.
Parliamentary Art Collection
The facade of Westminster Hall is covered by a ramshackle collection of buildings serving various purposes.

If some officials were supportive of the rights of the coffee-vendors, in other regards parliamentarians regarded ‘coffee culture’ with considerable suspicion. Coffee houses, after all, were at the centre of the news network, and as the Spanish Convention incident showed, operated as places where the opposition could distribute information for wider public consumption. By the 1720s printing or distributing formal protests subscribed by members of the House of Lords via the coffee houses had become a familiar tactic of the opposition group in the upper chamber, prompting the ministry to crack down on the practice. In 1722 the earl of Sunderland, arguing for greater regulation, complained that too many protests were being circulated

printed and handed about in coffee-houses, and sent all over the kingdom, to inflame the minds of the people.

Sunderland was far from the first minister to express concerns about the role coffee houses played in the distribution of scurrilous news or opposition propaganda. A newsletter of 1667 reported how ‘The scandal given to all sober, well-meaning men by coffee-houses will, it is thought, give occasion for their inspection and the regulation of their abuses’. A concerted effort to shut them down in 1676 proved unsuccessful and instead the government resorted to insisting on coffee house proprietors taking the oaths of allegiance and entering into recognizances of £500 to prevent libels from being ‘read, perused or divulged’ in their shops. Again in 1688 James II’s embattled regime attempted to get a grip on the news industry by insisting that ‘no coffee house or public house keep any written or other news, save the Gazette’. [HMC Le Fleming, 214] There was another unsuccessful attempt to regulate newspapers in the 1690s following the lapsing of the licensing act.

Figures in a Tavern or Coffee House, (attributed to) Joseph Highmore, 18th c.
Yale Center for British Art

Despite this, by the early 18th century coffee houses had become an important fixture in the political and social world of many towns. Often it was where news first became available. In 1692 Sir Ralph Verney commented that he had heard about a sitting of the House of Lords: ‘I cannot hear what it was about, I believe at any coffee house it will be known’ and in 1717 when the Prince of Wales fell out with George I, it was at the coffee house that rumours went the rounds that the prince was to be shipped off to Hanover and only to be allowed what his father thought fit by way of funds. Successive administrations continued to find coffee houses troubling institutions. In 1707 the bishop of Bangor told a colleague about a bill that had just passed the Lords and how the same night ‘the coffee houses had on their tables pretended minutes’ of the Lords’ debates on the matter, while in 1779 Lord North bemoaned the supposed right of ‘coffee-house readers’ to receive information about the progress of the American War. It was not true of all, though. In 1748 Edmund Burke noted visiting two coffee-houses in search of reaction to a paper he had written. In one he found ‘a kind of wakeful lethargy’ and in the other:

a very different scene, for it seems the Gentlemen of this coffee-house resorting thither, less for news than company, find all seasons alike.


Further Reading:

Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee (Yale)

The Writings & Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Paul Langford, vol. i: the early writings, eds. T.O. McLoughlin & James T. Boulton (OUP)

The first House of Lords volumes, 1660-1715, were published in 2016. More information can be found here. Keep up to date with the ongoing Lords 1715-1790 project via the Georgian Lords on twitter, or the Georgian Lords blog series.

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