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How London's coffee houses fuelled the social media of the 1700s

April 21, 2017

London's coffee houses in the 18th century had the same kind of impact on society as the internet and social media today. They were central to huge changes in politics, literature, commercial and social life.

 

 

One of the best books on the subject, published in 1956, described the coffee houses as The Penny Universities. Open to anyone – well, any man – who could put a penny down on entry, the coffee houses let you sit down with like-minded people and read the latest publications together while putting the world to rights. 

 

The coffee house craze became so big some estimates say there were as many as 2,000 coffee houses across London.  

 

The people who frequented each coffee house gave it its own unique character – different trades and professions tended to congregate together in the same coffee house. So the modern social media "echo chamber" – where your ideas and views are reinforced by the views of similar people among your friends or followers – is not a new phenomenon.

 

 

The men who gathered at Lloyd's Coffee Shop on Tower Street – pictured in the illustration above – were mainly sailors, merchants and ship-owners. The man in charge, Edward Lloyd, made sure there was always plenty of reliable shipping news on hand when you came in. So over time it became the most popular place to go to for marine insurance. And so Lloyd's of London was born. The club of shipping insurance underwriters moved to Lombard Street, where a blue plaque commemorates them. Other coffee houses gave birth to institutions like the London Stock Exchange.

 

While the origins of the big financial institutions are remembered with blue plaques, it's harder to find memorials to the birth-places of modern journalism and literature. Russell Street in Covent Garden should be full of blue plaques.

 

 

William Urwin's Coffee House, known as Will's, was the place to be in the late 1600s if you aspired to be a poet or playwright. It was presided over by the great John Dryden, who would sit and pass judgment on the latest poem or play.

 

His disciples included Pope, Congreve, Vanbrugh ... and Joseph Addison, the creator of the Lion's Head. Jonathan Swift – author of Gulliver's Travels – was told by Dryden he would never make a good writer. Swift said: "The worst conversation I ever remember to have heard in my life was that at Will's Coffee House, where the Wits (as they were called) used formerly to assemble."

 

By 1712 Will's Coffee House had lost its attraction as a meeting place of the Wits and had apparently degenerated into a gaming-house. Joseph Addison found premises across the road on the southern side of Russell Street and set up Daniel Button as master of a new coffee shop.

 

Button was a servant employed by the Countess of Warwick, who Addison later married.  Writing in The Penny Universities, Aytoun Ellis said: "Button's Coffee House did for journalism what Will's had done for poetry. " The wits and writers of a Whig persuasion moved across the road from Will's and settled in to Button's.

 

 

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele used Button's as a base for the writers who would help them fill the pages of their new papers – The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian – with material that would "open Everyman's eyes to literature; better still, to open his mind, form his judgment, teach him to think, and provide him with general ideas on life and art".

 

They wanted to create something that went beyond the early newspapers of the day – which were largely devoted to political news. They created papers that talked about all the different things that the general public were talking about. And so they created the modern newspaper.

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