December 29, 1675 – King Charles II of England Bans Coffee Houses

According to PBS:

The word “coffee” has roots in several languages. In Yemen it earned the name qahwah, which was originally a romantic term for wine. It later became the Turkish kahveh, then Dutch koffie and finally coffee in English.

Ripe Coffee Berries

The modern version of roasted coffee is said to have originated in Arabia. NPR relates:

. . . tradition says that not a single coffee plant existed outside of Arabia or Africa until the 1600s, when Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim, left Mecca with fertile beans fastened to a strap across his abdomen. Baba’s beans resulted in a new and competitive European coffee trade.”

It caught on fast.

According to Gail Schumann, author of the book Plant Diseases: Their Biology and Social Impact, it was coffee, not tea, that was the most popular drink in England in the mid-1600s. The Dutch imported the coffee from colonial plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Java, and Sumatra. The French began growing coffee in the Caribbean, followed by the Spanish in Central America and the Portuguese in Brazil. European coffee houses sprang up in Italy and later France, where they reached a new level of popularity.

Pasqua Rosée opened the first coffeehouse in London in 1652. Open Culture has an image of Rosée’s original handbill, in which he “advertised both the therapeutic and prophylactic effects of his wares on digestion, headaches, rheumatism, consumption, cough, dropsy, gout, scurvy, and miscarriages.”

The coffeehouse was so successful that as the National Geographic History magazine reports (March/April 2018), within a year it was selling more than 600 coffees a day. Needless to say, competitors began to appear across the city. Coffee shops were approved of by the puritanical Commonwealth that was established after the beheading of King Charles I. National Geographic reports:

Patrons of London’s coffee shops typically sat at long wooden tables with shared candles, pipes, and newspapers. . . men of different social classes could meet and discuss the issues of the day – including politics.”

All this talking, however, worried King Charlies II when the monarchy was restored in 1660. By that time there were as many as 63 coffeehouses in London. He was particularly concerned with the spread of what we would call today “fake news.”

The earliest known image of a London coffeehouse, from 1674

In 1672, the King asked the judiciary for a written opinion on how lawfully to proceed against the coffeehouses, but reportedly the judges could not come up with an easy solution. The result was the King’s first royal proclamation on the matter, issued on June 12, 1672, to “Restrain the Spreading of False news, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and, Government.” The proclamation maintained that “bold and Licentious Discourses” had grown to an extent that men “assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both publick and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State, by speaking evil of things they understand not, and endeavouring to create and nourish an universal Jealousie and Dissatisfaction in the minds of all his Majesties good subjects.”

Apparently this proclamation was ineffective, as claimed by an anonymous invective of the time. This 1673 tract complained that in the places that sell “Coffe, Tea and Chocoletta,” people “discourse with all Companies that come in, of State-matters, talking of news, and broaching of lyes, arraigning the judgements and discretions of their Governors, censuring all their Councels, and insinuating into the people a prejudice against them. . . . (Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, vol 1 “ by Markman Ellis)

On May 2, 1674 another Proclamation with the same title promised to punish all ‘Spreaders of false news, or promoters of any Malicious Calumnies against the State’ by considering them to be ‘Seditiously inclined’.”

And on this day in history, the King, still fearing the coffeehouses were hotbeds for sedition and plots, tried again with yet another proclamation.

A number of similar historical signs marking the sites of old coffee houses dot London today

The Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses declared:

Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within this Kingdom . . . have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such Houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed, and doth (with the Advice of His Privy Council) by this His Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.”

King Charles II of England

The proclamation was published in full in The London Gazette the next day.

There was a large public outcry, with the matter debated in the coffeehouses, of course. The resistance to the new order was so strong the King backtracked after less than two weeks. It was abolished on January 8, 1676.

Artist Adam Dant’s Map Of The Coffee Houses of 17th and 18th Century London.

Dr Matthew Green, an Oxford historian, writes:

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, contemporaries were counting between 1,000 and 8,000 coffeehouses in the capital even if a street survey conducted in 1734 (which excluded unlicensed premises) counted only 551. Even so, Europe had never seen anything like it. Protestant Amsterdam, a rival hub of international trade, could only muster 32 coffeehouses by 1700 and the cluster of coffeehouses in St Mark’s Square in Venice were forbidden from seating more than five customers (presumably to stifle the coalescence of public opinion) whereas North’s, in Cheapside, could happily seat 90 people.”

So what happened? Why is England today known for tea?

The answer is Coffee Rust Fungus, or Hemileia vastatrix.

Hemileia Vastatrix on Coffee Leaves

As Gail L. Schumann reports:

“When the coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, reached Ceylon in 1875, nearly 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) were covered with coffee trees. No effective chemical fungicides were available to protect the foliage, so the fungus was able to colonize the leaves until nearly all the trees were defoliated.”

The result was pretty much complete devastation of the coffee plants. While in 1870, Ceylon was exporting 100 million pounds of coffee per year, by 1889, production was down to 5 million pounds.

Meanwhile, in 1866, James Taylor, a recently arrived Scot, was selected to be in charge of the first sowing of tea seeds, on 19 acres of land. Between 1873 and 1880, the Ceylon Tea Museum tells us, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons. [To get an idea of how much tea that is, as many as 375 to 425 cups of tea can be prepared from one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tea.] Four estates were purchased by the grocer Thomas J. Lipton. He came up with the idea of putting tea in packets instead of selling it loose from the chest. The Museum reports that Lipton’s 300 grocery shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain.

Thomas J. Lipton enjoying a cup of tea


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: