Thursday, September 20, 2012

Deborah Swift on Why I Love Syrup and Soot (that's coffee to you!)

‘Syrup and soot’ and ‘essence of old shoes’ were just two of the names given to coffee by innkeepers and tavern keepers in the 17th century. Threatened by the craze for coffee drinking, and fearing for their livelihood, they did everything in their power to close them down. Fortunately they didn’t succeed and today I am able to pop into my local Costa for a coffee and chat with friends just as Pepys did in his day.

What would I find if I went into a coffee house in Pepys’s time?
Well I’d have to get a man to accompany me, as women weren’t allowed unless they either owned it or worked there. I’d choose someone like Isaac Newton to be sure of an interesting conversation! I would look for the sign of a Turk’s Head, which often denoted a coffee house because of its Turkish origins.

I would have to pay a penny at the door, which is a fee to say that I agree to the rules of the house. I would undertake not to gamble, swear, quarrel, or mourn over lost love. Obviously the ‘mourning over a lost love’ must have been a big problem! Because of this admission charge and the free exchange of ideas and opinions the coffee houses promoted, in London they became known as “Penny Universities.”

If I inhaled, I might smell the beans roasting, a cause of great worry to bookseller neighbours in a London still mostly half-timbered from Elizabethan times. Inside the house the atmosphere would be acrid and thick with tobacco smoke from innumerable long-stemmed pipes, not to mention the smoke from the damp sea-coal burning in the grate, and thin candles or rush-lights giving off their waxy smell. Add to this the unwashed bodies, delicately perfumed by pomanders, and the tang of perfumed or aromatic snuff, and I can see where the ‘essence of old shoes’ might have come from!

(Picture of English Oak snuff box from ) 

If I managed to brave the stench, then I might be astounded by the noise. Of course there was the hubbub of conversation in the background, interspersed by sneezes from the snuff-takers and the clattering of pots and pans, but also the turning of papers and broadsheets laid out on a long table at the side of the room, the hiss and bubble of the boiling coffee and the spit of the fire. But usually there would be somebody “holding forth”, declaiming on one subject or another, politics being a favourite. I would find politicians in the Cocoa-Tree in St James’s, whereas Wills Coffee House in Covent Garden was favoured by literati such as Dryden and Pope.

Dryden meets Pope in Wills Coffee House
In The Gilded Lily the dangerous rogue-about-town, Jay Whitgift, conducts his business in a London coffee house called the Pelican where he meets members of the Wits Club, a group of wealthy courtiers including the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester. The antics of the Wits, or the Merry Gang, forever coloured the reputation of Charles’s court. The Pelican was based on Wills Coffee House, the real-life meeting place of the Wits who ‘entertained one another with their trifling composures…as if the fate of kingdoms depended on them’ Jonathan Swift

In a 17th century coffee house my coffee would be bitter, the beans boiled over the fire for days in ten gallon cauldrons, with the addition of wine, ale, or herbs and spices such as spearmint. I would sip it from a bowl with no handles. No wonder a “Satyr Against Coffee” (1674) called it ‘horse-pond liquor, witches tipple out of dead man’s skulls’ Thank goodness for my latte with a touch of sugar, and my brownie on the side!

In the Economist, 17th century coffee houses are described as “the internet in a cup”, and they fulfilled exactly this function. One of the things I love about going for a coffee is that it is invariably with friends, and that the conversation and exchange of ideas is as important as the drink.


About Deborah

I blog at and with Hoydens and Firebrands, where you can find another excellent article about coffee houses by Anita Davison. (

I can also recommend:

Life in a 17th century Coffee Shop by David Brandon
The Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane
Restoration London by Liza Picard

Tour Details

Tour Schedule: Tour Schedule
Twitter Hashtag: #GildedLilyVirtualTour
Twitter: @swiftstory

The Gilded Lily

Beauty is skin-deep. Blood runs deeper.

Winter, 1661. In her short life Sadie Appleby has never left rural Westmorland. But one night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella. She has robbed her employer and is on the run. Together the girls flee their home and head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse ensues amongst the freezing warren that is London in winter. Ella is soon seduced by the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on the flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift, owner of a beauty parlour for the wives of the London gentry. But nothing in the capital is what it seems, least of all Jay Whitgift. Soon a rift has formed between Ella and Sadie, and the sisters are threatened by a menace even more sinister than the law. Set in a brilliantly realised Restoration London, The Gilded Lily is a novel about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.


  1. I absolutely loved this, "Why I love Syrup and Soot"! The Gilded Lily sounds very exciting.... I love all the information here and as someone who drinks a fair amount of coffee, I appreciated the history :-) Will be checking out Ms. Swift's blog!

  2. Loved this post! Deborah has a way with words and after reading this, my local Starbucks seems quite dreary when compared to 17th Century coffee houses.

  3. What a fantastic post! Loved and shared :)

  4. If I am not mistaken, the insurance industry sprung up in a coffee house too. Lloyd's of London got its start and its name from Lloyd's coffee shop. It was a place both bankers and seamen both frequented.