The Coffee House
Trade, banking and insurance. That is the City of London and it has always been since its creation almost 2000 years ago. The very existence on the City depends upon international trade. You can track this throughout history, each period taking on trade in its own way. In the 17th and 18th centuries, international trade was ever expanding with much money to be made. In the City, this trade was carried out in the coffee houses.
The coffee houses were packed with men, drinking coffee and smoking throughout the day. They weren’t big places and the atmosphere would have been thick. People did not go there for coffee though. They went for business, meetings, deals, gossip, chatter and networking. They were all close together, so there would a lot of people running back and forth getting to be in the right place at the right time.
The coffee shops were not “Jack of all Trade” types of places. Far from it. They specialised in specific businesses, for example Lloyds coffee shop, named after the original proprietor, specialised in insurance. As the insurance sector grew, so this this coffee house. It went on to develop into what we know now.
The Jerusalem coffee house, just off Cornhill, was for all things maritime. It was owned by the East India Company. Business deals were struck, but also, they were places of information. Not just through gossip and word of mouth, detailing which ships had just arrived, and containing what. Information was published and you would have to go to the coffee shop to get hold of it. The poster I’ve been looking at is one such publication. It was put up in the Jerusalem coffee house on Cornhill in 1772. It tells of the movements of ships in the East India Company’s service and is divided into two sections, those abroad and those in Thames. The poster also lists two new ships being built, one to replace the Verelst, a ship lost off Mauritius in April 1771.
I can imagine them there, on display on the walls, with a whole host of traders, insurers, captains, ship owners, all people maritime, waiting there to get new information. Waiting to get everything they needed to deal in the international trade. The poster shows ships of the East India Company that were, at the time, on sail to or from India, China and Australia. It is a snapshot of time.
Although, something you do not get from the poster is the impact this coffee shop trade and the East India Company was having on the world. 1771 is right in the middle of the Bengal Famine, which lasted from 1769 to at least 1773. It was brought about by the dominance, power, maximisation of profits, exploitative agriculture and the forced cultivation of opium in place of grain, by the East India Company. It is estimated that 10 million people (probably much more) starved to death. Some of the ships waiting to sail are destined to Bengal.
I find it interesting that the Jerusalem Coffee House is owned by East India Company.
The document lists “When Sailed”, “Ships Names” “Commanders”, “Names”, “Tons, Men, Guns,” “Voy” (not sure what this is, perhaps it is voyage) “To What Place Consigned”. Tonnage tends to be pretty standard, being 499, men 99, guns 26. Some examples:
The Calcutta sailed in 25 December 1770, set for St Helena and China. Its captain was William Thompson (Thomfon for the purists) and was the standard 499 tonnes, men 99, guns 26. Most of the ships are after places and people, such as the Duke of Richmond, Northumberland, Thames and Grenville. One of my favourites is the Sea Horse (or Sea Horfe), simply because of the maritime qualities about it. Captained by Edward Dampier, it sailed on 6 January 1771 and was set for Bencoolen (the area of Bengkulu City today) and China. China was the long-haul voyage and all ships that are set for there appear to stop in Bencoolen or Fort St. George, both of which were in India. In Bencoolen, the East India Company built a fort, Fort Marlborough.
The posters also lists the Ship’s Husband who were the agents, acting for the owners. They would be responsible for repairs, equipment and provisions for the ships. No doubt these people would be found in the coffee shops, especially the Jerusalem.
Over time, these lists become more sophisticated. They start listing owners, principle officers and surgeons. Such information, no doubt, would lessen the risk of investment, or at least give more indication of risk to the stakeholders holding out in the coffee shops.
I love the detail and the patina of life upon them. Some of the posters I saw had notes in the margins. But I wonder if these actual posters were on display in the coffee shop. I think the posters in the coffee shops would have been dirtier. People can’t resist running their fingers over such sheets of paper and pushing down on key points they are looking for. The print is not big, and the coffee shop was not well lit, or at least not as well as places we are used to. People would have had to get close to the paper to see it. There should be the dirt left by fingers, along with coffee and tobacco stains.
And how were they displayed? Stuck to the wall with glue or pins? On display on tables? There would be damage to the posters. I think this was a copy and kept in a safe place for the records. Even so, to me these posters were very much part of the story and still surrounded by merchants, captains and all things maritime of 1771.
The site of the Jerusalem Coffee House is on Cowper’s Court. On the site now is a networking place for marketeers.
On the poster/document
The poster is held at the London Metropolitan Archives https://aim25.com/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=16768&inst_id=118&nv1=search&nv2=
On the Jerusalem Coffee House
There are plenty of writings online that all tend to say the same thing. https://londontaverns.co.uk/Jeruslemcoffeehouse.shtml
On coffee houses and Cornhill, City of London
A lot has been written. This is a good place to start. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exchange_Alley
On the Bengal Famine
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple review – the East India Company and corporate excess, book review in the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/11/anarchy-relentless-rise-east-india-company-william-darymple-review