Tuesday, March 22, 2011

19th Century Coffee Taverns

by Anita Mae Draper

For all those readers who thought the British only drank tea, I have a story for you. And if you think coffee bars and baristas are a new trend, think again. Back in 1885, coffee houses – or coffee taverns, as they were sometimes called – were all the rage in Britain, and to a lesser extent in Europe and North America.

These coffee taverns were in direct response to the poverty and hopelessness of the British lower class who used alcohol to escape their wretched living conditions. Drinking affected all levels of society. Everyone suffered as men drank their pay away. Families came apart as wives waited days for their husbands to return. Sons followed in their fathers’ footsteps as they realized the futility of their lives. Debtor’s prison flourished. Industry lagged. Wars were lost. All because the people tried to escape into alcohol.

In 1853 Captain George Bayly and his wife, Mary decided to do something. They took the novel approach of inviting 16 of the dregs of society home for an evening of companionship and tea and urging them to sign a pledge of abstinence. Five men signed that night. Within a year, 100 men had signed the pledge and a cry had been heard. “We want a public-house without the drink.”* This led to the opening of coffee taverns where working men could go to relax without the temptation and availability of alcohol.

Since the working men often carried their meals to work, the public coffee houses wouldn’t supply meals, but rather offer a comfortable place to eat them while enjoying a hot drink and companionship. Because they realized that many soldiers and sailors were single, however, the coffee houses sold nourishing bowls of soup. Sites were made available down near the docks and industrial areas where the men worked. Since the whole idea was to compete against the alcoholic taverns and to save the workmen money so they could bring it home to their families, the bill of fare items were sold at the lowest price possible while still making a profit.

The idea of public coffee houses were to give the men a club as an alternate when they would have gone drinking in a tavern instead of going home. Comfortable furniture and homey accents incited men to linger as they drank the best tasting, unadulterated coffee, tea, or cocoa. A reading room provided daily and weekly newspapers. A smoking room encouraged relaxation and card playing for entertainment.

After ten years of flourishing, thousands of homes were happy as the man of the house was saved from the alcoholism. And then the movement began to fail.

By 1886 only a few coffee taverns were left and those that were still open were bare of customers. Why did such a brilliant scheme fail? One of the reasons was greed. Managers wanted more profit and offered watered down, muddy-brown beverages that tasted like ‘horse-beans, rotten dates and burnt figs’. The men wanted more substantive meals than just the soups, especially when they had to return to a labour-intensive job. Newspapers were fine, but the men wanted magazines and literature like modern novels. Although women made up half the population, they were barred from the coffee houses unlike the alcoholic drinking establishments. The men who enjoyed their smokes didn’t like to be sequestered in a back room away from the rest of the crowd. In order to provide a friendly, calming atmosphere, loud boisterous conversations weren’t allowed. Some managers posted signs at the entrance which read, "No Bad Language Permitted" and went so far as to forbid group discussions so that the rooms had the sound of a library and not the place where men gather. Together, these negative aspects caused the downfall of the public coffee house movement.**

As I wrote this post, I couldn't help wondering - where were the churches during this time in history? I welcome your thoughts on this movement, its origins and it's failure.

Fun Question: What's your favourite hot beverage?

*The Foundation of Death: A Study of the Drink-Question by Alex Gustafson, Published by Ginn, Heath and Company, 1885
**The Coffee Public-House News and Temperance Hotel Journal, July 16, 1885
Photos: The Coffee Public-House News, 1878-1885

Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. In 2005, Anita Mae decided to return to writing and make it a priority in her life. She writes old west stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Her characters are strong because the land demands it. Anita Mae likes to write characters who sit up and notice when that special person God’s chosen just for them walks by. The story is all about the courtship between the two main characters. But it won’t be an easy path. And if they don’t know about God at the beginning of the book, they will by the end. Anita Mae has finaled in the 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contest in the Inspirational category, the 2008 Gateway to the Best in the Contemporary Series category, and the 2008 Golden Gateway in the Long Contemporary category. She’s currently waiting to hear the phone ring and have someone say they want to buy Emma’s Outlaw. Meanwhile, she’s working on another story and trying to keep her imagination in check. A pathological picture taker, she usually has a photo or two of the quirky world she lives in on her blog at http://anitamaedraper.blogspot.com/


  1. Interesting historical info, Anita. I hadn't heard of the coffee taverns.

    Once in my past I wrote a story set in 1888 London's East End, so I learned a bit about the conditions of the poor then. And it did seem that alcoholism played a big part in problems (kind of like what crack does to our cities now). As far as I could determine, Jack the Ripper's victims were all alcoholics, and that played a large part in how they ended up on the streets and vulnerable to a serial killer. A shame the coffee tavern concept hadn't continued, and that they hadn't provided similar places for women.

    The Salvation Army was in its early days around that time and very involved in ministering to the people of the East End. The other name I remember is Thomas Barnardo. (I think I spelled that correctly). He was going to be a missionary to China, but God called him to the East End instead, where he set up orphanages for homeless children.

    Thanks, Anita. I think I need to go read another biography of Barnardo now. Rather convicting.

  2. This is great information! Any title with "coffee" in it has my undivided attention. I love coffee. Any kind. Any time. Anywhere. I prefer a smooth roast in the morning, but any flavor for afternoon or evening. I recently decided I depend way too much on caffeine, so I grind decaf beans and regular beans into a half and half mix.

    One of my "someday" dreams is to own a cafe/bookstore. I like the idea of books and coffee in the same rooms. I'd line the walls with bookshelves full of books that people could read, borrow, or purchase. Not a huge place like Borders, but more like the coffee taverns described here.

    Thanks for an interesting start to my day!

  3. Coffee definitely has me at hello, or first whiff... I'm with you Christine on that one!

    Colonial Williamsburg recently opened up a coffee house exhibit as part of their tour experience. I would have frequented, most definitely... if I were allowed in.

  4. I love this post--it's all new to me.
    I had one moment to check it out before I left for work and so I was even more eager to start my coffee when I got here.

    It's like Starbucks and Stays!
    now I want a baked treat, too.

    Thanks Anita! Good morning Christine and Cheryl!

    CJ, it's so nice to have you here in Inktropolis!

  5. Hey CJ, I wondered if Capt Bayly and Mary were members of the Salvation Army, but although the SA started in the same area, it was 20 yrs after George and Mary began their 'Mother's Meetings' in their home. I'll add that one of those men who attended that first meeting went on to become a navvy preacher. :)

    And I didn't recognize the names - George and Mary Bayly - until now. I wonder if the writer thought of them when he wrote It's a Wonderful Life?

    Thanks for your insights, CJ.

    Anita Mae.

  6. Oh, Anita, you always come up with the most interesting info. This was so fun to read. Given the number of women who go to Starbucks every day, can you imagine the fortune they would have made if they did let women in? By watering down the coffee, they kept the men from the caffeine addiction. That's what did them in. If they'd have kept it full-strength, they'd still be in business today and their descendants would be rich.

  7. Hey Christine, half-caffeine and half-non is a great way to drink your coffee. Especially if you grind the beans yourself since the fresher ground bursts with flavour. :)

    A small bookstore with coffee area sounds ideal. We had one like that in Regina where a wall separated the 2 sections. I liked sitting on the comfy seats, drinking a cappucino and reading. However, that bookstore closed last year.

    The remaining option is a huge Chapters and Starbucks combination. The coffee area is crowded. It has cafe chairs and tiny tables and no divider between it and the huge book area. I think what I dislike the most is that I'm like an old cowboy - I like to sit with my back to the wall. But in this set-up, there's no wall as all the tables are in the open between the books and the counter. :(

    So perhaps keep that in mind when you get yours going and then I'll come and visit. :)

    Thanks for sharing.

    Anita Mae.

  8. Thanks, Deb. Considering your stories are British set, I'm honoured by your words.

    Stays? What's that?

    And I can't help myself, but I have to say that although I've had Starbucks many times, I still don't think it equals Tim Hortons. Ha!

    Anita Mae.

  9. Hey Cheryl - you have my curiousity up - why aren't you allowed in the Williamsburg coffee house exibit? Or aren't you allowed in Colonial Williamsburg at all?

    (Anita's imagination is running wild with all sorts of nefarious reasons why they'd keep Cheryl out.) LOL

    Oh - it's just another reason to visit Williamsburg some day - a dream I've had since I read my first book of the area when I was ten yrs old.

    Thanks for the info, Cheryl. :)

    I wonder if Gina stopped in the new coffee house exhibit when she was there last week.

    Anita Mae.

  10. Suzie, I think you hit it on the head with that comment. The problem was that many of the opponents of these houses said they didn't want to replace the alcohol with another dependency although they never used the word, 'caffeine'. They just wanted to wean the men from alcohol period.

    Of course, as a former smoker, I see their point because the only way I could quit was to go 'cold turkey'. Using the gum or patch or special filters were just replacing the habit and not stopping it. That's why it didn't work for me because I needed to change my mind-set completely.

    However, I do think the public coffee houses were a brilliant idea because it offered a way for the men to save money while keeping their senses intact and seeing to their needs. Of course the problem was that the men's needs still weren't being met.

    Thanks, Suzie. :)

    Anita Mae.

  11. That was interesting. I like your glimpses into history. It was a brilliant idea. I found myself nodding as I read. I have found that coffee shops are a great place to hang out. I've been calling them the daytime bars, minus the alcohol. I hope they last for a long time. It's a safe place for this single gal to go.

  12. You're right, Mary. They are daytime bars and I'd assume you could conceivably find the man of your dreams in one, too. So much better to introduce a prospective mate to your parents by saying, "We met in a coffee house" rather than what I have to admit, "We met at the mess." In this case mess being the military equivalent to your local bar. sigh.

    Yes, I hope they last a long time, too. I think they're on the right track by offering a multitude of specialty drinks to make their customers feel special.

    We've had several new ones open in Regina - sans books - which offer very comfortable seating from stuffy arm chairs near the fireplace to high stools in front of the window. A few of my writer friends and I meet in one a couple times a year and I really enjoy the ambiance and conversation. It does make me feel special. I could do without the display of baked specialties, though. LOL

    Thanks for joining us today, Mary. :)

    Anita Mae.

  13. Great post, Anita. I did know a bit about the coffee houses in England, but not this much! I love the labels you found. Thanks so much for sharing all this fun info and the pics.

    I used to visit a combined Catholic bookstore/coffeehouse, which had a wonderful ambience, great coffee, and a nice selection of Christian gifts and books. It's been closed for a while, but it was a cozy haven.

    You know me. I've got a mug of tea right now, but I've got to say, this type isn't doing it for me. I drink a lot of hot beverages: coffee, lattes, and I even heat up my cranberry juice (it's soothing when you have a cold.).

  14. Hey Susie, I just came in from taking photos outside and have a hot green tea with acai and blueberries right now.

    And guess what! I was out there filming the blizzard conditions where the shelterbelt divides our land from the prairie and my porcupine friend popped up to say hello not 10 ft away! I was so surprised and got some good film with me saying, 'Uh oh'. LOL

    Anyway, I'm off topic here... you reminded me that whenever I go down to get my mail from the States, there's a Catholic bookstore/gift shop across from the Goodwill in Estevan. That bookstore would make a perfect coffee corner as it has it's own kitchen right there - I know because it used to be the Goodwill before it moved across the street. I'll check it out next time I go through. Thanks!

    Anita Mae.

  15. Fascinating history that I never knew. Thanks for sharing! My favorite hot beverage is tea, but the one I consume most frequently is coffee. Go figure. I guess I save my favorite for special times.

  16. Carla, I know what you mean. Tea is my comfort food whereas coffee is for working. And since I work more than I relax... well, there you go. LOL

    Thanks, Carla.

    Anita Mae.

  17. Anita this was an awesome post. Love it!

    Favourite hot beverage?

    Coffee with a tad of Bailey's Irish Cream. Mmmmmmm Good!


  18. Hey Jilly, thanks! :)

    Bailey's, huh... I went through that phase, too. Tastes good, but started my day off with a little too much of a buzz. I'll stick with my cappuccino. LOL

    Anita Mae.

  19. great post Anita! i love learning from all your research. i've always loved the smell of coffee, but straight up, the taste i don't like. i have to "violate" it (hubby's words) with lots of cream and sugar. my favorite hot beverage is hot apple/cinnamon cider.
    if you ever do actually visit Williamsburg - feel free to stay with us. we're about a forty-five minute drive from Colonial Williamsburg. :)

  20. I never heard of a coffee tavern before. How interesting. I know there were coffeehouses prior to this in London. They were often considered to be hangouts for radicals and malcontents. My regency heroine works for one that belongs to her uncle. I didn't want her to be at a tavern--too rough, nor a tea shop--not rough enough. But a coffeehouse, much like baby bear's porridge, was just right.

  21. Oh dear, Anita, I meant- "if I were living back in Colonial times"!!! LOL

    It is a cool exhibit, but I couldn't find info on whether or not they allowed ladies in... they did serve alcohol in the Colonial coffee houses.

    You didn't know that I could time travel... I'm sure there are other reasons that I would be excluded, but I just can't go there.

  22. Hey Deb, can you believe I've been working on a contest entry and forgot to come back. How could I have missed your invitation? Yowza! Yes, I'll definitely take you up on that - but between the gabbing and sight-seeing, don't expect to get any rest. LOL I'm putting it on my bucket list. :D

    You have good taste with the hot apple/cinnamon cider. I like it too, but confine myself to having it during Nov-Jan only. It makes both the drink and the season special.

    Well, you've put a smile on my face. Thanks for popping in. :)

    Anita Mae.

  23. Hey Lisa - I can't wait to read your regency! You're right - it sounds like a coffee house would be right in between the tavern and teahouse.

    I think the difference with the coffee houses in my post is that they were public houses with the beverages at a bare bones price and soup at a penny a bowl. They weren't owned by private citizens out to make a profit, but by people concerned with helping the working man - at least that's the way it should've been. The men didn't meet to plan something - they went because it was the only option between home, work, and the tavern.

    I seem to remember coffee houses in the '60s and '70s where you'd have a guitar playing folk singer-type in one corner and whisperings of 'trouble brewing' in another. They used the coffee house because it was a great spot to meet and not because they had no alternative.

    Bring that regency on, girl.

    Anita Mae.

  24. Cheryl, here I thought it was because you go bonkers at the sight of coffee - or the last time you were at the exhibit you couldn't contain yourself and wrecked the place or something. Haha

    Yes, that's the strange thing - back in the time of my post, the women were welcome in the local taverns just like in the pubs today where they go out for a meal. But I think the organizers of the public coffee house movement thought they'd keep the 'sin' level down by keeping the women out. Strange, huh.

    Anita Mae.

  25. Hi Anita,

    I just stumbled upon your blog, and what an inspiration this post was to me! I adore history, historical fiction, and historical dress (I sew historical costumes for a living) and this post was just too, too much.

    My husband (a pastor) and I have had a longtime dream and vision for starting a Coffee Pub in our area as a community and church outreach. One room would be a smaller coffee shop area with coffee, tea, hot beverage and pastry service, a giving/lending library, overstuffed chairs and couches and electric fireplace heater. We envision having a small, cozy room tucked away at the back for small groups to meet in or for people to meet up for counseling. We also would love to have a larger space with a small stage attached that could serve as a small concert venue, banquet-type facility, and place where larger church groups could meet for worship. We just want to focus on it being a place for people to gather.

    With this information you've given about these 19th century coffee taverns, it seems like we're not the first folks that God has given this vision to! What an encouragement and affirmation this has been for me today. Thank you for this post. I've placed a link to your blog on my own, and I'll be reading yours for sure!


  26. Abby, your comment is such a blessing. I'm sorry for taking so long to reply, but I've been savouring your words. :)

    I think you have a very realistic dream. It sounds like a wonderful place to relax and visit. You'll have to keep me posted on your progress.

    There's a place very similar to the one you're describing but I can't remember where I read about it. I thought it was in PA but don't quote me on that - somewhere out thataway. I'm working on a post about US coffee taverns that continued the movement of the Brits and I may include modern ones, too. We'll see.

    Love your blogs. I'm a sewer too, although I haven't sewn a thing since I went back to writing. One of the other Inkies is going to make a period dress for the ACFW conference this Sept. I'd love to go as my character, but just don't have time to sew the dress. I can't seem to divide my time between the two - it's either writing or sewing. And at the moment, I'm trying to launch my writing so perhaps I'll have to hurry and get some books sold so I can pay someone else to sew it. It won't give me the same pleasure of sewing it myself, but it'd get done. Now I have a dream too. :)

    Thanks so much for visiting with us and sharing. I'm so glad to meet you. :)

    Anita Mae.

  27. Thank you for the post! The 1891 census lists my Great-great grandfather as a "Coffee Tavern Proprietor" In Swanage, England. I had no idea what this meant. Thanks for the great explanation.

    Based on the dates in your post, he must have been one of the last if he was still running a coffee tavern in 1891. Now I'll have to find out what his occupation was at the next census to see if he switched jobs.


    1. Dawn, so sorry for the late reply.

      I'm very much into genealogy myself and yet have never come across this on a census. But then, I'm not aware of any coffee taverns in rural areas which is where our families are from. They're mostly listed as ministers, farmers, or laborers with a few merchants sprinkled in. :)

      Thank you for you comment.

  28. I too have just discovered that my Great Grandfather was a Coffee Tavern Manager, recorded in the 1911 census. He lived in Dinas Powys, near Cardiff, South Wales. Thank you for the background information. Karen

    1. Karen, sorry for your late replay as well.

      I'm delighted that your census showed a Coffee Tavern Manager as well. Tidbits like that are a treasure for a researcher and helps to really cement our stories in factual history.

      I really appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment with your info.

      Speaking of 1911, my first published story was set in 1911 Early Ontario, Canada and as I said above, there is no coffee tavern manager, but what a novel idea and even as I'm writing this, characters and a setting are swirling around my head. Thank you!


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