xxxxxThe Irish writer and playwright Richard Steele met his life-long friend Joseph Addison at Charterhouse, London. In 1701 he came to the notice of the king with his comedy The Funeral, and became editor of the London Gazette in 1705. Then in 1709 he produced the first number of The Tatler, full of literary articles and political comment. Two years later he worked with Addison to publish The Spectator. It proved very popular, partly due to Sir Roger de Coverley, an eccentric squire who wrote the Coverley papers. These two periodicals aimed to “enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality”. Their truth, honour, innocence and virtue marked the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in England. Steele went on to produce The Guardian, and periodicals such as The Reader and Town-Talk. An ardent Whig, he was a member of parliament and, on the accession of George I, he was knighted and made governor of Drury Lane Theatre. His last play, The Conscious Lovers, was highly successful.

xxxxxThe writer, playwright and politician Richard Steele was born in Dublin. He went to school at Charterhouse, London - where he met his long-time friend Joseph Addison - and then went to study law at Christ Church and Merton College, Oxford. He entered the army at the age of 20, and over the next ten years wrote a number of poems and three comedies, - The Funeral, The Lying Lover, and The Tender Husband. The first of these, produced in 1701, was remarkably successful, and brought him to the notice of the king and the Whig leaders. He left the army in 1705, and was appointed to edit The London Gazette, an official government publication.

xxxxxIt was in April 1709 that, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, he brought out the first number of The Tatler, a magazine which came out three times a week, and was a mixture of literary articles and political comment. His old school friend, Joseph Addison, contributed a number of essays to this journal, and in March 1711 they worked together to produce the more famous periodical, The Spectator. Produced six days a week, it only ran until December the following year, but during its publication both Steele and Addison contributed well over 200 articles each, and it attracted a large number of readers. This was partly due to a character they conceived named Sir Roger de Coverley, a kindly if somewhat eccentric English squire who contributed a series of popular essays known as the Coverley papers.

xxxxxThese two periodicals, with their short stories, sketches and astute observations on the current social and political scene, might be seen as the beginning of popular journalism, but they were well written, set a good tone, and aimed to refine the manners of their readers. Thus their content was in marked contrast to the insensitivity and frequent licentiousness of much of Restoration literature. As Steele and Addison put it, their aim was not only to "bring philosophy out of the library and lead her to the tea table", but also "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality". Truth, innocence, honour and virtue were seen as the "chief ornaments of life". These were worthy comments with which to mark the beginning in England of what came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment.

xxxxxIn 1713 Steele launched his next venture The Guardian. This ran for 176 issues and was followed by a number of other periodicals, including The Reader, Town-Talk, and The Plebeian. These later publications were used by him as a vehicle for his political views. An ardent Whig, and by then a Member of Parliament, he soon fell foul of the Tories, then in government. In 1714 he was expelled from the House on a charge of seditious libel, daring to write a pamphlet entitled The Crisis in which he came out in support of the elector of Hanover to succeed the Queen. When, at the death of Anne, such occurred, he got his just reward! He was re-elected to Parliament, knighted, made a justice of the peace, and appointed surveyor of the royal stables and governor of the Drury Lane Theatre. It was here that his last play, The Conscious Lovers, was first performed in 1722, a highly successful "weepy" sentimental comedy with a happy ending.

xxxxxBut for Steele, a good-natured and likeable man, there was to be no happy ending. The good living that went with these various offices soon brought more money troubles. Within two years, heavily in debt, he was obliged to retire to his wife's estate at Carmarthen in Wales. There, he suffered a severe stroke in 1726, and died three years later.

xxxxxIncidentally, there had been two early periodicals in England, The Compleat Library of 1691 and The Gentleman's Journal, produced the following year. They had contained articles and book reviews, but had lacked journalistic flair. Later, The Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1731, was the first publication to use the word "magazine". The term “Gazette” originated in Venice in the 16th century. A government news-sheet cost a gazeta - a small Venetian coin - and came to be known by that name. It was first used in England in 1665, when it was given to the name of a paper produced at Oxford - where the Court had fled to escape the plague.

RICHARD STEELE 1672 - 1729

(C2, J2, W3, AN, G1, G2)


Joseph Addison and

London Coffee Houses

xxxxxSteele's friendship with the poet and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719) produced a most productive and successful literary partnership. Addison was born in Milston, Wiltshire, the eldest son of the Reverend Lancelot Addison, later archdeacon of Coventry. After attending schools at Amesbury and Salisbury, he studied at Charterhouse, London - where he met Steele - before going up to Oxford. Gaining distinction in Latin verse, he took his MA degree in 1693 and, two years later, wrote A poem to his Majesty. This provided him with a treasury grant and enabled him to go on an extended tour of Western Europe.

xxxxxHe came to prominence in 1704 with his The Campaign, a poem commissioned by the government to celebrate Marlborough's victory at Blenheim. Addressed to Marlborough himself, this work proved immensely popular, and a grateful Whig party was only too happy to offer him employment in a succession of posts. In 1708 he was elected to parliament and appointed secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In the following year he began contributing to Steele's Tatler magazine and in 1711 joined him as co-founder of The Spectator. In both these publications he set a new standard in the quality of English prose, and played a major part in the formation of public taste and informed opinion. He literally brought learning "out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses". Not surprisingly, he, together with Steele, are seen as writers of the Augustan Age, a period often confined to the reign of Queen Anne, when English literature is marked by elegance, moderation, reason and clarity.

xxxxxAfter The Spectator folded in 1712, he began writing his blank verse tragedy entitled Cato. Published in 1713, this further enhanced his reputation as a stylish writer, and as an astute observer of the current political scene, managing as it did to please both Whig and Tory at the same time! His periodical The Freeholder, published in December 1715 in support of the government, was also well received. He was appointed secretary of state in 1717, but by then he was suffering from ill-health and retired the following year with a handsome pension.

xxxxxApart from the elegant, easy style in which they were written, Addison's essays were noted above all for their subtle humour, lively imagination and down-to-earth common sense. The English literary giant Samuel Johnson was later to write, "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give up his days and nights to the volumes of Addison". Furthermore, like Steele, he aimed to improve public good taste and, by much of his subject matter, to raise the cultural level of his middle class reader. In so doing, for example, he popularised the philosophy of John Locke, and encouraged a critical spirit in the appreciation of literature and the arts. At the same time, the entertainment value of his contribution was achieved by recounting the adventures of a series of fictional characters, conjured up from all walks of life.

xxxxxAddison numbered among his friends William Congreve, John Vanbrugh and Alexander Pope. In 1715, however, he fell out with Pope, a contributor to The Spectator, over a rival translation of the Iliad. Furthermore, his long friendship with Steele, a friendship which had produced such a highly successful partnership in the formative years of modern journalism, also came to an end. Their relationship became strained over their differing views on a bill restricting the peerage, and led to a total split just before Addison's death in 1719.


xxxxxIncidentally, we are told that on his deathbed Addison, a God-fearing man, called his stepson to his bedside so that he might see "in what peace a Christian can die".

xxxxxAs we have seen, the first London coffee house was established in 1652 (CW). It proved very popular, and in the space of a few years hundreds had been opened across the city. These proved valuable for spreading news, exchanging gossip, and providing a primitive postal service. And before long many had become recognised as meeting places for a particular trade or profession. For example, St. James’ and the Cocoa Tree were frequented by politicians; business and insurance deals were carried out in Lloyd’s, Garraway’s and Jonathan’s; and scientists gathered at the Grecian coffee house. Over the years the literary world was served by Will’s, Button’s and the Bedford. Both Steele and Addison made good use of Button’s to improve public taste. During its heyday, stretching from the 1650s to the 1780s, the London coffee house played a vital part in widening interest in social, political and economic affairs. In particular, the forum they provided for open discussion contributed to the democratic process, and the business institutions they fostered gave Britain a head start in the commercial world of the 19th century.

xxxxxThe heyday of the London coffee house stretched over more than 130 years, from the 1650s to the 1780s, and by this reign (AN) these houses - some 3000 in number - had become vitally important - almost indispensable - to the social, political and economic life of the city. As hotbeds of news and gossip, all manner of things could be discussed by a clientele which included writers, business men, politicians and scientists. Hardly any aspect of London society was neglected, and many houses became recognised meeting places for certain trades and professions. Indeed, the editions of the newspaper The Tatler, printed its stories under the names of various coffee houses. In its first edition, published in 1709, its founder, Richard Steele, wrote:

All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News you will have from St. James' Coffee- house.

xxxxxIn addition, these coffee-houses became vital centres for the gathering and circulation of information, be it news items or the latest piece of gossip. News sheets were available to advise on current affairs - enhanced by the Daily Courant from 1702 - ; runners did frequent tours of the coffee-houses to provide the latest news bulletins; and a limited but efficient postal system was provided for the distribution of letters and packets. The novelist Jonathan Swift, for example, always collected his mail at the St. James’.

xxxxxAs we have seen, it was in 1652 (CW) that, according to the most likely account, a merchant named Daniel Edwards allowed his servant, Christopher Bowman, and a young Turk named Pasqua Rosée, to open a coffee house in London in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill - the first of its kind. It was an immediate success, providing not only coffee, but also, as it turned out, a congenial meeting place where the city’s citizens - mostly influential and well-to-do - could meet to exchange news on a wide range of subjects, advertise the latest publications and stage productions, and even carry out a variety of business transactions. In the space of a few years there were hundreds of such houses scattered around the city, all meeting the needs of one or another activity.

xxxxxFor the politicians at Westminster, there was the St. James’ or the Cocoa Tree near Pall Mall, depending upon your party allegiance. These houses provided much of the political news for Richard Steele’s Tatler, and they remained the meeting places for members of Parliament and the leading gentry well into the reign of George III. For members of the clergy, there were a number of houses situated around St. Paul’s Cathedral, whilst Lloyd’s, Garraway’s and Jonathan’s, all near to the Royal Exchange, were favoured by the business fraternity. Indeed, until 1773, when the stock exchange acquired its own premises, the stock-jobbers conducted their entire business from a number of these city coffee-houses. Jonathan’s served as London’s first stock exchange from 1762, and by this time the underwriting of ships and cargoes was being carried at Lloyd’s, an insurance undertaking which led to the founding of the famous society known as Lloyd’s of London in 1771.

xxxxxIn the literary world, the most famous coffee house was that established by William Urwin in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Known simply as Will’s, it was here that the poet and dramatist John Dryden held centre stage for some thirty years, discussing with men of letters their latest poem or play, and passing judgement on literary works both past and present with men like Samuel Pepys and Alexander Pope. With his departure, however, the conversation lost its sparkle and its literary merit, and by 1712 Button’s had become the new haunt of the “wits”. Here it was that Joseph Addison installed his letter-box for literary contributions. Made in the shape of a lion’s head (illustrated), this box fed the pages of the Tatler, Spectator and Guardian, thereby serving “to open Everyman’s eyes to literature… teach him to think ... and provide him with general ideas on life and art.” In attempting to achieve this aim Addison was assisted, amongst others, by his colleagues Richard Steele, John Arbuthnot, and Jonathan Swift. Next came the “reign” of the Bedford coffee house, also located in Covent Garden. Regarded as “the emporium of wit, the seat of criticism, and the standard of taste”, this boasted of a company which included the novelist Henry Fielding, the artist William Hogarth, the actor David Garrick and the playwright Oliver Goldsmith.

xxxxxScientists were also catered for. The Grecian Coffee House (illustrated), situated in the Strand, was the meeting place for the fellows of the Royal Society and other men of learning. Amongst those who studied the past and sought for the knowledge of the future, were Sir Isaac Newton himself, the great astronomer Edmund Halley, and the man who helped found the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane. Such establishments were akin to the gentlemen’s clubs that eventually replaced them, but not all these haunts had so refined an air. The editor of the London Spy, one Ned Ward, writing about coffee houses at this time, had this to say about one particular establishment he visited:

There was a rabble going hither and thither, reminding me of a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store. Some came, others went; some were scribbling, others were talking; some were drinking (coffee), some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge.

xxxxxFor the most part, however, coffee houses were well run establishments. Having paid an entrance fee of one penny, all men were considered equal, and had no need to give way to a “finer man”. However, they had to be reasonably well dressed and adhere to a set of rules. There were fines, for example, for swearing (generally twelve pence), rowdy quarrelling was forbidden, and profanity and talk of a treasonable nature were not allowed.

xxxxxIn the majority of houses gambling and games of chance were prohibited or severely restricted, but there were some notable exceptions. Indeed, some were given over to “Gallantry, Pleasure and Entertainment”, as Steele put it. White’s Chocolate House, for example, founded in 1693, was famous for its gaming rooms, catering for the gambling habit of the idle rich - the “bane of half the English nobility” in Swift’s opinion.

xxxxxAnd there were those houses where pleasure was not confined to the card table. A few were nothing more than brothels in disguise. Furthermore, even the most respectable houses were targets for the criminal fraternity and rakes on the make. They were ideal places for gathering information about the movement of goods and the exchange of money, and there were always those in attendance who could be duped into parting with part if not all of their ready cash. It was for this reason, among others, that the popularity of the coffee house began to decline towards the end of the 18th century. To safeguard their clientele many houses converted to private clubs where admission was by membership only. By this time, too, tea was replacing coffee as the national beverage, and the marked improvement in the dissemination of information and the postal service greatly reduced the social function of coffee houses.


xxxxxBut their passing must not be allowed to detract from their one-time relevance. During their heyday they were institutions of extreme social, political and economic importance. Broadly speaking, they influenced the manners, the morals and the politics of the talented, influential section of London society. Above all, the measure of free speech and open discussion they provided contributed to the democratic process, and, with the coming of the 19th century, the foundations they laid for the development of economic institutions gave Britain a decided lead in the commercial world. As noted earlier, the giant international insurance market known today as Lloyd’s of London began life in a humble coffee house in Tower Street, opened by a man named Edward Lloyd around 1688. And to this day attendants at the London Stock Exchange are known as “waiters”, a throwback to those days when the business of the exchange was conducted at Jonathan’s Coffee House in the city.

xxxxxIncidentally, the Great Plague of London in 1665, and the Great Fire that followed it, seriously affected attendance at the city’s coffee houses, but they quickly recovered their popularity. And for some, like the novelist Daniel Defoe and the diarist Samuel Pepys, even these disasters did not deter them from making their daily visit to their favourite haunt. ……


xxxxx…… Coffee houses also became popular on the continent (particularly in Vienna) and in certain cities in North America, but, compared with their counterparts in London, they never acquired the same amount of importance in the life of the local community or in the service of their nations.



Steele: by the English painter Jonathan Richardson (1667-1745) – National Portrait Gallery, London. Addison: by the German/British portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), c1703-12 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Coffee House: by the English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. The Grecian: date and artist unknown. The Brawl: by the English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827).

xxxxxThe friendship between Richard Steele and the English poet and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719) produced a highly successful literary partnership. Addison came to prominence in 1704 with his The Campaign, a poem to celebrate Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim. On the strength of this work, he was elected to parliament. In 1709 he contributed to Steele’s Tatler, and then founded the Spectator with him two years later, setting a high standard in good prose, public taste and informed opinion. His easy style was used both to educate and entertain. Other works included the blank verse tragedy Cato, and his periodical The Freeholder. Numbered among his friends were William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, and Alexander Pope, but he quarrelled with Pope and, indeed, with Steele, towards the end of his life.