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Lloyd's Coffee House (wikipedia.org)
114 points by benbreen 86 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments



I am quite curious about the old London coffee house culture. Why don't we have it today? Could we recreate it? Do we have it today in another form? Have they been mythologised? Is it an example of the September effect?

It's talked about as being a place where relative strangers socialised and had substantive conversations on politics and philosophy that changed the history of ideas whereas today they are places to be "alone together".

My best guess is that clientele were so filtered by opportunity/access such that they resembled a business cafeteria or a private members club more than a public venue. I guess the closest thing today might be a subject specific meetup. I suppose that if trying to recreate one, you might want to base it around the service of a novel stimulant that can't be found elsewhere that encourages frenzied socialisation. MDMA cafe anyone?


As an Austrian I don't think it has been mythologised. It just doesn't fit with the accelerationist philosophy of many places anymore. When I studied in Vienna (a city famous for it's coffee house culture), you could just go there, drink one coffee and stay for 4 hours, meet people, chat, discuss etc. When you go to a καφενεíο in Greece things are pretty much the same still (only that you drink a Nescafé Frappé instead of their warm counterparts).

In my eyes the metropoles of the anglosphere are too transactional, too monetized and to much under (economic) pressure to allow for such inefficiency. In London I'd probably feel guilty for staying much longer in a café than my drink lasts (or someone would tell me to leave). If you have places that don't have such policies, they at least signal this with their interieur and their throughput. Most starbucks are certainly not cosy places that I'd like to spend my day in given the choice between a starbucks and a traditional viennese coffee house.


> drink one coffee and stay for 4 hours, meet people, chat, discuss etc

I've been to Vienna a few times, and while I agree that the coffee houses are nice (though a bit posh for my taste), I did not see anybody talk to strangers or discuss philosophy or something. It was mostly just friends or relatives going out for a drink, like anywhere else.

Did I go to the wrong places? Where is this mythical coffee house where ideas are exchanged and challenged?


> Where is this mythical coffee house where ideas are exchanged and challenged?

Online? College campuses?

But seriously, our culture and society are different now in lots of ways, for better and worse. And larger, and more diverse.

The economy is different. Society is different.


I've been to the "anti cafe" in Rome, and the idea is that you pay for the time you spend there instead of for what you consume. It was 4 euros per hour, capped at 16 euros per day, and (potentially unlimited) snacks and coffee are included. I believe they have branches in Paris and Strasbourg[1]

[1] https://www.anticafe.eu/en/


Seems like a reasonable approach to ensure people don't stick for too long unless they need to, especially when there's free WiFi.



Cafes are like that in Montreal: buy a coffee, stay as long as you like.

But....it’s nothing like the stories of old. Mostly people alone together, as the OP says. Occasionally you talk to a stranger. No wide ranging public political discussions.


No wide ranging public political discussions.

These days getting into a political conversation with a stranger is very, very dangerous. You might find yourself doxxed on Twitter by a hate mob before you'd even finished your coffee.


Your belief sounds rooted in fear. Can you actually cite cases where doxxing & abuse happened over a conversation with a stranger in a cafe? And even if such cases exist I would confidently guess you’re more likely to die in a car crash than get doxxed on twitter by a hate mob. And no one is avoiding ever using cars or being a pedestrian on a street with car traffic to save their lives.

Maybe knowing in 2020 one can experience rabid social media mobs, and the newness and degree of its terror is skewing our idea of how likely this kind of event actually is. But I see this view presented regularly as though every one of us lives in active risk of being a single slip of the tongue away from ruining our lives. And it’s so strange and not in line with the reality I live in.


Remember that guy who was doxxed and fired because he made what somebody thought was the (now off-limits) OK symbol?

https://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/sdge-worker-fired-ove...

No, the GP's scenario is not at all implausible. To think otherwise is to be oblivious to the on-edge nature of our times.


You didn't respond to the substance of my comment. It's possible for someone to misunderstand you and for you to lose your job over it. It's also possible to die in a traffic accident. The former is probably more rare than the latter but the former seems to be legitimately terrorizing many people based on the frequency of internet comments I see about it.


Upon googling it, the amount of outcry as a response makes it pretty obvious to me that it's considered exceptional and not normal. Does anyone have any aggregated studies about social media and firing?


> "it pretty obvious to me that it's considered exceptional and not normal."

Is it? Note that the person here accused is both Jewish and Mexican: https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/09/04/lawyer-accused-flashi...

Other examples exist of people being removed from their jobs for the same if you Google for it, though many of those are more ambiguous.


That may be. However, it strikes me that most if not all of these cases are US-based. The world works differently in different places.


As opposed to 1600s coffee houses where having the wrong political or religious beliefs could provoke a duel or incite an actual mob.

The Baroque Cycle series does a good job of describing the atmosphere of the old coffee houses.


You have been downvoted, but you are wrong. Most of the strangers who will aproach you on a political topic in public usually want you to sign something, or they are outright lunatics who try to drag you into their world.

And I wish it would be different. I think I had a nice and interesting political conversation with a stranger once in the past decade. That means it is not impossible, but it is hard. A good cafe certainly can do things to create the right atmosphere for this to happen more often tho.


Most of the strangers who will aproach you on a political topic in public usually want you to sign something, or they are outright lunatics who try to drag you into their world.

Even having a political conversation with a friend in a place you can be overheard carries a certain amount of risk.


I’ve seen similar things.

If you disagree with this concept, go to a west coast US metropolis and and try to have an open private discussion about something taboo (e.g. abortion) where you’re openly against the status quo. Odds are good you’ll hear about it.

For example, I used the term “wife beater” to refer to a tank top, in a private conversation, at a Berkeley bar. Within seconds I had a total stranger come up to me and tell me I shouldn’t use that term.


That's very interesting. (Pre-Corona) I used to spend a lot of days working in coffee shops all around the city. Never at all felt any time pressure, whether in a small independent shop or a Starbucks/Costa type place. That's helped of course by the better shops making good food, too.


Which city are you in? I suspect the time pressure might be of a different magnitude in a city with a denser population, where the rent per sq ft might also be significantly higher.


in the northeast usa (boston, nyc, ohio), staying a couple hours is fine in most coffee shops. and lots of people are interested in open ended discussions. but we're also wary of getting drawn into something toxic, so you need to be delicate when you say hello - conveying openness without forcing the conversation

there was a brief golden age before laptop batteries hit the 10-hour mark when power outlets forced people to collaborate a bit and those conversations "just happened" - it just felt polite to ask people what they were working on

it's harder today, but if you're respectful and warm, they still happen. i had positive experiences in paris (and a french coffee shop in mexico) as well


What is the source of the economic pressure? Landlords?

How does commercial renting compare in London vs Vienna?


> I am quite curious about the old London coffee house culture. Why don't we have it today? Could we recreate it? Do we have it today in another form? Have they been mythologised? Is it an example of the September effect?

I think arguably we're posting on a modern one right now.


Heh, yeah, but it's so non-social I think it might be an equivalent to their letters page of The Times.


Yes, but have people met here and spun off a new company from their conversations?

There's something significant missing from comment based interactions that exist in IRL interactions.


Since it's HN, I would think probably, yes :) I personally have received a job interview on the strength of a comment I posted here.


As a remote worker, a single programmer or an author, you can still work in a coffee house. But only because you don't have to communicate with other patrons.

People who do business hang out with their colleagues in offices. In a certain way, offices are the coffee houses of today.

Ships are too expensive nowadays for a single person to own or manage them. So companies own them and all the specialists who would meet in a coffee house meet in meeting rooms and conference calls.

To bring coffee houses back, you need some information with the need to be exchanged very locally. I doubt that it is possible after the introduction of the internet, at least for trading information.


I think part of it is that corporations hadn't really been invented yet. So for any venture too expensive for one person, you needed to gather backers... and they had to gather somewhere.

Maybe we should think of this as the slime mold stage of capitalism, before real permanent multi-cellular entities got going.


Times were different back then. You could print stuff, but only so many people could read. So even if someone wrote something in a pamphlet, you wanted to find your buddy who could read to explain it to you, with the added benefit of lively discussion. It was also an interesting time in the world where a lot of new thought was appearing.

Nowadays, there's some subtantial differences. Intellectual authority changed. You can't have a credible intellectual discussion about anything without having heard of a certain set of old guys anymore. Their intellectual heirs sit at universities and tell everyone where the thinking went since those days. This is both good and bad. If you want a serious discussion, you need to have done some homework, and you won't find a bunch of people who understand your interest area in a pub. You might find them on various online forums, a relatively recent thing.


London hit 90% literacy around 1750, and that's including the guys who shovelled horse-shit for a living, I'm pretty sure patrons of Lloyd's were very close to 100% literate from the start.

But how much people had read, and how easily they could find new things, were of course vastly different. They were still busy inventing newspapers, and wikipedia was some way off.


TIL

> London hit 90% literacy around 1750

Still though, if you look at today, there's plenty of people who can read, but don't. You'll find lots of modern people who don't know anything about what happened in history, what the political themes are, and so on.



Note that 90% of people in England weren't in London, circa 1800.


I don't think literacy has much to do with it, but rather the segregation of the population by income levels.

In India, in the southern state of Kerala which has achieved a 100% literacy rate, you have this sort of lively discussion in small teashacks in both villages and cities. People group together, read the news, and discuss it together regardless of political affiliation. If certain people start causing issues and fights, they are usually thrown out at the first unwelcome instance, and barred from ever entering the place again. What's different between Kerala and the West today might be the lack of Twitter presence for most, a disdain for political discussion on Facebook (due to police/government monitoring) and the more frequent interactions between the wealthy and the poor (since human labor is still widely used in India). And unlike other states with lower literacy rates, people from Kerala tend to be exposed to a lot of news, hence they are politically more active.


> Nowadays, there's some subtantial differences. Intellectual authority changed. You can't have a credible intellectual discussion about anything without having heard of a certain set of old guys anymore.

It was the same in XX or in XIX century, philosophy goes back thousands of years and it makes sense to know what before you said. Maybe back in Socrates days everyone worked from a blank slate, but that time is long gone.


I definitely experienced something like it at Cambridge, but only among university people, and that was before smartphones and social media.

There _used_ to be a popular working class intellectual movement, miners building libraries for themselves and so on. It seems to have ended at the TV age.


> I suppose that if trying to recreate one, you might want to base it around the service of a novel stimulant that can't be found elsewhere that encourages frenzied socialisation. MDMA cafe anyone?

aren't those just called techno clubs?


Lloyds, in its insurance period, was really a co-working space. That approach to insurance required multiple people to assume part of the risk. Each insurer would sign their name on a contract, below other names. This is where the term "underwriting" comes from. They had to get together somewhere to do this.

It's probably not authentic, but you can see the Hollywood version of Lloyds Coffee House in "Lloyds of London" (1936)[1], around 25:30.

[1] https://archive.org/details/1936LloydsOfLondon


> I suppose that if trying to recreate one, you might want to base it around the service of a novel stimulant that can't be found elsewhere that encourages frenzied socialisation.

You're looking for kava.


> It's talked about as being a place where relative strangers socialised and had substantive conversations on politics and philosophy that changed the history of ideas whereas today they are places to be "alone together".

These days, I think that sort of environment exists in some of the "third places": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place


What do you mean? There is plenty of places where you can get a coffee and hangout or even pull your laptop and do some work. I am not talking Starbucks, but family coffee shops. They have books, board games, cards and WiFi. Often also a selection of home made sandwiches and cakes.


> Do we have it today in another form?

Pubs https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47858013


Pubs in London replaced it basically. The local.


> September effect

Never heard that one, do you mind elaborating?



If you’re in London I’d thoroughly recommend a drink in the Jamaica Wine House - it’s a pub in the square mile that used to be a coffee house from 1652. It’s an amazing place to see - you can really feel the age and history of the place. https://londonspubswherehistoryreallyhappened.wordpress.com/...


One of the entrances has a big stone along the bottom of the door and worn down over the years.

http://www.citypubs.co.uk/pubs/thejamaicawinehouse_pic.html


Love it. Every time I step on I can almost feel the history of the place.


City of London is amazing because of its mix of old and new, I used to work near the Jamaica Wine House and we would often go there for drinks after work. It's too bad the beer selection there is not great tho.


There is a reason it is called wine house and not beer house.


Recent BBC doc on slavery mentioned the place as the hub for doing deals on humans. So there's that to consider too as you drink in the history.


or as traders call it, the jampot


I wonder how much the fact that coffee was a hotly traded item played a role in this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_coffee

Apparently by 1675 when Lloyds opened, there had been over 3000 coffee houses and they were often used for "deep religious and political discussions among the populace" as the article says.

It's no suprise that later, the very traders who brought coffee to the UK probably got talking about it at the coffee house they all spent time at. The only surprising part is that someone was quick enough to pick up on it and monetize it so successfully.


I once read an interesting theory that coffee was a fundamental part of the renaissance because it gave people something to drink late into the night other than alcohol, provoking huge swathes of sober (and likely somewhat hyperactive) conversation between peers which would previously have devolved into drunken rambling.


Depending on what Renaissance, definitely not the Italian one as it started about 200 years before the introduction of coffee to Europe


Suspect op meant ‘enlightenment’ rather than ‘renaissance’


Not forgetting the sugar trade supporting the wave of coffee consumption, all based on the major trade not yet mentioned yet in the thread; humans. Britain somehow managed to offshore the distasteful parts of that trade.

The monetisation you mention must specifically include making fraudulent insurance claims on murdered humans and all the rest of it that still gets brushed under the carpet. So great were they at making returns on their capital through popular products and services that the applause drowned out the shameful practices. Doesn't sound wholly unfamiliar at this point in time either!


Yes, it’s weird to think that all of modern finance (insurance, banking, investment management) is an outgrowth of chalk boards at the 17th century equivalent of a Starbucks.


Lloyd's was very important for trade and shipping, but my understanding is that banking related more to the banci (tables and benches) outside the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice, as well as the Medici in Florence.


If you replace Starbucks with pubs and chalk boards with back of a handkerchief then it still exists today


Not as weird as thinking of the ecosystem built out of social media. Social media are coffee houses without even coffee.


I never made the logical connection between the historical and modern iterations of kaffeeklatsch behaviors and social media, but you just did. Kudos.


It is set a couple hundred years later but this Charles Stress story is a fun read about a group of coffee lovers:

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/toast/to...


Thanks. I love reading this type of grammar preppie school prose - a communication style designed for elites to recognize another deserving of status. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that most folks didn’t talk this way back then. This style of writing was what Ernest Hemingway “dismantled”. I love both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, btw ... concordantly, of course.


In moving from Henry James to Hemmingway, a lot of magic of good writing was lost.


Michael Pollan has some good history and a lot of fun anecdotes about early coffee house cultures in his recent book Caffeine. It was interesting how each coffee house had a certain business/class associated with it.

The book itself is well written and short, I consumed it as an audiobook and it came in around 4 hours.


The tour of the modern Lloyd building is an activity I would quite recommend, but it is quite difficult to be eligible:

https://www.lloyds.com/about-lloyds/uk-building-services/our...


Lloyds tours are sometimes available as part of the Open House thing that happens each year.


A great look at coffee house culture at the time is in Tom Standage's A History of the World In 6 Glasses. At this time, coffee houses were the place to be. https://www.amazon.com/History-World-6-Glasses/dp/0802715524


Coffee houses play an important role in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. If you have any interest in European history - especially scientific and financial elements - in the years around the beginning of the 18th century, I would highly recommend it.


The Baltic Exchange has similar, interesting origins (which have little to do with the eponymous sea). https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Exchange


Interesting how their coffee shop business did well not because of the coffee, but because they controlled the distribution of a certain type of valuable information.


Pretty much sums up the narrative. It had to be a non-alcoholic beverage because serious business was being conducted and the fact that it allowed folks to remain awake and energized for the long and boring accounting was even better.


Did Tea end the coffee culture in London (and Britain)?


Considering the Victorian who were heavy tea drinkers, no.

Note that London was a hotbed for a lot of revolutionary people, including Karl Marx (who eventually settled down there).


That's my point - did Tea become the nouveau drink eliminating coffee? The UK had access to coffee in the 1600s but Tea didn't come until 200 years later with the colonies in east asia, right?


Tea certainly eliminated coffee from the mid 19th century, but tea did not eliminate "coffee culture".




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