In 1652 the first coffee house in London was opened on St Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill, set within a warren of medieval streets.
In truth, it was less coffee house and more wooden coffee shack, but it had the enviable advertising distinction of being situated below the spire of St Michael’s Church, visible all over London.
It was operated by Pasqua Rosee, a servant or possibly valet to the businessman Daniel Edwards, who was an importer of goods from Turkey that included coffee. There are two stories as to how the coffee house came to be established. One is that Rosee had a falling out with Edwards and left his employ to set up the business. Another, and probably the more likely, is that visitors to Edwards’ home to try this new and exotic drink became too many and too frequent, so Edwards helped Rosee set up as a public vendor.
There doesn’t appear to be a definitive name given for Rosee’s establishment. Some accounts refer to it as being called “The Turk’s Head,” while a plaque on display in St Michael’s Alley today refers to it as being the site of “The Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head.” Indeed, it was Rosee’s own profile which graced his coffee house sign. Resplendent in a turban and sporting a twirly moustache, the image of the head of a man of Turkish origin became the default sign for all coffee houses.
It should be noted that the first coffee house to be established in England was located in Oxford. It was opened in 1651 by a Jewish man named Jacob and called the Angel. However, a pamphlet distributed by Rosee extolling the “virtue of the coffee drink” named himself as the first to make and sell the beverage in England.
Sadly, despite Rosee’s being a hugely popular gathering place and a centre for creativity and communication – and spawning hundreds of rival establishments around the capital – it (and he) was short-lived.
There is evidence that he intended to open another coffee house in a permanent establishment on Cornhill, “adjacent Newman’s Court,” but all historical record of Pasqua Rosee ceases from 1658. His intended Cornhill location is now, ironically, a Starbucks. And in another twist of coffee-related fate, the location of the house Rosee shared with Mr. Edwards, at 38 Walbrook, is also now occupied by Starbucks.
The site of Rosee’s original coffee house was re-built after the great fire of London in 1666 and re-opened by another proprietor as the Jamaica Coffee House. Re-built again in the 19th Century, it continues serving drinks under the name of the Jamaica Wine House.
Know Before You Go
St Michael's alley is between Lombard Street and Cornhill, near the Lombard Street signs. From George's Yard, go past the George's Vulture pub.
The plaque is on the wall of the Jamaica Wine House, near the large lantern.