Penny Universities

06 Aug

I admit it, I miss university. I could quite happily moulder unspecifically in academia forever, and it is quite depressing that, after maternity leave, I’ve only got a few short months left. In that sense, there is no real incentive to finish this PhD. Nevertheless, being pinned to the sofa by a hungry little baby makes life a little…inactive, shall we say, so I am still reading avariciously and typing one-handed. And guess what? I am still fantasising about my own coffee shop (as a more practical alternative to a career in academia).

A seventeenth century London coffee house

A seventeenth century London coffee house

These fantasies, along with genuine interest and the need to pad out my background chapter on coffee history, has led to reading a lot about the 17th century coffee shops in Britain. I like this a lot. Coffee first reached London in around 1650 and became extremely popular, with coffee houses offering an alternative to taverns. Most were laid out with a coffee bar at one end (but plenty of waitresses often of dubious reputation!) and long benches to sit at, forcing strangers to sit next to each other. Unsurprisingly, this led to a breaking down of rank and social hierarchy if only within the coffee house, and people, well, men, began “free and open debates” – or in other words, plenty of informed but caffeinated arguing. It is a fairly well known legend that Lloyds of London started out as a coffee shop, with merchants meeting in it to conduct their trades. But there were other now famous institutions that also had coffee origins. Coffee houses in different places had particular themes – the ones around the theatres attracted the ‘wits’ and critics and poets and so on, the coffee shops near the printers were filled with the pamphleteers and the ones near the schools were where they scientists hung out. The Royal Society was originally founded by three men who met and formed “The Chemical Club” in a coffee shop in Oxford, and they’d perform scientific experiments in public in the coffee shops.

“In the coffee houses men of science, learning and scholarship found they had unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge: commercial, literary, mechanical, theological. Unlike the narrow confines of the Schools, whether university, church or club, the coffee house opened the whole world of learning to the clientele. To a seventeenth century mind, entering a coffee house was like walking into the internet.” (Ellis, 2004:158)

And so, the Penny University was born. As well as being referred to by coffee fans as ‘penny universities’ or “the free school of ingenuity”, they were also called by their critics “a poseur’s paradise.” Nothing changes. Many people nowadays, myself included still sit in coffee shops for hours, now equipped with laptops but still attempting to look intellectual. We just use internet forums to rant on rather than striking up conversation with anyone else in the room, which is quite sad really. Some things that have changed for the better are a.) the coffee and b) the clientele.

Moll king

Moll King - my new role model

This was a looooong time before espresso machines and even before anyone thought to filter the stuff. The coffee in 1670’s London was at best, Turkish style, as in, roasted in a pan over a fire, ground up roughly then boiled in water, thus improving the safety of the water but often producing a drink that looked, smelled and tasted like soot. And quite possibly cut with charcoaled weevil, since it was transported from the colonies by boat. Also, the coffee houses were exclusively populated by men. Women could serve in them but did not attend and were not privy to the cheap education on offer there. Somewhat bizarrely though, they were allowed to own them. The most famous coffeehouse madam was Moll King, and King’s Coffee House was extremely popular but not necessarily because of her coffee….

There were other similarities to modern universities too:

“in we went, where a packet of muddling muckworms were busy as so many rats in an old cheese-loft, some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking,…and the whole room stinking of tobacco like a dutch barge or a boatswain’s cabin.”

Now, doesn’t that sound like undergraduate halls of residence?


The offending cafe

I like the idea of Penny Universities a great deal. What better name for a coffee shop run by someone with a PhD in coffee?! But, alas, these things are not patented as soon as the thought arrives in my head. And sadly, a modern day Penny University already exists. It is a coffee shop in London. And it is run by a certain Mr James Hoffman.
Sorry jimseven but I won’t be visiting.
(*blows raspberries very maturely*)


Posted by on August 6, 2010 in Uncategorized


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5 responses to “Penny Universities

  1. Lintongp

    August 6, 2010 at 8:16 am

    So that’s the origin of penny university. I think you might find that the humble Mr Hoffman closed his penny university on 30 July! Apparently people enjoy milk and sugar with their drinks!

    • drcoffee

      August 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      I stand corrected – thank you for the update! I shall now steal the name guilt-free. Interesting ‘experiment’ though – people may enjoy milk and sugar with their coffee, but he did manage the tremendous achievment of getting people to part with £4 for a single cup…The art of the barista lies in the marketing, obviously.

    • Chris

      October 21, 2010 at 8:45 pm

      Closed it as planned, you mean. It was a temporary experiment for Square Mile Roasters because they had an opportunity to use the retail space for three months.

  2. Mrs. Anti-Virus

    August 15, 2010 at 12:58 am

    I bet you wish george bush was still president now

    • drcoffee

      August 20, 2010 at 12:09 am

      What the merry bollocks has that got to do with anything?!
      Congrats Mrs Anti-Virus, you have won the Weirdest Spam of the Week Award. You prize is me allowing your comment to stay on this blog.


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