Coffeehouse Archaeology in England

Artifacts from the Claphams Coffeehouse assemblage. Source: Cressford et al. 2017: Figure 8.

Before England fell in love with tea, there was coffee. Beginning in the 1600s, coffeehouses spread through England. Historians think of them as the more polite, refined counterpoint to taverns and alehouses, a place where the customers – mostly male – could drink and discuss and debate the news of the day.

It’s a bit surprising that almost no coffeehouses have been explored archaeologically, but Craig Cessford and colleagues now describe artifacts, tightly dated to between 1770 and 1780, from a small brick cellar associated with Clapham’s Coffeehouse in Cambridge, England.

The coffeehouse was run by William and Jane (Heron) Clapham. This was after the heyday of coffeehouses in England (the first coffeehouse in Cambridge had been opened about a hundred years earlier), at the time when tea was becoming England’s national drink. And in fact, there are more teacups and saucers in the cellar fill than coffee cups. There are also vessels used for chocolate drinks and alcoholic beverages, as well as a few smoking pipes, in the cellar fill. Jelly glasses and cow foot bones show that calfs’ foot jelly, among other foods, was also made and served on site.

Staffordshire-type white salt-glazed stoneware vessels linked to William Clapham, manufactured c. 1746–65. Source: Cressford et al. 2017: Figure 9.

Several tankards, plates, and bowls, generally low quality, functional crockery, have William’s monogram on their bottoms, while a few tin-glazed plates have Jane’s name spelled out. The monogrammed items may have served to identify ownership, rather than as advertising. In an early form of takeaway, some customers would have food or drink brought to them from other places; when they were finished, the plates or mugs would be sent back to the coffeehouse owner. In fact, there are a couple of pieces of ceramic at this site from other restaurants, including Sun’s Coffee Room, that never made it back to their original owners. The fancier tin-glazed plates with Jane’s name may have been intended for display, or to be used on special occasions.

Jane Clapham ceramic
Tin-glazed earthenware plate, linked to Jane Clapham, manufactured c. 1746–79. Source: Cessford et al. 2017:Figure 10.

Large artifact assemblages like this one, with lots of complete or nearly-complete crockery, is associated with cleaning out a household or business. The new owners may have dumped out old, out-of-fashion, or chipped wares, replacing them with their own stuff. Two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary Sproson, took over the running of the establishment in the 1760s. William died shortly after, while Jane lived until 1779. By 1782, the spot had a new owner and was now called the Union Coffeehouse. Most of the artifacts found likely date to no later than about 1780, so may have been thrown out when Jane died, or when the new owners took over.

Cessford, Craig, Andy Hall, Vicki Herring, and Richard Newman
2017 ‘To Clapham’s I go’: a mid to late 18th-century Cambridge coffeehouse assemblage. Post-Medieval Archaeology 51(2):372-426.

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