I was having an all too rare quiet and self-satisfied moment over a flat white while taking in the fact that I had just passed the BSc part of an Honours degree in International Studies.
One of the concepts of history that has been made as clear as a piece of Waterford crystal glass from my studies is the underlying continuum of history that permeates our lives. Here I was, sitting in a temple not only dedicated to the intake of caffeine but is an icon of 21st Century capitalism and globalisation. Here is a venue where people meet to gossip, catch up on news and in some instances; carry out business. A truly 21st Century set of phenomena but are they really unique to our age?
Try to cast your mind back 300 years and imagine the narrow lanes of 17th Century London. These lanes would have been lined with butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and coffee houses. Within what is now The City of London or The Square Mile were coffee houses where men gathered gossip, news and conducted business to the extent that the imbibing of sludge like earthy tasting coffee became a secondary activity.
Gradually, through a process commercial evolution certain coffee houses attracted certain mercantile specialists.
Lloyds Coffee House was started by Edward Lloyd in 1688. At first there was one corner booth in the room where sea captains would congregate to discuss business. Then other booths were taken up by men who would start to provide insurance cover to these sea going captains to protect their ships and cargoes. Anyone wanting to insure a ship would progress from booth to booth approaching underwriters who would underwrite the potential losses of the ship owners. This became the start of what is now recognised as the Lloyds Insurance market based in Leadenhall Street in London. And if you are lucky enough to be able to visit this market you will see that despite the modernity of the building’s stainless steel and glass architecture the underwriters still cling to tradition by operating in booths on the various floors of the market.
There was not a coffee house called ‘Stock Exchange’ but there was one called ‘Jonathan’s’ after Jonathan Miles who opened his coffee house in Exchange Alley in 1680. It developed into a meeting place where stockbrokers and stockjobbers conducted business. It was the forerunner of the trading floor in Throgmorton Street. Unlike Lloyds, where business is still conducted in a place that could be called a market, stock trading has migrated to trading floors located in leading banks premises and very little trading is done on a face to face basis.
Within an historic context a place like a Costa Coffee shop is a direct descendant of places such as Jonathan’s and Lloyds. Lloyds and Jonathan’s were early capitalist institutions that were at a key moment in the development of international trade. Insurance was offered for ships going to the West Coast of Africa and on to the Far East to trade and bring back different products for British consumers. Stocks and shares were traded in ventures that hoped to harvest rich profits in the new and about to burgeon British Empire. Both were a form of globalisation as well as being part of the capitalist economy. Now, a chain like Costa is also represents globalisation and capitalism.
So really, sitting in a 21st coffee shop is not that much different from sitting in one 300 years ago apart from the fact that my flat white is not sludgy and nor does it taste of earth.