A Short History of Oxford Coffee Houses and Student Life

by KathleenDuffy

The Oxford coffee house was the perfect meeting place for intellectually curious, and argumentative male students. But the Oxford University authorities were watching.

The first coffee in England is thought to have been brewed in 1637 by Nathaniel Conopios from Crete, a student at Balliol College, Oxford. The famous diarist, John Evelyn, records in 1637 that he saw Conopios drinking the brew 'not heard of then in England', whilst the historian of Oxford life, Anthony Wood, confirmed that Conopios "...made a drink for his own use called Coffey, and usually drank it every morning...".

Wood also confirms that the first English coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1650 by Jacob, a Lebanese Jew, who later moved his business to Holborn in London.

It seems that Oxford can take the credit for introducing Britain to the most popular drug on the planet!

Oxford Colleges and Oxford Coffee Houses


As in London’s coffee houses, where sections of society gravitated to their own particular establishment, in Oxford each college had its meeting place. Among them:

Queen's College, Oxford
Queen's College, Oxford


  • Harper’s was patronised by Queens College and Magdalen College;
  • Bagg’s by New College , Hertford College, Wadham College;
  • Malbon’s by Trinity College;
  • Horseman’s by All Souls College, Corpus Christi College , Merton College and Oriel College.

A significant coffee house was opened by Arthur Tillyard in 1655. Tillyard's was the meeting place of the Oxford Chemical Club, a group of leading scientists , including Sir Robert Boyle, and their students.

From this Club the Royal Society would emerge.

Oxford Coffee Houses and Early Radical Publications

The Coffee House
The Coffee House

The City Council and the University authorities kept a sharp eye on these establishments. In these dens of caffein-fuelled iniquity political ideas were openly discussed, newspapers freely available and the class status of the male coffee drinkers was irrelevant.  Talk was the thing!

At last there was somewhere where students could escape the stultifying atmosphere of University life, a place where they could indulge in inter-departmental gossip and exchange ideas on educational and political reform.

Regular publications such as political pamphlets and  radical newspapers were the lifeblood of the coffee houses. The proprietors ordered these publications for their clients’ free perusal, and coffee house gossip and scandal provided hot topics for the same publications, many of which were anti-Government and anti-University. No wonder the powers-that-be were worried...

In 1711 the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford banned the sale of The Medley and in 1720 Terrae Filius, both publications being critical of the University.

Charles II Orders Closure of Coffee Houses

Charles II by Wright
Charles II by Wright

Charles II was popular and handsome.  He was fond of the theatre and encouraged women to act on the stage.  In 1666 he rolled up his lacy sleeves and was out in the streets trying to put out the Great Fire of London. He walked in the parks with his spaniels and apparently had no concerns for his own personal safety. Surrounded by mistresses who gave him many children, Charles was making the most of his Restoration.

But it would have been a mistake to interpret his bonhomie as liberalism. Even the merry monarch was no slouch when it came to clamping down on what he perceived as political subterfuge. Such was his concern that coffee houses could become political hotbeds of Jacobin revolt that on 29th December 1675 he ordered their closure.

But Charles had gravely underestimated the people's need for intellectual and political debate. After all, despite the popularity of Charles II's restoration, debate had been part of the Puritan inheritance.  The outcry  against the closures was so widespread that Charles had to rescind the proclamation in January 1676.

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Oxford Coffee Houses and Student Behaviour

The Oxford University Authorities were concerned not only with matters of radical thinking. Many Oxford coffee houses had been granted licenses to sell wine and the drunken behaviour of students was of concern.

In an attempt to limit student freedom, Proctors and Magistrates were urged by the University to visit coffee houses and urge proprietors not to allow students to build up loans, not to serve students after 11:00 at night and not to open on Sundays until 5:00.

 Whether such attempts at control were totally successful is unclear. What is clear is students who drank wine in coffee houses often spilled out onto the streets of Oxford causing mayhem! 

Oxford Coffee Houses and Student Morals

Tom’s Coffee House in the High Street was known for its back room, nicknamed The House of Lords. It was furnished with Chippendale chairs reserved for senior members of the University and similar high-ranking officials.


Despite (or maybe because of) its distinguished clientele in the back, the Vice-Chancellor was informed that morally suspect literature with dubious illustrations was freely available to students in the front.


At a coffee house opened in 1728 by a Henry Biggs in St Clements, the drunken Biggs entertained students with the favours of his wife and sister, both of ‘a loose life’. It was apparently for this reason that students frequented the house.  Not the coffee.

Decline of the Oxford Coffee Houses from Mid-18th Century

Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford

Soon the stimulation of coffee and political debate - that explosive combination - began to take a nosedive.   The reasons?  Here are just a few:

  • The East India Company began to import tea from China and India - coffee prices became inflated.
  • Tea houses serving food became popular.
  • Circulating libraries took over the provision of books and free newspapers.
  • Newspapers employed professional correspondents rather than relying on coffee house gossip.

The Oxford coffee houses, stimulating islands of intellectual ferment and lively debauchery, were coming to an end and are hardly remembered today for the remarkable institutions they once were. They served Oxford students well.   

Arguably nothing quite like them exists today.



  • Oxford Coffee Houses, 1651-1800 by Norma Aubertin-Potter and Alyx Bennett (Hapden Press, 1987)
  • PopularArticles.com History of Coffee: Part II - Spread of Coffee to Europe
  • The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug By Bennett Alan Weinberg, Bonnie K. Bealer (Routledge (12 Sep 2002))

The Humble Coffee Mug

From E-Bay
Updated: 08/12/2013, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 08/18/2013

I know - it's gorgeous isn't it! :)

Natural_Skin_Care on 08/18/2013

Love that Turkish coffee set.

KathleenDuffy on 08/13/2013

Hi cmoneyspinner - I am so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for your post :)

cmoneyspinner on 08/13/2013

I never knew there was a link between coffee and political subterfuge. I do know that there's a connection between coffee and illegal drug smuggling. Great article! I'll be sharing it.

KathleenDuffy on 08/13/2013

I think the East India Company became more interested in importing tea than coffee so it became less profitable to open a coffee shop. Also, tea shops were frequented by both sexes so they became popular!

jptanabe on 08/13/2013

Funny that the arrival of tea was one reason for the demise of the coffee houses!

KathleenDuffy on 08/13/2013

Mira - I too would like one of those old-fashioned-style perculators. I remember them from when I was a kid! :)

Mira on 08/13/2013

Interesting article, Kathleen. And I like your selection of stainless steel coffee makers at the top. I need to get me one of those :)

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