The 18th century Coffee Houses

The industrial revolution was stoked by free thinkers, dissenters, non-conformists ... folk who demanded evidence to support all religious, political and monopolistic dogmas ... conventicles were the seething hot beds of free debate where conventional wisdom was confronted and technological innovations grew from sparks into raging infernos ... every generation had its own groups of angry young men trying to make their own way in the world when faced with the suffocating stagnation of inertia ... in the 18th century the conventicles were held in the coffee houses and sparked the inferno of the industrial revolution ... in the 1960s the conventicles were held on the Californian university campuses and sparked the inferno of the silicon revolution ... this repeating pattern of generational experimentation was the conduit for technological innovation, wealth creation and economic growth ...

This pattern was very clear to 'evolutionary economists' as 'creative destruction' where inherited successes were preserved but with modifications from new innovations which destroyed obsolete structures ... new structures were constantly honed and adapted from the bottom up and were not the grand designs of Bishops, Princes, General nor bureaucrats ... each generation had a new chance to chase profits and cut losses ...

The Conventicle Act of 1664 was aimed at non-conformists like the Quakers and forbade conventicles (assemblies of more than five people outside the auspices of the Church of England). This law was part of the Clarendon Code and although repealed in 1689 it was a constant reminder of potential threats to free thinkers.

The Old Coffee HouseThe Character of a Coffee-House, 1673 A.D.
The citizens of old London are gregarious, and, as the civil war had been a conflict of opinions no less than of arms, they developed the necessity for debate. Being careful both of their health and of their purse, they don’t meet in taverns, but frequent coffee houses, because a cup of the newly imported Turkish beverage cost only one penny and is supposed to cure minor ailments.
A coffee house is a lay conventicle, good fellowship turned puritan, ill-husbandry in masquerade, whither people come, after toping all day, to purchase, at the expense of their last penny, the repute of sober companions. A club room, that, like Noah's ark, receives animals of every sort, from the precise diminutive band, to the hectoring cravat and cuffs in folio; a nursery for training up the smaller fry of virtuosi in confident tattling, or a cabal of carping critics that have only learned to spit and mew; a mint of intelligence, that, to make each man his pennyworth, draws out into petty parcels, what the merchant receives in bullion: he, that comes often, saves two pence a week in Gazettes, and has his news and his coffee for the same charge, as at a three penny ordinary they give in broth to your chop of mutton; it is an exchange, where haberdashers of political small-wares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the public, with bottomless stories, and heedless notions; the rendezvous of idle pamphlets, and persons more idly employed to read them; a high court of justice, where every little fellow in a camlet cloak takes upon him to transpose affairs both in church and state, to show reasons against acts of parliament, and condemn the decrees of general councils.
As you have a hodgepodge of drinks, such too is your company, for each man seems a leveller, and ranks and files himself as he lists, without regard to degrees or order; so that often you may see a silly fop and a worshipful justice, a griping rook and a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer and an errant pickpocket, a reverend non-conformist and a canting mountebank, all blended together to compose a medley of impertinence.
The Coffee House DebatesIf any pragmatic, to show himself witty or eloquent, begin to talk high, presently the further tables are abandoned, and all the rest flock round (like smaller birds, to admire the gravity of the barn-owl). They listen to him awhile with their mouths, and let their pipes go out, and coffee grow cold, for pure zeal of attention, but on the sudden fall all a yelping at once with more noise, but not half so much harmony, as a pack of beagles on the full cry. To still this bawling, up starts Capt. All-man-sir, the man of mouth, with a face as blustering as that of Æolus and his four sons, in painting, and a voice louder than the speaking trumpet, he begins you the story of a sea fight; and though he never were further, by water, than the Bear-garden. . . . yet, having pirated the names of ships and captains, he persuades you himself was present, and performed miracles; that he waded knee deep in blood on the upper deck, and never thought to serenade his mistress so pleasant as the bullets whistling; how he stopped a vice admiral of the enemy's under full sail; till she was boarded, with his single arm, instead of grappling-irons, and puffed out with his breath a fire ship that fell foul on them. All this he relates, sitting in a cloud of smoke, and belching so many common oaths to vouch it, you can scarce guess whether the real engagement, or his romancing account of it, be the more dreadful: however, he concludes with railing at the conduct of some eminent officers (that, perhaps, he never saw), and protests, had they taken his advice at the council of war, not a sail had escaped us.
He is no sooner out of breath, but another begins a lecture on the Gazette, where, finding several prizes taken, he gravely observes, if this trade hold, we shall quickly rout the Dutch, horse and foot, by sea: he nicknames the Polish gentlemen wherever he meets them, and enquires whether Gayland and Taffaletta be Lutherans or Calvinists? Stilo novo he interprets a vast new stile, or turnpike, erected by his electoral highness on the borders of Westphalia, to keep Monsieur Turenne's cavalry from falling on his retreating troops; he takes words by the sound, without examining their sense: Morea he believes to be the country of the Moors, and Hungary a place where famine always keeps her court, nor is there anything more certain, than that he made a whole room full of fops, as wise as himself, spend above two hours in searching the map for Aristocracy and Democracy, not doubting but to have found them there, as well as Dalmatia and Croatia.

Warrington AcademyThe Warrington Academy 1757.

Warrington had its own Academy for free thinkers, the 'Athens of the North'. This institution became a centre for philosophical culture and 'thinking the unthinkable'. Formally opened in 1757 the Academy boasted Thomas Malthus and Joseph Priestly as alumni. The institution moved to Manchester in 1782 but an enviable reputation for Warrington dissent had been confirmed. William Eyres (1734-1809), was associated with the non-conformist Academy and a noted printer of all manner of papers, pamphlets, books and salacious material. The Academy linked to the Manchester Philosophical Society and its network of contacts included, Voltaire, Lavoisier, Diderot, Jefferson, Franklin ...

The coffee houses of London were more famous as progressive centres of debate and business but Warrington also hosted similar establishments. The Old Coffee House in Horsemarket Street Warrington was built in the 18th century and attracted the all the new middle class business men on a mission. It doubled as a theatre hosting popular shows. In 1788 it became the home of a wining & dining club The Warrington Amicable Club. Things were happening in Warrington ...


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