St Michael’s Alley, EC3V
Midway down Cornhill on the right hand side as you walk from the Royal Exchange is to be found St Michael’s Alley which runs alongside St Michael’s church, more of which anon. The area between Cornhill and Lombard Street is a warren of little passageways and alleys and gives the sense of what London might have been like, without, of course, the stench, dirt and foul air.
One of my favourite watering holes, the Jamaica Wine House, or as the habitues of the financial district call it, the Jampot, is to be found here, charming workers and tourists alike with its wooden interiors, high ceilings and rather abrupt service. It gets its name, alas, from its association with the slave trade in the Caribbean and the current building is newer than you would think, only dating back to 1869.
Of principal interest is a blue plaque on the exterior of the wall of the pub – so keen was I to get my hands on its foaming Kentish brews that it escaped my notice until recently – proclaiming “Here stood the first London Coffee House at the sign of the Pasqua Rosee’s Head 1652”.
Pasqua Rosee was a servant of an importer of goods, including coffee, one Daniel Edwards. There are two versions of how the coffee house was established. One was that Rosee fell out with Edwards and set up his own business. The other, more likely I would have thought, was that Edwards used to entertain guests to his house with the exotic caffeine based brew and realised the commercial possibilities that existed in selling it. So Edwards helped Rosee set up what was in reality a wooden shack, adjacent to the church, a landmark that was visible across all of what was the then city.
The sign gracing the establishment showed Rosee in profile, resplendent in turban and with a twirly moustache and so memorable was this image that it became the default sign for other coffee houses. There is some confusion over the name of Rosee’s gaff with some records calling it the Turk’s Head and others, a version adopted by the manufacturers of the blue plaque, The Sign of Pasqua Rosee’s Head.
Rosee issued printed advertisements extolling the virtues of the coffee drink and claiming that he was the first to make and sell the drink in England. This claim was erroneous, the honour of establishing the first coffee house actually fell to a Jewish chap called Jacob who opened the Angel in Oxford a year earlier, in 1651.
Notwithstanding that, Rosee’s coffee house became extraordinarily popular as a meeting place and a venue for conversation and business and spawned many rival establishments. Presumably buoyed by his success – shortly after opening he was selling around 600 coffees a day – Rosee planned to move his business to a more permanent establishment on Cornhill adjacent to Newman’s Court. Whether he succeeded in doing this or not is unclear and Rosee disappears from the records around 1658. His own ability to profit from the coffee craze that he had created was tragically short-lived. By 1663 there were 82 coffee houses in London and by 1675 around 1,000, selling what detractors called “a liquid resembling syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”.
Ironically, Rosee’s intended second venue is now a Starbuck’s; the chain also runs a coffee shop at the house he used to live in with Edwards at 38, Walbrook.