Dublin’s 18th-century Coffee Houses


Introduction: [1]

The habit of coffee drinking first became popular in Europe about the middle of the 17th century. Soon, special rooms were established for the consumption of the new beverage. Debate surrounds the date of the first coffee house in England, the Angel in Oxford is considered first by some historians, set up about 1650, while others favour London as the first, with Oxford following shortly afterwards. Between 1652 and 1654 London’s first coffee house was opened by Pasqua Rosee, the Turkish servant of an English merchant who traded with the Levant.[2] The earliest known coffee house in Dublin is known from a trade token issued by Lionell Newman for The Dublin coffee house in 1664, it has a Turk’s head stamped on reverse.[3]

Over the next two hundred years coffee houses flourished as centres of urban culture in cities such as London, Paris, Venice and Vienna, acting as informal meeting places where information was exchanged through conversation and print. In their heyday, the fashionable coffee houses of Europe served as well-springs of gossip, political intrigue and faction. Coffee houses were renowned for their stock of newspapers, and as meeting places for members of the book trade, where deals were made and contracts negotiated.


Johnson's-Dictionary-DublinSamuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English language, 4th edition (Dublin, Thomas Ewing, 1775). First published in London in 1755.

The main concentration of Dublin coffee houses stretched from the Parliament House in College Green to the Tholsel and Four Courts at Christchurch and northwards to the river at the Custom House. Coffee-houses were public spaces, associated with trade and commerce, politics, journalism and the law, and located in the busiest part of town with a conspicuous public profile. The Parliament House, the Custom House, the Exchange, the Tholsel[4] and the Inns of Court were favoured locations for the establishment of coffee-houses. In addition to serving tea, coffee, cocoa and other beverages, tobacco was smoked and board games were played. Newspapers and pamphlets were provided for customers, conversation, information exchange and political debate were important social functions. They acted as rendezvous for visitors, message and contact centres for advertisers and employers, meeting places for clubs and societies, ticket offices and auction rooms. Certain coffee-houses appealed to specific social groups.

Lady-of-House-Xmas-1906Chichester House on College Green acted as the Parliament House until it was demolished in 1728, to make way for the new Parliament House. The foundation stone for the new building was laid early in 1729. It was designed by Edward Lovet Pearce, and completed in 1739. By the 1780s more space was needed and James Gandon was given the commission to make alterations. He added the east portico on Westmorland Street and extended the accommodation for the House of Lords. The Parliament Coffee House is noted from 1705, when it was run by Richard Pue of Dick’s Coffee House, and by mid century book auctions were held in the House of Lords Coffee-room.[5]

At the end of the 17th century and first decades of the 18th century the streets and alleys near the Custom House, centring on Essex Street and Essex Gate, Skinner Row and Cork Hill, formed the commercial hub of the city. Many of Dublin’s busiest coffee-houses were to be found in close proximity to the Custom House: Dempster’s (1706-1728), The Merchant’s (1730s–1762), The Globe (1730-1787), The Custom House (1730-1758), Bacon’s (1740s), Sam’s (1740s-1787), Norris’s (1740s-1772), The Dublin (1747-1750), and Walsh’s (1740s).

Custom-HouseThe Custom House was situated on the south bank of the Liffey at Essex Bridge. During the 18th century ships could come upriver as far as Essex Bridge and unload their cargoes at the Custom House. This building was designed by Thomas Burgh and completed in 1707. It was three storeys in height and 200 feet long. It was occupied by the Custom and Excise administration and was the centre of business for merchants and ships’ captains until the new Custom House, designed by James Gandon, was completed in 1791.


The Tholsel, or City Hall was situated at the corner of Skinner Row and Nicholas Street, across the street from the Four Courts and Christchurch Cathedral. It had a public clock set up in 1560. The Tholsel was the administrative headquarters of the city, with the mayor, aldermen and common council of the city holding their meetings there. It was also used for meetings of citizens. After 1730 the great bell of the Tholsel was tolled daily for seven minutes before noon to mark the opening of the Exchange, and business continued until five to two, when the porter rang a small bell to mark the close of business.[6] At this important crossroads the area was a hive of activity among businessmen, clerks and lawyers.


The Royal Exchange (now City Hall) was built by the merchants of Dublin to replace their old exchange in Crampton Court. When it opened in 1779 it included a coffee room on the first floor. It extended:

from one stair-case to the other, almost the whole length of the north front, and its breadth is from the front to the dome: In point of magnificance, it is perhaps equal to any coffee-room in Great Britain: It receives its lights by the windows in the north front, and by oval lanterns in the flat of the ceiling, which is highly ornamented, and from which is suspended a grand lustre.[7]

This description once again stresses the light, airy character of the room, ideal for reading and lively debate.

How they worked:

Coffee-houses were large elegant rooms situated on the first floor of a building, usually above a small shop or business. This location meant that they maximised the light needed for reading. Contemporary images of London coffee-houses suggest that coffee was served from a bar. Roaring fires heated the coffee and warmed the room. They were essentially a male preserve, although women were often proprietors and servers.[8] Mrs Joyce kept The Globe in Essex Street in the 1730s and Mrs Carterwright, wife of George Carterwright, ran The Custom House Coffee-House in 1730. One Dublin poet wrote of Mrs Carterwright:[9]


Dick's-coffee-houseOne of the most famous and long-lasting of Dublin’s coffee-houses, Dick’s, occupied the drawing room, or first floor of the four-storey house on the south side of Skinner Row. It was known as Carbery House, the former home of Gerald, Earl of Kildare, later granted to the Dukes of Ormond. Dick’s was established by Richard Pue, bookseller and newspaper proprietor, in the late 17th century.[10] John Dunton in his book The Dublin Scuffle, published in 1699, said of Richard Pue ‘Dick is a witty and ingenious man, makes the best coffee in Dublin, and is very civil and obliging to all his customers; of an open and generous nature; has a peculiar knack at bantering, and will make rhymes to any thing.’[11]

In 1703 Pue described his premises as:

a moiety of a timber house divided into two tenements. One hath two cellars, and on the first floor two shops and two kitchens. On the second floor three rooms (two of them wainscotted). On the third, two rooms, and on the fourth, two garrets. The other part has a cellar under the front. On the first floor one shop and two kitchens, and on the second, third, and fourth, three rooms each, with the moiety of a small timber house in the backside.[12]

Here we see a multi-functional building with shops and other commercial concerns at street level and over them rooms with wainscoting, or fine wooden panelling, which served as prestigious public spaces such as coffee houses. John Dunton, the London bookseller, held book auctions at the back of Dick’s in 1698. The small premises at the back served as a printing house for a number of different booksellers in the first half of the eighteenth century. Cornelius Carter, in his newspaper the Dublin Intelligence gave his address as ‘at the back of Dick’s Coffee House in Skinner Row, near the Tholsel’ from 1700 to 1702. Richard Pue also ran the coffee house at the Parliament House from 1705.[13] Dick’s closed its doors about 1780 when Carbery House was demolished.

Carbery House the location of Dick’s Coffee House and Daly’s Coffee House from The Masonic Female Orphan School of Ireland, edited by Thomas Stuart (Dublin, 1892).

Lawyers and clerks frequented the coffee houses near the inns of court: the Four Courts Coffee House situated in Winetavern Street in the first decade of the eighteenth century and at Christchurch Lane in the last quarter of the century. Jo’s Coffee House at the corner of Christchurch Lane and High Street was opened in 1737 by Jo Brogden.[14] It offered a commodious room fronting onto both streets. On Custom House Quay, The Cocoa Tree Coffee House was on the eastern side near the Custom House, above the bookshop of Thomas Whitehouse.


DDA-4-Feb-1736-7Coffee houses formed an important public space for the intellectual culture of the period. Large, well-appointed public areas were not readily available to formal or informal groups in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The presence of so many coffee houses in the city allowed a choice of suitable venues for public events. When the Dublin Society was formed in 1731 it held its weekly meetings in different locations, including the Parliament House Coffee House. During the 1730s, the committee met at the Anne Coffee House, also called The Anne and Grecian, at Essex Bridge, to adjudicate the society’s premiums.[15]

The customers of coffee houses were chiefly male and they represented the professions, merchants and traders in the city and visitors from abroad. In 1740 the customers at Dick’s were described as follows:[16]


From a commercial point of view information was a valuable commodity, and those involved in international trade had an urgent need for accurate and timely news. Wars and weather, parliamentary decisions, foreign relations and economic conditions at home and abroad had to be monitored. The coffee house became a rendezvous for merchants and ships’ captains visiting the city. Visitors from London and the continent, and later in the eighteenth century from America, brought news with them in various forms, from printed accounts and newspapers, to manuscript business and private letters, to oral news and gossip. This news was harnessed and shared in the coffee house and it was from here in the early years of the eighteenth century that Dublin newspapers compiled their ‘foreign intelligences’. Newspapers were issued twice, and later three times, a week, but if a ‘packet’ arrived between issues a supplementary sheet was rushed from the press.


Likewise, visitors to the city had a base from which to do business and could catch up with local news as soon as they arrived. As commercial spaces they were suitable for auctions and other large gatherings as well as public performances. Land and other properties, such as ships and horses, were sold by cant and auction. Lands were sold at Lucas’s in the 1750s and 1760s, and at the Exchange Coffee House in Crampton Court, at the Four Courts Coffee House, and at the Globe up to the mid 1770s. Ships were sold at the Merchant’s Coffee House in Essex Street in the 1730s. Book auctions were held at Dick’s, Pat’s, The Anne and Grecian, The Union, and others up to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Merchants whose businesses revolved around the Custom House frequented The Little Dublin and The Exchange in Crampton Court. Politicians gathered at The Globe in Essex Street as well as ‘grave dons of merchants, physicians, and lawyers, with great wigs and long cravats’ before the Royal Exchange was opened in 1779.[17] Initial meetings of the Catholic Committee took place at The Globe in 1757, attended by Charles O’Conor of Belanagar and Dr John Curry. A poem from 1758 describes life at The Globe:[18]

coffee-house-verses-02Dub-Intelligence-4-May-1706Booksellers and newspaper printers were closely associated with Dublin’s coffee houses in the early eighteenth century. As centres for news and information, coffee houses and newspapers were mutually supporting. Coffee houses provided newspapers and pamphlets for their customers. They were gathering places for merchants and professionals who exchanged business and political information. Printing houses often shared the premises with a coffee house in the first half of the eighteenth century. Some printers and booksellers, such as Richard Pue, Edward Lloyd, Francis Dickson, Richard Norris, and Thomas Bacon, were also coffee house proprietors.[19]

Coffee house clients had access to a large range of newspapers, in London payment of one penny was required for use of the facilities, but it is not known if this also applied in Dublin.[20] Many establishments prided themselves on the number of papers and information slips which they held, a custom which continued into the nineteenth century.


The early nineteenth century marked the beginning of the end for coffee houses as informal news exchanges, although decline had set in after the mid-eighteenth century. Taverns and hotels took over as public meeting places, while dedicated buildings were used for formal groups, such as the Royal Exchange for meetings of the city’s merchants, guild halls for guild meetings, the Dublin Society got its own premises in 1767, and the Royal Irish Academy, established in 1785, had its first headquarters in Grafton Street and later in Dawson Street. Many booksellers had premises large enough to accommodate circulating libraries, auction rooms, reading rooms and meeting rooms by the late eighteenth century. Public rooms, such as the Grove Room at the Music Hall in Fishamble Street, could be hired for meetings. The coffee house tradition continued to flourish in Europe during the nineteenth century, but it was not until the late 20th century, nearly two centuries later that the fashion for coffee drinking in specialised cafes and coffee shops was re-established in Dublin. Provision of newspapers for customers is a custom which continues as part of the service offered. The closest equivalent to the coffee houses of early eighteenth-century Dublin are perhaps those found in bookshops and libraries where information gathering and coffee drinking still share a space.


All images courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive (www.dublincitypubliclibraries.ie )

[1] An earlier version of this talk was given to the Old Dublin Society and published in the Dublin Historical Record , LXIII, no.1, Spring 2010, pp.29-38.

[2] Antony Clayton, ‘The character of the coffee house’ in Tea and coffee in the age of Dr Johnson London, Dr Johnson’s House Trust, 2008, p.15. Ellis Markham, The coffee house: a cultural history, London, Phoenix, 2004, pp 29-30.

[3] William Boyne, Trade tokens issued in the seventeenth century in England, Wales and Ireland, London, 1889, p.1382

[4] The Tholsel or City Hall, the mayor, aldermen and common council of the city met there. It was also used for meetings of citizens. It had a public clock set up in 1560.

[5] M. Pollard, A Dictionary of members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, London, Bibliographical Society, 2000; Gilbert, iii, p.39, 98.

[6] Gilbert, I, pp. 169-171.

[7] Robert Pool and John Cash, Views of the most remarkable public buildings, monuments and edifices in the city of Dublin, Dublin, 1780, p.48.

[8] Markham Ellis, The coffee-house: a cultural history, London, Phoenix, 2004, pp 63-68.

[9] John T. Gilbert, A History of the City of Dublin, 3 vols (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan reprint, 1978), II, p.161.

[10] Gilbert, I, pp 172-173.

[11] John Dunton, The Dublin Scuffle (London, printed for the author, 1699), pp.327-328.

[12] Gilbert, History of Dublin, I, p.174.

[13] M. Pollard, A Dictionary of members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, London, Bibliographical Society, 2000.

[14] Dublin Daily Advertiser 4 February 1736-7.

[15] Gilbert, History of Dublin, II, p.23. It was not until 1767 that it got its own premises in Grafton St.

[16] Gilbert, History of Dublin, I, p.174.

[17] Gilbert, History of Dublin, II, pp 161-2.

[18] Gilbert, History of Dublin, II, p. 162.

[19] Lloyd ran a number of successful coffee houses including the Oxmantown Coffee House in Church Street in the first decade of the eighteenth century. He was in partnership with Richard Pue from 1703 to 1706, he took over The Union Coffee House on Cork Hill from the bookseller Francis Dickson in 1709, and ran it as Lloyd’s until 1714. Dickson continued to use the Union Coffee House address in his imprints after he had let the coffee house to Edward Lloyd.

[20] Clayton, ‘The character of the coffee house’, p.18.


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