Dickens, Johnson and Pepys must have spent a great deal of time inebriated, as every old London pub seems to claim them as a patron (there’s a drinking game in there somewhere). The Jamaica Wine House is no exception – Pepys is thought to have been a customer.
This fine sign is suspended above St Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill in the City of London, making it marginally easier to find this tucked-away drinking den. Now called the Jamaica Wine House (though better known for selling beer), it’s also known as the Jam Pot, and was built on the site of the Jamaica Coffee House, previously known as Pasque Rosee’s Head, or sometimes as the Turk’s Head. Do keep up.
Pleasingly dark, creepy and wood-panelled, the current building is Victorian, built in 1869 and Grade II listed. It is on the site of the Jamaica Coffee House, built after the fire of London. The original coffee house was opened before the fire, in 1652, by Pasque Rosee, who is variously recorded as being Armenian, an Italian-born Greek or Turkish.
The first London coffee house
Rosee was a servant to Daniel Edwards, a merchant; they met while working in the Ottoman Empire. When they came to London, Rosee’s coffee was so liked by Daniel’s family and friends that Daniel helped Rosee to set up a stall in a shed in the churchyard of St Michael’s, under a sign of Rosee’s head. This is said to be the first coffee shop in England (a claim made in a Royal Society report in 1699), though some say that glory belongs to a Jewish man named Jacob, with a coffee shop in Oxford opened in 1650.
Keen to educate the London public in this new art of coffee drinking, Rosee promoted the product with a handbill, claiming it had medicinal properties that could help sore eyes, coughs, dropsy, gout and scurvy, and that it would prevent miscarriages and drowsiness.
The coffee was so popular that it angered local alehouse keepers who saw Rosee’s business as a threat. They protested against him on the grounds that he wasn’t a freeman of the City, sending a petition to the Lord Mayor to stop Rosee trading. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? These immigrants come over here, they open historic coffee shops …. The challenge was overcome by forming a business partnership with Daniel’s father-in-law’s coachman, who was a freeman of the City. In 1656 they were able to move to a building on the current site of the Jamaica Wine House, just 27 feet deep and 19 feet wide, at an annual rent of £4.
Between 1674 and 1680, the coffee shop became the Jamaica Coffee House, serving business people with interests in Jamaica and the British West Indies. It seems that Rosee was later obliged to leave the country as a result of an unexplained misdemeanour. His story lived on, and his character and coffee were featured in plays and popular street poems, making fun of his foreign accent and poor English (English was probably his third language, after Greek and Turkish).
His legacy was a new type of business which spread all over the country. London’s coffee houses were known as great meeting places to share news, discuss business, debate politics, write and exchange ideas. And, of course, they still thrive today. Drink to Pasque Rosee in the Jamaica Wine House, and remember him next time you pop in to a café for coffee.