22 March 2024

How Jewish immigrants
in 17th century Oxford
established the first
coffee houses in England

In search of England’s oldest coffeehouse in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks and months, I have found myself in search of the oldest coffeehouse, and in my quest I have found little grains of both English and European history, and of Jewish history too.

Last month, Charlotte and I visited Café Le Procope, dating from 1686 and regarded as the oldest operating café in Paris. In Venice last summer, of course we had coffee in Caffé Florian facing onto Saint Mark’s Square, which first opened in 1720.

The writer Geert Mak once said, ‘Without coffeehouse there is no Vienna. Without Vienna, there is no coffeehouses.’ Vienna’s much-vaunted coffeehouses date from 1683. When the Turks were compelled to interrupt the siege of Vienna that year, they left some sacks of coffee under the city walls.

And so began the Viennese passion for coffee, with the first coffeehouse, Zur Blauen Flasche, opening that same year.

Café Frauenhuber claims to be Vienna’s oldest coffeehouse and that Mozart and Beethoven played table music for the guests. Yet, Café Frauenhuber first started serving coffee just 200 years ago, in 1824.

‘We are the longest est[ablished] coffee house in Europe since 1654’ … a boast in the Queen’s Lane Coffee House in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Whether in Paris, Venice or Vienna, all these coffeehouses long predate Bewley’s on Grafton Street, which we feel compelled to visit each time we are back in Dublin. Indeed, all these cafés are new arrivals compared to the Jamaica Wine House in Saint Michael’s Alley in Cornhill in London. The Jamaica Wine House, also known as the Jampot, opened in 1652, making it the first coffeehouse in London. It was initially known as Pasqua Rosee’s Head or the Turk’s Head, although Pasqua Rosee was of Greek origin and his coffee was imported from Turkey.

So, where is Europe’s oldest coffee house?

And what qualifies as ‘oldest’ when it comes to boasts such as these?

‘The High Street is one of the world's great streets. It has everything’ … outside the Grand Café in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, writing about Oxford, said ‘The High Street is one of the world's great streets. It has everything.’ And so I found myself searching for England’s – and Europe’s – oldest coffee shop in Oxford.

Gianfrancesco Morosini – whose family gave their name to the Morosini Fountain in Lion Square in Iraklion, Crete – first brought coffee to the attention of Venetians in 1585. He reported how the Turks had developed a taste for drinking ‘a black water, boiled up as hot as they could bear it, which is distilled from a seed called kahvé and which they say has the property of making a man stay awake.’

By the mid-17th century, coffee was being sold in Venice as a medicine, and the first coffeehouse beyond the Levant opened in Venice in 1647. Caffé Florian on Saint Mark’s Square did not open until 29 December 1720, yet it claims to be ‘the first real café in Europe.’

Meanwhile, Jewish people were resettling in England from the 1650s, and some of these people also had an interest in the coffee trade. On a recent day in Oxford, I visited two coffee shops that claim to be the oldest coffeehouses in England – if not in Europe – and that are also part of Jewish history.

‘Jacob the Jew’ from Lebanon opened the first coffeehouse in England at the Angel Inn on the High Street in Oxford in 1650 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Many of the new Jewish immigrants arriving in England in the mid-17th century came from the Levant and other parts of the Ottoman Empire and the East Mediterranean. One of those immigrants, ‘Jacob the Jew’ from Lebanon, is said to have opened the very first coffeehouse in England at the Angel Inn on the High Street in Oxford in 1650.

Jacob’s coffeehouse in Oxford is believed to have been the first European coffeehouse after Venice, and the Grand Café on now stands on the site on the High. According to the diarist Samuel Pepys and other sources, Jacob opened his coffeehouse in Oxford in 1650. Anthony à Wood, the Oxford antiquarian, records that ‘Jacob the Jew opened a coffey house at the Angel’ in Oxford in 1651, ‘and there it was by some, who delighted in noveltie, drank.’

Some years later, across the street, Cirques Jobson, a Jewish merchant from the Levant or Syria, opened the Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1654. Anthony à Wood records Cirques Jobson sold coffee ‘in a house between Edmund Hall and Queen College Corner’ – the site of today’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House. It claims to be the oldest coffeehouse to continually serve coffee in Europe.

Wood also names Arthur Tillyard, ‘an apothecary and great royallist’, who in 1656 ‘sold coffey publickly in his house against All Souls College.’ Tillyard’s coffeehouse continued trading after 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. At the end of that year, Pepys first visited a coffeehouse in Cornhill in London in December 1660. When Jacob left Oxford and moved to London, he sold coffee in the Old Southampton buildings in Holborn, London, and he was still living in 1671, according to Wood.

Inside the Grand Café in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Coffeehouses in England became melting pots of independent thinking and political debate from the mid-17th century, and were known as ‘penny universities’ – a penny was the price of a coffee, with unlimited refills and a newspaper to read.

The coffeehouses were soon identified with egalitarian and republican politics. Charles II considered banning them in 1675, claiming that ‘by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.’

In the face of a public outcry, the king relented after two weeks. But the popularity of coffeehouses began to decline in the 18th century, as tea became more popular and as exclusive gentlemen’s clubs began to develop.

The site of Jacob’s coffeehouse in Oxford has had many uses over the years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Over the years, the site of Jacob’s coffeehouse in Oxford has been an inn, an hotel, a grocer’s shop, a co-op and a post office, and the Grand Café as it is now opened in the mid-1990s. The earliest records of the site date from 1391, when an inn called ‘Tabord’ was leased by Saint John’s Hospital, which stood on the site of Magdalen College. The inn was extended and expanded in 1510, and renamed the Angel, becoming an important coaching inn.

The Angel Inn remained after Jacob moved to London. In the 18th century, 10 coaches left there for London at 8 am each morning. The guests at the Angel included Christian II of Denmark in 1768 and Queen Adelaide in 1835. When the hotel closed in 1866, the lease passed to Frances Thomas Cooper, a shopkeeper who sublet No 83 and ran a grocery business from No 84.

When Frank Cooper inherited the business in 1867, he expanded the shop, combining No 83 and No 84, and Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade became a top-selling brand. The shop at No 84 remained open until 1919. Twinings, who once had eight shops in Oxford, ran the shop until 1939, followed by Pritchard ironmongers for two years.

The Co-op moved in with a general store and café in 1945, followed by the Post Office. Cooper’s returned with a shop and museum in 1984, showcasing their celebrated marmalade. The English Teddy Bear Company was then in the building from 1990 until 1997.

The present Grand Café opened in 1997, returning the premises to its days as a coffeehouse. Today, the Grand Café on the High is an elegant Oxford institution, housed in the Grade II listed building at No 84. The sign outside boats: ‘The Grand Café, the first Coffee House in England, 1650.’

Queen’s Lane Coffee House claims to be the oldest continually serving coffeehouse in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Across the street at No 40, Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the corner of the High Street and Queen’s Lane is also a Grade II listed building. It too claims to be the oldest continually serving coffeehouse in Europe.

Signs on the walls boast:

‘We are the longest est[ablished] coffee house in Europe since 1654.’

‘From here in 1654 Cirques Jobson is said to have started selling a new drink called coffee.’


‘We are the oldest est[ablished] coffee house in Europe since 1654 until forever after.’

But how does one determine which is the oldest coffeehouse?

Is the date of a coffeehouse first opening its doors the only factor?

Must there be continuity and uninterrupted business?

Must the business have always been on the same premises?

I suppose I shall just have to return to Oxford and both Queen’s Lane Coffee House and the Grand Café on the High and ponder those dilemmas … again, and again.

Shabbat Shalom

Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the corner of the High Street and Queen’s Lane in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
38, 22 March 2024,
Saint Gilbert of Sempringham

The seal of the Master of Sempringham, depicting Saint Gilbert

Patrick Comerford

Passiontide – the last two weeks of Lent – began last Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Lent V), also known as Passion Sunday (17 March 2024).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in Common Worship.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks for life and love, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

When Saint Gilbert died in 1189 at the age of 106, there were nine double monasteries in England

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 38, Saint Gilbert of Sempringham

Saint Gilbert of Sempringham (1189), founder of Gilbertine Order, is remembered in Common Worship on 4 February.

Gilbert was born in 1083 in Sempringham, near Bourne, in Lincolnshire, the son of the squire, and became the parish priest in 1131. He encouraged the vocation of seven women of the town and formed them into a company of lay sisters. A group of lay brothers was also formed and they all kept the Benedictine Rule.

Gilbert was unsuccessful in his bid to obtain pastoral guidance from Cîteaux for the incipient communities and they came under the ambit of Augustinian canons, with Gilbert becoming the Master.

At Gilbert’s death in 1189, aged 106, there were nine double monasteries in England and four of male canons only. It was the only purely English monastic foundation before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century.

Saint Gilbert of Sempringham depicted at Brothertoft, near Boston, Lincolnshire (Photograph: Dave Hitchborne / CC BY-SA 2.0

John 10: 31-42 (NRSVA):

31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ 33 The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods” – and the scripture cannot be annulled – 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ 39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. 40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. 41 Many came to him, and they were saying, ‘John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.’ 42 And many believed in him there.

The Gothic ruins of 18th century Saint Andrew’s Church, on the site of a 13th century Gilbertine church (1205-1215) in Bishopthorpe, near York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 22 March 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: True repentance is the key to Christian Freedom.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Simon Ro, Dean of Graduate School of Theology at Sungkonghoe (Anglican) University, Seoul, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (22 March 2024, World Water Day) invites us to pray in these words:

Oh Lord, giver of all. We pray for fresh, clean water for all people around the world. Guide us to use your water wisely and well, ensuring that all your creation can share in your provision.

The Collect:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us
that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters
we do also for you:
give us the will to be the servant of others
as you were the servant of all,
and gave up your life and died for us,
but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Saint Thomas Becket

Tomorrow: Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org