London Coffee houses and mathematics


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For those who do not know of the tradition of teaching mathematics in the coffee houses of London, the title of this topic may come as a surprise. Certainly those who frequent the coffee houses of London today will realise that the tradition has not survived. However before making explicit mention of mathematics in the coffee houses, let us briefly look at the tradition of coffee drinking in London.

As one might expect there is little agreement about when coffee drinking began in England. Antony Wood writes in Athenae Oxonienses (1691) that the first coffee house opened in Oxford:-

Jacob, a Jew, opened a Coffee house at the Angel, in the Parish of St Peter in the East, Oxon, and there it was by some, who delighted in the novelty, drank.

Certainly shortly after this coffee houses began to open in London. By 1663 it is recorded that there were 82 coffee houses in London. The popularity of these establishments led to certain opposition. For example 'The Women's Petition Against Coffee' was set up and it claimed in 1674 that coffee:-

... made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence the unhappy berry is said to be brought.

In the following year King Charles II tried to rid London of its coffee houses with an edict [5]:-

Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of coffee houses of late years set up and kept within this kingdom, the dominion of Wales and the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the great resort of idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects, as well as that many tradesmen and others do therein misspend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be employed in and about their lawful callings and affairs, but also for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meeting of such persons therein, many false, malicious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad, to the deformation of his Majesty's government and to the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the realm, his Majesty has thought it fit and necessary that the said coffee houses be for the future put down and suppressed.

The edict went on to ban the sale of coffee, chocolate, sherbet and tea in coffee houses or private homes. The outcry was such that Charles decided to back off and no further mention was made of his edict.

Different coffee houses acted as the meeting place for different groups of people. In fact many people would give a particular coffee house as the address where they might be contacted. For example Child's Coffee House near Gresham College, was frequented by the clergy. Lloyd's Coffee House, founded by Edward Lloyd of Tower street in the 1680s, had ship owners and merchants as customers and acted as a hub through which news about ships was passed. It moved to Lombard Street in 1692 and eventually moved into insurance and became Lloyd's of London.

You can see Lloyd's Coffee House and the Grecian Coffee House

The Grecian, as the name might suggest, attracted those interested in philosophy and other academic disciplines. Macaulay wrote:-

Those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lance, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow.

The second coffee house mentioned in this quote is the Rainbow, the second oldest coffee house in London, opened by James Farr in Fleet Street in 1657.

Another quote by one who frequented the Grecian is the following:-

While other parts of the town are amused with the present actions, we generally spend the evening at this table in inquiries into antiquity, and think anything news which gives us new knowledge.

In Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C Shelley one reads [4]:-

Men of science as well as scholars gave liberal patronage to the Grecian. It was a common thing for meetings of the Royal Society to be continued in a social way at this coffee-house, the president, Sir Isaac Newton, being frequently of the parties. Hither, too, came Professor Halley, the great astronomer, to meet his friends on his weekly visit to London from Oxford ...

So one of the gentlemen one might find in the Grecian Coffee House was Isaac Newton, where sometimes he met de Moivre.

Jonathan's Coffee House, in Exchange Alley, had merchants as customers and is now considered as developing into the London Stock Exchange. Hooke and Wren were often in Jonathan's taking part in scientific discussions.

Talking of Newton, de Moivre, Hooke and Wren brings us back to our main topic of mathematics in the coffee houses of London. First let us quote from a play by Thomas Sydserf called Tarugo's Wiles, or, The Coffee House. A Comedy. In Act 3 there is a conversation between two coffee house customers:-

Customer 1: I'm told Sir, that coffee inspires a man in the mathematics.

Customer 2: So far as it keeps one from sleep, which you know is the ready way to distract, consequently the improvement of the mathematics.

Not only were the coffee houses meeting places but lectures were given in them. These were not just impromptu lectures given in the course of discussion, but rather were properly advertised and usually not one off lectures but rather extended lecture series. Because of this educational function coffee houses were often called the Penny Universities - the name arising since they charged an entrance fee of a penny.

Daniel Button owned Button's Coffee House, situated in Russell Street, Covent Garden. This coffee house had many literary customers and in particular Richard Steele who used it as an office for the Guardian which he began to publish in 1713. Steele placed an advertisement for a course of lectures in Button's Coffee House:-

Beginning January 11, 1713-14, a course of philosophical lectures on mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, ... . This course of experiments is to be performed by Mr William Whiston and Francis Hauksbee ...

Whiston, however, was not universally popular as a lecturer because he would stray off his mathematical topic to make religious comments. Henry Newman wrote a letter to Richard Steele on 10 August 1713 (see for example [1]):-

I thank you for your kindness to Mr Whiston as it is a charity not only to him but to the public in putting him upon an amusement which may divert him from those studies that have made him so obnoxious to the reproach of good men. I gave him notice immediately of your favour and suppose he will wait upon you for your commands. I only beg leave to suggest one thing to you when he does, because it will come with more authority from you than perhaps any man in the kingdom beside, and that is that you will be pleased to conjure him silence upon all topics foreign to the mathematics in his conversation or lectures at your coffee house. He has an itch to be venting his notions about baptism and the Arian doctrine but your authority can restrain him at least whilst he is under you guardianship.

Perhaps it is worth a note to explain for anyone who does not know 'the Arian doctrine'. It is a Christian heresy first proposed early in the 4th century by the Alexandrian Arius which, based on a study of the Bible, stated the belief that Jesus was more than man, but less than God. In other words Arians do not believe in the identification of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, so they do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Whiston was an Arian an prone to make his views known in the coffee houses. Newton was also an Arian, but for fear that he would be dismissed (or worse) did not make his Arian views public.

Another frequent customer of Button's Coffee House was John Arbuthnot who wrote many popular pamphlets. He would sometimes end letters with:-

From a sparkish pamphleteer of Button's Coffee House.

You can see Slaughter's Coffee House

Slaughter's Coffee House in St Martin's Lane was established in 1692. It was famed as a centre for chess players but it was also a popular place for those seeking mathematical advice. Abraham de Moivre was considered the resident mathematician at Slaughter's. He would give advice on risk, or chance of loss as he called it. It was a way to make a little money, as was chess playing where de Moivre would play for money. In Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C Shelley writes [4]:-

Among the earliest coffee-houses to be established in the West-end of London was that opened by Thomas Slaughter in St Martin's Lane in 1692 and known as Slaughter's. It remained under the oversight of Mr Slaughter until his death in 1740, and continued to enjoy a prosperous career for nearly a century longer, when the house was torn down. The bulk of its customers were artists, and the famous men numbered among them included Wilkie, Wilson, and Roubiliac. But the most pathetic figure associated with its history is that of Abraham De Moivre, that French mathematician who became the friend of Newton and Leibniz. Notwithstanding his wonderful abilities he was driven to support himself by the meagre pittances earned by teaching and by solving problems in chess at Slaughter's. In his last days sight and hearing both failed, and he finally died of somnolence, twenty hours' sleep becoming habitual with him. By the time of De Moivre's death, or shortly after, the character of the frequenters of Slaughter's underwent a change ...

Finally let us look at another mathematics lecture course given in a London coffee house, but this time by someone slightly less well-known. John Harris was born around 1666 and graduated from Oxford University twenty years later. He wrote:-

Lectures were here read in experimental philosophy and chemistry and a very tolerable course of mathematics taught, then [I was given] leave to teach mathematics.

Harris gave a mathematics and astronomy lecture course at the Marine Coffee House in Birchin Lane. This was not a one off event but given every year between 1698 and 1704. He even produced a book, in some ways the textbook to supplement his course, which he published in 1703 called Description and Uses of the Celestial and Terrestrial Globes and of Collins' Pocket Quadrant.

References (5 books/articles)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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JOC/EFR March 2006

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