On Tuesday 21st April Sheffield’s ‘Union Street Work Space’ was hurtled back to the eighteenth century for an evening of coffee, culture and conversation. The charity event, presented by Dr Adam James Smith and Twin Café, saw speakers discuss the eighteenth century Coffee House from a fascinating range of perspectives whilst the audience were served speciality coffee grown in Esteli, Sheffield’s twin city in Nicaragua.
The evening was opened with the first public screening of a short film that Adam made last year with the support of the University of Sheffield’s ‘Arts Enterprise’ and Sheffield film-maker Gemma Thorpe. The film, which can be viewed by clicking here, titled simply ‘The Coffee House’, suggested that coffee shops today owe a significant debt to their eighteenth-century predecessors. It also set up a key question that would be addressed repeatedly throughout the evening: was the eighteenth-century coffee house really the polite sanctuary of enlightened conversation that it reported itself as, or was this a myth propagated by an entrepreneurial coffee culture that still persists to this day?
The film was followed by two papers, each presented by PhD students in the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. First, Kate Davison treated the audience to a series of accounts penned by satirical writer and publican Ned Ward: a man who knew more than a little about the London scene during the eighteenth century. Kate was the first of the evening’s speakers to suggest that the story of the coffee house wasn’t necessary one of politeness and civility, a point then picked up by Anna Jenkin, who set out to shed some light on the ‘dark side of the coffee house.’ Anna shared the blood-chilling case of Sarah Malcom, a woman charged with murder and demonised by the very print culture of that pervaded the coffee house.
After a short coffee break the evening resumed with a reading of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, performed Carly Stevenson, a PhD student in the University of Sheffield’s School of English and the director of Sheffield’s Poetry Reading Group. Carly was followed by Sam Longhurst, a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies. Sam’s paper, ‘The Eighteenth-Century Coffee House and the Invention of Clubbing’, sadly wasn’t about ‘men in wigs twerking on the dance floor’ but it did succeed in more than delivered on its tantalising title.
The penultimate paper saw Richard Gough Thomas, a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, once again troubling the notion idea of the politeness of the coffee house, before Adam returned to close with a paper surveying the remarkable consistency with which the coffee house has been portrayed in literature over the past three hundred years.
Adam concluded that although the coffee house might not have been quite the enlightened hub of culture reported by the periodical writers of the early eighteenth century, but in penning this imagined coffee house these writers created a legacy that still survives today. What these coffee shops also did, and what they continue to do today, is provide a space for communities. The coffee house remains a place for people to be with other people and that alone is worth celebrating, especially when the coffee house can be utilised as a force for good, as it is by Twin Café and their charitable ambitions.
Find out more at https://storify.com/elementaladam/coffee-culture-and-conversation-in-the-18th-centur
This post copyright © Adam Smith, 2015.