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A Local Institution

The cellar of an 18th-century coffeehouse has been unearthed in Cambridge, revealing a dynamic social venue

Marley Brown
WILLIAM AND JANE CLAPHAM wed on December 15, 1746, and departed their native Essex for the prestigious university town of Cambridge. There, in 1748, they opened a coffeehouse called, appropriately, Clapham’s, and ran it until at least 1762. The remains of Clapham’s have recently been discovered by archaeologists and they are offering a new perspective on a time when British coffeehouses, like British society, were changing.

Researchers are discovering that Clapham’s was a versatile venue, filling a variety of social and gustatory needs. In addition to hot beverages, including coffee, chocolate, and tea, patrons could enjoy small bites and substantial meals or let off steam throughout the evening with ale, wine, liqueurs, and fancy desserts. The variety of food and drink available at Clapham’s is reflected in fragments from hundreds of serving dishes, storage bowls, bottles, glasses, and coffee and tea cups of every size, as well as numerous animal remains. While many of these items are also commonly associated with taverns from the same period, slight differences distinguish Clapham’s as a coffeehouse and are key to understanding its unique place in the community’s social life.

The historical record is laden with references to coffeehouses in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. In 1755’s A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined them succinctly as houses “of entertainment where coffee is sold, and the guests are supplied with newspapers.” The beverage itself originated on the Arabian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages and spread across the Ottoman Empire to Europe, arriving in England by the early 1600s. For over 200 years, coffee was almost exclusively consumed in coffeehouses, which reached peak popularity between the late seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries.

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September/October 2018