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The Oxford Coffee Club

Two portraits of Sir Robert Boyle, one of the founding members of the Oxford Coffee Club

Students in seventeenth century England were, like today, frequent travelers and members of the avant-garde, always ready to try something new and not afraid to endorse products while the rest of the country remained sceptical. It was in this way that coffee arrived in England.

It was a foreign student, Nathaniel Conopios from Crete, who became the first person in recorded history to prepare and serve coffee in England. Studying at Balliol College, Oxford, the simple act was recorded by two independent contemporary sources, the scholar John Evelyn in his diary dated May 1637, and the Oxford historian Anthony Wood. Although shortly afterwards Conopios was expelled, his brief time at the college initiated the widespread use of coffee throughout the University.

The same Anthony Wood documents the arrival of the first coffee house known to the Western world. In 1650, a Lebanese Jew set up a coffeehouse in Oxford, known as the Angel. Although Jacob moved to London to repeat the achievement a few years later, he had begun a trend that saw many more coffeehouses open in Oxford during that decade. The Oxford University administrators tried, over many years and without success, to curtail the use of the coffeehouses, but coffee's popularity continued to grow.

In 1655, a gathering of students and Fellows persuaded a gentleman called Arthur Tillyard, an apothecary, to prepare and sell coffee for their consumption. Tillyard's coffeehouse became a meeting point for the group, who became known as the Oxford Coffee Club. Oxford's leading scientists and their students would meet to discuss their theories and research, and share ideas, including the legendary chemist Sir Robert Boyle.  This rapidly expanding informal confraternity was to evolve into the world famous Royal Society, which to this day is one of the leading scientific societies in the world.

Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A history of the Coffee-Houses, Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1956.

Images used without permission from the following sources (left to right):
Portrait of Sir Robert Boyle                  
Portrait based on marble bust at Richmond
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