The Old Coffee House, Beak Street. They still sell coffee.

Under a brooding afternoon sky I found myself on foot in Soho, all too aware that a downpour was imminent. I was in Warwick Street and had just paid a fleeting visit to the beautiful, intimate church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, one of those strangely ‘out of the way’ buildings that central London has such a wealth of. It was as I left that the first big, fat drops of rain started to fall, so I quickened my step and was soon in Beak Street and within sight of the Old Coffee House, which promised sanctuary of a different kind.

Firstly I should perhaps declare that I know this cluttered and charming old place very well. For a few years of my life, while working as a staff journalist in the ‘features’ department of Oracle Teletext just around the corner in Carnaby Street, the Old Coffee House was just one of half a dozen or so pubs frequented by the office rank and file. Or at least by the journalists.

For despite its name the Old Coffee House is every inch a pub. What’s more it’s a great pub, an old style Soho boozer with an eccentric air of its very own that appears to be in no way contrived. It also boasts a history laced in irony, a history you might like to ponder on as you sip your pint of Brodie’s Bethnal Green bitter.

As long as there have been people who wanted to drink there have been people who wanted to stop them. The temperance movement in this country was probably at its height in the early and mid 19thCentury. It was well organised and at times it was well financed. It also attracted some surprising converts.


The sign of the Old Coffee House, Soho.

In 1869, for instance, Frederick Nicholas Charrington, 19 and a member of the Charrington brewing dynasty, witnessed an alcohol-fuelled argument between a husband and wife outside an East End pub. The wife, with three young children in tow, had begged her husband for money to buy food. The husband answered her plea by pushing her into the gutter before heading into the aforementioned pub. To the horror of Charrington, already deeply effected by what he had witnessed, when he looked towards the hostelry concerned it was his family name emblazoned above the door. From that day on he was a leading light in the temperance movement, also choosing to forgo both his inheritance and the demon booze.

The temperance movement worked in a variety of ways and were voluble campaigners who knew how to work the media of the day. And while they often resorted to direct action – they liked to march, they loved to preach – they could be quite sophisticated when they put their mind to it, which is where the Old Coffee House comes into the story.

For many years the movement had operated coffee shops, welcoming places of refreshment that offered nourishment for both body and soul. These establishments also offered an alternative to the bawdy delights of the public house. Many years later, in a move which probably seemed very clever at the time but in hindsight now looks like a really bad idea, they opened a number of temperance pubs. These places looked like pubs and were run along the same lines as pubs. They were glitzy and opulent where glitz and opulence were appropriate, down to earth and homely where a more basic approach were needed. The big difference, of course, was that no alcohol was sold. On offer instead were cordials, hot beverages and such alcohol-free delights as Anti-Burton, which was probably as disgusting as it sounds.

But as the temperance movement started to wane, for a variety of reasons I’ll not dwell on here, so these temperance cafes and pubs started to struggle. And the real irony, sweet for those who didn’t like being preached at but cruel for those doing the preaching, was that the obvious fate for some of these establishments was to become pubs. Proper pubs. Real pubs. Serving real beer. Proper beer. The Old Coffee House is such a case.

The exact date when the Old Coffee House was built is unclear, as is the moment when cups of coffee were replaced by pints of porter, but as a tavern it is Victorian in heritage. What is certain is that today you’ll find a homely and slightly scruffy boozer that hosts a mixture of Soho media types and locals. On my recent visit I watched an elderly couple arrive to eat a late lunch. They were on first name terms with the staff behind the bar, who ensured that a table was available for them. If I had to guess I’d say the couple concerned were from one of the council blocks in nearby Marshall Street. There aren’t many pubs in Soho today that engage with the local community, but it appears that the Old Coffee House does.

And then there is the beer, or at least the range of ales. They hail from Brodie’s, a microbrewery based in Leyton, east London that has been knocking out splendid ales since 2008. There were five on the go when I visited and my pint of Bethnal Green bitter, golden in colour and dry on the tongue, was in tip-top condition. Indeed given the quality of ale, and the fact this is a distinctly traditional boozer in a part of town sorely lacking in that department, I’m even prepared to turn a blind eye to the sometimes surly bar service.

And for the record, the Old Coffee House still sells coffee.