A Brief History of Coffee in Leeds

Two coffee venues feature as entries on the Edible Leeds heritage trail, at numbers 4 and 20. Librarian Antony Ramm offers a very brief overview of those locations, bringing the story up to date with a more modern addition…

  1. Thomas Green’s Coffee House

We at the Secret Library don’t know exactly when the first coffee house in Leeds opened (do write in if you know), so we start this story in what could, in fact, be its middle – with the 19th-century coffee house. Such coffee and cocoa houses were increasingly popular in Leeds during the 19th-century, with their popularity peaking around the 1880s. These establishments – between a smaller café and the larger hotels or inns – served food as well as drinks; one well-known venue in its time was the Leeds Coffee House where, from the 1840s, businessmen could dine on chops, full dinners, coffee and beers. Originally known as Philip Clarke’s Leeds Coffee house, it was taken over by Thomas Green in 1849, but sadly demolished in 1867 when Boar Lane was widened.

1845. This 1845 sketch shows the Leeds Coffee House, prop: Mr Thomas Green. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

2. Schofield’s Espresso Bar

Not generally remembered for its innovations in the world of caffeine, the café restaurant in Schofield’s department store is our second entry in this very brief history– you can see Schofields store on the screen now, dated 1949.

18th December 1949. View of Schofields Department Store from the Headrow, just to the right of the Victoria Arcade. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

While this café – which seems to have been based in the King’s Chamber of the 17th-century Red Hall, which had been purchased by Schofield and incorporated into his growing shopping complex in 1912 – is no doubt fondly-remembered and important, perhaps, as a prime example of the department store cafes that were such a big part of the Leeds food & drink scene during what we might call the short 20th-century – it truly earns its place in this brief history because of a rather surprising fact.

And that’s that Schofield’s café was – at least according to Shop magazine, which we have copies of in our local history collections – the site of the first Espresso coffee bar in Leeds, which opened in 1954. The relevant magazine article can be seen below and explains how the Schofields store was “always striving to be ahead in their field”, leading to the arrival of the Espresso machine in a corner of the store restaurant. It also explains just how quick the installation process was – completed within 24-hours from the store closing on Saturday on 6pm.

Article taken from the September 1954 issue of Shop magazine and proudly announcing Leeds’ first Espresso Coffee Bar

This is really interesting, for a couple of reasons: first, it tells us something about Leeds in the 1950s, provides an extra detail that flags up the perhaps surprisingly cosmopolitan nature of the city centre during the post-war era (there’s a really interesting paragraph in Martin Smith’s book Signs of My Times: A Life with Deaf People, where he describes Leeds as being “vibrant” when he arrived in 1957, noting specifically that “the espresso coffee bars were well established”), and also draws attention to the slightly inexpressible way small changes to the quotidian experience, the grain of everyday life, slowly change both the meanings attached to specific places and the identities of the people who experience those spaces. How did it affect the way people thought about Leeds knowing it now had a shiny Espresso machine, a symbol of European luxury and taste?

3. Opposite Coffee

Leeds is, of course, now a leading city in what’s called the ‘third wave’ coffee sector. By that is meant a focus on speciality coffee, particularly brewing it to a high quality with craft and skill, as well as a consideration for the provenance and ethical fairness of the coffee beans themselves. Leeds’ first third-wave coffee shop is usually said to be Opposite coffee, based at Blenheim Terrace, which was opened by Lou Henry in 2005 and based literally – as the name suggests – opposite the University of Leeds; below is a really nice sketch of that coffee house from the Independent Leeds magazine in 2017.

(c) Independent Leeds

There was also a spin-off in the Victoria Quarter for a while, opening in 2009, but sadly since shut – below is a rather rather arty shot of that sister venue.

(c) Saul Studios

The other leading independent coffee shops in the city centre – including Layne’s, La Bottega Milanese, Kapow!, If, Mrs. Atha’s, and more – have followed the path laid by Opposite; indeed Dave Olejnik, the owner of Layne’s, usually cited as Leeds’ best third-wave coffee shop, first became properly interested in coffee while working for Lou Henry at Opposite.

(c) Saul Studios

The book below, Coffee Shop North, where the last two images were taken from, is a great guide to the modern coffee scene in Leeds – albeit now a few years out of date, and recently supplemented with a Leeds-specific volume.

(c) Saul Studios

Update: just days after the publication of this article, the author came across a reference to an 18th-century coffee house in Leeds – connected to The Theatre on Hunslet Lane (see illustration below).

(c) Leeds Libraries

This ‘Theatre Coffee-House’ is mentioned on contemporary playbills from the time, including the one seen below from 1795. You can find more historical Leeds playbills on our Leodis website.

(c) Leeds Libraries, http://www.leodis.net

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan says:

    Interesting to read about coffee shops from previous years and see the photos of some

  2. Michael Oates says:

    I’ve been doing extensive research of Leeds for the past decade and the earliest coffee house I’ve found is Edward Oates’ Commercial Coffee House in 1828 on page 1019) – https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Pigot_and_co_s_national_commercial_direc/hdMHAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22Sedman+%26+Weddill%22+leeds&pg=PA1016&printsec=frontcover

    1. Thanks Michael – that’s fascinating! We’d not come across that one in secondary sources as yet, but we may well investigate further and do a follow-up article.

      Cheers, Antony
      Leeds Central Library

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