Time for Coffee: Longitude and coffeehouse culture

One of my favourite parts of Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude exhibition is the evocation of an 18th-century coffeehouse. You can hear longitude enthusiasts lamenting the problems they’re having with their solutions, or asking Mrs Pike for a bit more coffee. According to Seb Falk in his recent review of the exhibition, ‘the sound of re-enacted discussions and the room’s decoration incorporating contemporary cartoons effectively re-creates the atmosphere of excitement around the problem.’ The decades following the 1714 Act were awash with competing proposals and projects. Schemes were widely discussed and judged in public. Longitude was written about in the popular press, discussed at the Royal Society, and talked about in London’s fashionable coffee-houses. Finding longitude was generally judged a fool’s quest or a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. Like the search for eternal life or perpetual motion, it was an easy target for satire. One of my favourite ‘solutions’ to the Longitude problem is the Powder of sympathy. In the Longitude mini-series, Stephen Fry plays the longitude projector presenting his solution, which involved wounding a dog before placing it on a ship, and at set times those on shore would plunge the dog’s bloodied bandage into the powder causing the dog onboard the ship to yelp in pain. Despite being presented as a real solution in the film, however, this was in fact a satire of the other longitude projectors who were discussing their solutions in the coffeehouses. On Thursday 23 October, inspired by the coffeehouse in the exhibition, we will transport you back to an 18th-century coffeehouse, with a little help from Top of the Pops of London's Baroque, The Frolick. Dr Matthew Green, coffee house historian, will be on hand to tell the story of how this “bitter Mohammedan gruel” transformed the face of the city, brought people together, and inspired brilliant ideas that made the modern, enlightened world. You’ll even have the opportunity to taste some of the “newfangled abominable heathenish liquor called COFFEE” that 18th-century women complained had reduced their men to effeminate gossipers. Additional shots of Curator of art, Dr Katy Barrett, will take a satirical look at Georgian society, from Hogarth’s infamous inclusion of a ‘longitude lunatic’ in his image of Bedlam in A Rake’s Progress, to how subsequent satirists picked up his ideas in graphic and literary satires that used longitude and latitude lines to mark the boundaries between political parties, or used scientific instruments to advise men and women how to ‘keep within compass’ in society. Image cropped and Photoshopped And if you’re sick of ‘keeping within compass’, meet Mother Clapp, who ran one of the most famous molly houses in Georgian London. The 18th-century saw the first emergence of a gay subculture which was reflected in the rise of the molly houses throughout London. These were the sites of ‘coming out’ ceremonies which used wooden dolls called ‘Molly Spoons’ which each represented a new person. Mother Clapp (aka glamorous bearded lady Timberlina) will be on hand to help you recreate your very own molly spoon. The Virtue of Coffee is on Thursday 23 October at 18.30. Tickets can be bought here: http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/virtue-of-coffee