Arts Week 2015: Coffee and Commonwealth

What do coffee, tea and rancid meat have in common? All are intimately tied to the politics, gender dynamics and social unrest of the 18th century.

A fascinating free public event will delve into the Enlightenment’s beverages of choice and disgusting diets as part of Birkbeck Arts Week (18 to 23 May).

An English 17th Century coffeehouseCoffee and Commonwealth, which will feature a panel of Birkbeck academics, will be held at the Upper Fleet Café (7-11 Upper Woburn Place) on Monday, May 18 at 6pm.

From the bawdy houses and pre-modern pubs of Derbyshire to the coffee houses of London, the Birkbeck, University of London’s panel of historians and literary experts will explain how a food and drink can lead to full-scale mutiny.

One main strand of the panel event will focus on the often revolting – and frequently contentious – diet of sailors on long-haul sea voyages in the late 17th century.

PhD student Sue Jones’s presentation will draw on real-life case studies of some poor souls who had to endure the cramped conditions and putrid meals on board trading and pirate ships.

Weavil-ridden ship biscuits, rancid meat swimming in pickled brine and woefully little grog to numb the pain – this was the diet which awaited many a seafarer on long odysseys which could last anywhere up to two years.

By delving into diary entries of an ordinary sailor for the East India Company, and the British ambassador to Tunisia, Sue will reveal just how limited the diet on the open sea was, and the effects it had on the seafarers – from widespread scurvy, to full-blown mutiny

Sue said: “Being self-contained spaces and communities, these ships were often a powder-keg of social ructions. A limited and pretty rotten diet might not seem a huge deal in the grander scheme of things, but on the open sea you don’t have much else to think about. And so food and drink were often the catalyst for unruliness.”

Other speakers at the Coffee and Commonwealth event include:

  • Professor Sue Wiseman, who will present on the milieux of alehouses versus coffee house, exploring the role of coffee and beer in sustenance, sociability, sex and politics
  • Mr Robert Stearn who will explore the way food and drink interacted with ‘sexual immorality’ in the secret subcultures of London’s alehouses, coffeehouses, brothels, homes, and lodgings
  • Dr Elizabeth Eger (King’s College) will discuss tea and sociability in the age of Enlightenment, and why tea became the thinking woman’s drug of choice.

The event runs as part of Birkbeck Arts Week’s packed programme of more than 40 lectures, discussions, workshops and performances exploring the worlds of arts and culture.

Attendance at all Arts Week events is free, though booking is essential. To book a place, and to see the full programme of events, visit

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