A Tale of 38 Teapots: an intimate portrait of 18th-century sociability


While coffeehouses have attracted significant attention from historians, relatively little attention has been paid to the material culture associated with them – and very few have been investigated archaeologically.

Craig Cessford


At a seminar at CRASSH on 22 October 2014, archaeologist Craig Cessford will talk about the challenges of working on ‘clearance deposits’. He will use, as one of his examples, the recent excavation of a site in historic Cambridge that yielded a cache of teapots, and other items, that had lain undisturbed for more than 200 years.

While coffeehouses have attracted significant attention from historians, relatively little attention has been paid to the material culture associated with them – and very few have been investigated archaeologically.

Back in 2007, a team of archaeologists used a nine-month window to investigate a site in the heart of historic Cambridge known to have been occupied since Anglo-Saxon times. The excavation of an area tucked behind All Saints Passage, owned by St John’s College, led to the discovery of a rubble-filled cellar which had lain undisturbed for more than 200 years.

Well before they began the laborious process of removing the debris from the cellar, Craig Cessford and his colleagues at Cambridge Archaeological Unit had obtained information from records held by St John’s College. This preliminary archival work gave them an idea of what they might be likely to find in an area of Cambridge characterised even today by specialist businesses catering for students and shoppers. 

“We knew that a number of businesses had been located on the north side of All Saints Gardens over ten centuries. When we found a teapot and then a second and then a third, we began to get a fair hunch of what we might be dealing with. This was not just an ordinary household but some kind of business serving food and drink,” said Cessford.

“Once we’d recovered a remarkable total of at least 38 teapots – and a host of other ceramic and glass items – in a space of just a few hours in an area that measured just three metres by two metres, we were pretty certain that we’d found Clapham’s coffeehouse, an establishment we know from the records in the archives had existed from around 1746 to around 1779.”

In his talk, Cessford will discuss the work of the archaeologist in looking at ‘clearance deposits’, term used to describe assemblages of materials relating to a particular household or business. Clearance deposits aren’t rubbish dumps. Rather, they are the things people have no further use for – and either can’t be bothered to, or can’t bear to, throw away.  First they are put away as items that might come in useful but then they are forgotten.

“Clearance deposits are often the result of someone leaving a house. Objects that have become redundant to their needs get pushed into a corner – such as a cellar – which is then backfilled. In Cambridge, many buildings are owned by the colleges, which tend to update them when tenants leave. That’s when collections of materials might get buried within the fabric of the building,” said Cessford.

Cambridge Archaeological Unit made more than 500 finds relating to the coffeehouse that once stood on the busy passage that connects Bridge Street to All Saints Gardens.

This ‘ceramic assemblage’ dwarfs all other mid-to-late 18th century finds recovered in Cambridge – including recent material recovered from the site of the Grand Arcade shopping centre – and provides a rare insight into the material culture of the coffeehouse, an institution which was booming as a hub of social, political and economic life.

“Coffeehouses played a central role in social and economic life from the mid-17th century to the late 18th century, not just in Britain but around the world. While they’ve attracted significant attention from historians, relatively little attention has been paid to the material culture associated with them – and very few coffeehouses have been investigated archaeologically,” said Cessford.

At the seminar, Cessford will use the example of Clapham’s coffeehouse to show how a nuanced interpretation of clearance deposits can provide both an intimate portrait of an individual household and offer broader perspectives on the life of those households within the wider community.

Clapham’s was run by William and Jane Clapham whose names can be seen on the base of a number of the vessels.  Records show that when William died in 1765, Jane took over business.

“The items that we found had been shoved into the cellar under what had been Clapham’s coffeehouse and had lain there undisturbed for around 230 years. We were able to lift them from the earth and document the various activities that had taken place in the shop. Many of the items were not even broken or had only been broken when they were dumped in the cellar,” said Cessford.

“It’s clear from the finds that early on in the history of the business, William ordered some Staffordshire-type white glazed stoneware plates, tankards and bowls marked with his initials WC, while Jane ordered some tin-glazed earthenware plates marked with her full name, presumably after William’s death.”

From the sets of ceramics, it appears that the patrons of Clapham’s coffeehouse sat in small groups of three or four around a table, drinking coffee and tea in roughly equal quantities, plus chocolate on a much smaller scale. Alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, punch and also possibly liqueurs were also popular.

Meals were an important part of coffeehouse life with the Clapham’s deposit suggesting that the proprietors had a close working relationship with adjacent inns and eateries. Among the vessels found at Clapham’s are plates belonging to two local hostelries - the Sun’s Coffee Room and the Rose Tavern – showing that meals were ordered in from elsewhere.

Cessford said: “There are also a large number of small shallow bowls with slightly flared rims which were probably used for snacks.  We also found evidence of how popular desserts were at this time. The presence of a number of jelly glasses, and animal bones that may have been boiled up to make jelly, suggests that calf foot’s jelly may have been one of the house specialities.”

Identifying and cataloguing archaeological material is a major task that has taken several years to complete. Ultimately all the material from the coffeehouse will go into storage organised by Cambridgeshire County Council.

Craig Cessford will be speaking at CRASSH’s Things that Matter seminar series in conversation with Dr Julia Poole about ‘Household Things’ on Wednesday, 22 October 2014. The seminar takes place from 12-2 pm in room SG1 of the Alison Richards Building and is open to the public. No registration is necessary.

Cessford will also be talking about Clapham’s coffeehouse to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society on Monday, 3 November 2014, and the results will be published in an academic journal.

This article, reprinted with permission, was originally published on the University of Cambridge Research website.  

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