Queen's Lane Coffee House is a coffee house in Oxford, England. It was established in 1654 and is the oldest continually serving coffee house in Europe.

Coffee houses in England first opened in Oxford in the 1650s. Queen's Lane Coffee House was one among several such establishments. Coffee houses enjoyed great popularity as soon as they appeared. They were also the target of harsh criticism. In a pamphlet from 1673, its anonymous author, introducing himself as "a Lover of his country and well-wisher to the prosperity both of the King and kingdoms", condemns "these Coffee Houses [which have] done great mischiefs to the Nation, undone many of the Kings Subjects, for they being very great Enemies to Diligence and Industry, have been the ruine of many serious and hopeful young Gentlemen and Tradesmen." (Anonymous 1673)

Years later, antiquarian Anthony Wood—"a deaf, bitter, and suspicious man" (The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica 2019)—asked: "Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University? Answer, because of coffeea-houses, where they spend all their time." (Wood 1848 [1678]: 201) And writing in 1744, the historian and biographer Roger North in turn lamented the "vast Loss of Time grown out of a pure Novelty. For who can apply close to a Subject with his Head full of the Din of a Coffee-house?" (North 1744)

It was, however, at Queen's Lane Coffee House—called at the time Harper's Coffee-House—that Jeremy Bentham first discovered utilitarianism. As he writes (using the third person) in an autobiographical article (Bentham 1829: 291-292):

Between the years 1762 and 1769 came out a pamphlet of Dr. Priestley’s, written as usual with him currente calamo and without any precise method predetermined, but containing at the close of it, it is believed in the very last page, in so many words the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, and this was stated in the character of a principle constituting not only a rational foundation, but the only rational foundation, of all enactments in legislation and all rules and precepts destined for the direction of human conduct in private life.

Somehow or other shortly after its publication a copy of this pamphlet found its way into the little circulating library belonging to a little coffee-house called Harper’s Coffee-house, attached as it were to Queen’s College Oxford, and deriving from the population of that College the whole of its subsistence. It was a corner house having one front towards the High Street, another towards a narrow lane which on that side skirts Queen’s College and loses itself in a lane issuing from one of the gates of New College. […]

[I]t was by that pamphlet and this phrase in it that his principles on the subject of morality, public and private together, were determined. It was from that pamphlet and that page of it that he drew that phrase, the words and import of which have by his writings been so widely diffused over the civilized world. At sight of it he cried out as it were in an inward ecstacy like Archimedes on the discovery of the fundamental principle of Hydrostatics, Eureka!

Philip Bliss, Registrar of the University of Oxford from 1824 to 1853, recounts a description, by a contemporary of Bentham's, of the coffee house scene in Oxford at around the time of Bentham's discovery (in Wood 1848: 48, fn. q; emphasis added):

The fashion of drinking coffee in public, prevailed in Oxford immediately upon its introduction into England, and continued to a late period. I am told by a venerable friend, now (Feb. 1848) in his 93rd year, that he well remembers the time when every academic of any fashion resorted to the coffee house during the afternoon: Tom's, nearly opposite the present market, being frequented by the most gay and expensive; Horseman's, also in the High Street, nearly opposite the house of the principal of Brasenose, received the members of Merton, All Souls, Corpus, and Orie; Harper's, the corner house of the lane leading to Edmund hall, those of Queens and Magdalen; Baggs's, the stone house… at the corner of Holywell, facing the King's Arms, used by New college, Hertford, and Wadham; and Malbon's, a diminutive tenement some feet below the present street at the north east corner of the Turl, was filled from trinity, and by the members of the neighbouring colleges.

The first Effective Altruism Global conference in Oxford was held in November 2016 at the Examination Schools, just across Queen's Lane Coffee House. In his introductory presentation on the history of effective altruism, William MacAskill highlighted the significance of that location in connection to the birthplace of utilitarianism. More recently, an online introductory textbook on utilitarianism, co-written by MacAskill and Darius Meißner, was launched from Queen's Lane Coffee House (MacAskill & Meißner 2019).

Bibliography

Anonymous (1673) The Grand Concern of England Explained; in Several Proposals Offered to the Consideration of the Parliament, London.

Bentham, Jeremy (1829) Article on utilitarianism: long version, in Amnon Goldworth (ed.) Deontology Together with a Table of the Springs of Action and Article on Utilitarianism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2019) Anthony Wood, Encyclopædia Britannica.

MacAskill, William & Darius Meißner (2020) About us, Utilitarianism.net.

North, John (1744) The Life of the Honourable Sir Dudley North, Knt., Commissioner of the Customs, and Afterwards of the Treasury to His Majesty King Charles the Second. And of the Honourable and Reverend Dr. John North, Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, and Greek Professor, Prebend of Westminster, and Sometime Clerk of the Closet to the Same King Charles the Second, London: John Whiston.

Standage, Tom (2013) Social networking in the 1600s, The New York Times, June 22.

Wood, Anthony (1848) Athenæ Oxonienses; An Exact History of Writers and Bishops Who Have Had Their Education in the University of Oxford, vol. 1, Oxford: Ecclesiastical History Society.