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Story of the Coffeehouse so far

What is an enlightenment coffeehouse?

300 years ago, during the age of enlightenment, coffeehouses became the centre of innovation. They were the information network of their day, where for a price of a cup of coffee, people could meet and share ideas. The ideas born in enlightenment coffeehouse brought about radical ideas which transformed our world. Watch Dr Matthew Green, an expert on the enlightenment coffeehouse, give a talk at the RSA about the amazing impact these institutions had on the world.

Why did the RSA decide to build one?

The RSA was established in an enlightenment coffeehouse called Rawthmells in 1754, and the very first meetings took place in various coffeehouses around London. RSA House, our current home, was built in 1774 using money raised from the Fellowship. It has bore witness to a tremendous number of ground-breaking ideas and inventions over the last two centuries.

Today, to cover the costs of running the building, many of the rooms in the House are hired out to commercial clients providing vital funding. However, our regular Fellowship surveys consistently revealed that many Fellows felt unhappy about the spaces within the House. A survey specifically about the house was then undertaken and the results taken to the Trustee Board for discussion. The Trustees agreed that possible options should be investigated and from that it was agreed that a major project should be undertaken.

What makes Rawthmells different?

Whilst the space is open to anyone who supports positive social change (and we hope that anyone who uses the space and supports our mission will think about becoming a Fellow), it is the Fellowship which makes this space different.

Almost 4,000 Fellows engaged with the question of how the new coffeehouse can contribute to the RSA's mission of a 21st-century enlightenment and 200 proposals were submitted. Following a very close vote by Fellows, five ideas have been taken forward – take a look below.


Fuel for thought

"It would be a fine thing to have an 'idea space' where Fellows working on projects that enrich society can put up ideas to be fired up by contributions from other fellows; a kind of mind-sharing leading to action. Fellows can get into the 'idea space' and add their fuel and follow-up contacts."


A Global Network

"For me, Rawthmells should act as the beating heart of a 21st-century coffeehouse movement: it needs to reach out beyond the confines of the building. My vision is to include satellite coffeehouses throughout the UK and the world, where local fellows can come together, connect, share knowledge, collaborate, and build new communities to tackle the social challenges of our time."


Conversation Zone

"People in London don’t talk to strangers, but ideas only happen in conversation. In the coffee shop, create a zone in which it is expected to have conversations and in which, if you sit, you are inviting/giving permission for conversation about ideas."


Collaborative Walls

“If a space is to be productive and encourage great collaboration to work on ideas, plans and strategies then it needs to be open, inviting and inclusive. Having an entire wall available to write on removes the usual limits of traditional whiteboards and means you can stretch images or ideas as far as you want.”


Partnering with student societies

"The coffeehouse should provide an informal space, such as a salon, for joint events and discussions organised in conjunction with relevant nearby institutions and their student societies, perhaps with a guest speaker to stimulate conversation."