The History of Tea in Britain
Tea is the unofficial national drink of England. Trace the history of tea and tea customs in the UK.
Tea in Britain
BY DAVID ROSS, EDITOR
Tea, that most quintessential of English drinks, is a relative latecomer
to British shores. Although the custom of drinking tea dates back to
the third millennium BC in China, it was not until the mid 17th century
that the beverage first appeared in England.
Curiously, it was the London coffee houses that were responsible for introducing tea to England. One of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound (ouch!), touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty", and "preserving perfect health until extreme old age".
Tea gained popularity quickly in the coffee houses, and by 1700 over 500 coffee houses sold it. This distressed the tavern owners, as tea cut their sales of ale and gin, and it was bad news for the government, who depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales. By 1750 tea had become the favoured drink of Britain's lower classes.
Taxation on Tea
Want to know where to get a really good "cuppa"?
You could do worse than to start with The Parlour, South Molton, Devon, which was named winner of the 1999 Britain's Top Tea Place of the Year by the Tea Council.
Ships from Holland and Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, then stood offshore while smugglers met them and unloaded the precious cargo in small vessels. The smugglers, often local fishermen, snuck the tea inland through underground passages and hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the best hiding places was in the local parish church!
Even smuggled tea was expensive, however, and therefore extremely profitable, so many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, licorice, and sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also redried and added to fresh leaves.
Finally, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. Adulteration remained a problem, though, until the Food and Drug Act of 1875 brought in stiff penalties for the practice.
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