Tea in Britain
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.
The use of tea spread slowly from its Asian homeland, reaching Europe
by way of Venice around 1560, although Portuguese trading ships may
have made contact with the Chinese as early as 1515.
Tea shop in Chilham, Kent
It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe,
with regular shipments by 1610. England was a latecomer to the tea trade,
as the East India Company did not capitalize on tea's popularity until
the mid-18th century.
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
Charles II did his bit to counter the growth
of tea, with several acts forbidding its sale in private houses. This
measure was designed to counter sedition, but it was so unpopular that
it was impossible to enforce. A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee
house operators to apply for a license.
This was just the start of government attempts to control, or at least,
to profit from the popularity of tea in Britain. By the mid 18th century
the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. This heavy taxation had
the effect of creating a whole new industry - tea smuggling.
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.
In the early 1800's ships carrying tea from the
Far East to Britain could take over a year to bring home their precious
cargo. When the East India Company was given a monopoly on the tea trade
in 1832, they realized the need to cut the time of this journey. The
Americans actually designed the first "clippers", or streamlined,
tall-masted vessels, but the British were close behind. These clippers
sped along at nearly 18 knots by contemporary accounts - nearly as fast
as a modern ocean liner.
So great was the race for speed that an annual competition was begun
for clippers to race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The
first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus.
The most famous of the clipper ships was the Cutty Sark, built in 1868.
It only made the tea run eight times, but for its era it was a remarkable
ship. The Cutty Sark is now on exhibition at Greenwich.
Afternoon tea is said to have originated with one
person; Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. In the early 1800's she launched
the idea of having tea in the late afternoon to bridge the gap between
luncheon and dinner, which in fashionable circles might not be served
until 8 o'clock at night. This fashionable custom soon evolved into
high tea among the working classes, where this late afternoon repast
became the main meal of the day.
The popular pleasure gardens of Ranelagh and Vauxhall
in London began serving tea around 1730. An evening of dancing and watching
fireworks would be capped by tea. The concept caught on, and soon Tea
Gardens opened all over Britain. Usually the gardens were opened on
Saturday and Sunday, and an afternoon of entertainment and dancing would
be highlighted by serving tea.
That oh, so British establishment, the tea shop, can be traced to
one person. In 1864 the female manager of the Aerated Bread Company began
the custom of serving food and drink to her customers. Her best customers
were favoured with tea. Soon everyone was asking for the same treatment.
The concept of tea shops spread throughout Britain like wildfire, not
in the least because tea shops provided a place where an unchaperoned
woman could meet her friends and socialize without damage to her reputation.
Tea and Pottery
What connection, you might be excused for asking,
does tea have with the growth of the British pottery industry? Simply
this: tea in China was traditionally drunk from cups without handles.
When tea became popular in Britain, there was a crying need for good
cups with handles, to suit British habits. This made for tremendous
growth in the pottery and porcelain industry, and the prosperity of
such companies as Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton.
Note: much of the material in this article is based on the excellent
"History of Tea" on the web site of the Tea
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Contents © David Ross and Britain Express