The History of Tea in Britain – Who Brought Tea to England?

the history of tea in britain – who brought tea to england?
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People from many countries love their tea, but those from the UK are tea people. That might sound like a stereotype but it is more than that. On average, every UK citizen consumes around 2 Kilograms of tea each year. And considering that some grown-ups and most children drink no tea or a little of it through the year, the amount of tea UK citizens take each year is higher than 2 kilograms. 

British tea drinker stereotype is considered positive. Those who do not consume tea still use various phrases such as “English as teacup” or “my teacup” to describe things they like doing or they are well suited to. They will use phrases  like “not my teacup” to describe things they hate or they are not suited to. But did you know that tea in Britain has a long history? 

A brief history of tea in Britain

The quantity of tea that found its way to England before the 17th century was very was minimal. The Portuguese and Dutch traders started shipping tea from China and some other Asian countries to Europe around 1610. By 1657, tea was readily available in London’s coffee houses. At that time, it went by the names Tcha, China Drina, Tree or Tray and people sold it as remedy to cure every form of ill i.e lack of virility and fatigue or poor health and all types of diseases.

Related Article: Learn the History of Tea in China, the Birthplace of Tea

With this medicinal advantages, it  made tea to be very expensive drink. In the mid-1600s, tea was retailing at £10 per pound (roughly £22 per kilogram), which is around £2,000 in today’s money. At that time, servants and commoners were lucky to make £50 each year, which means that tea was only for the well-off individuals and they locked it away in their tea caddies.

However, tea was available on all streets of London by 1659 and in 1662, Queen Catherine of Braganza, King Charles II’s wife, introduced tea as a custom drink to the royal court in 1662. That made people stop seeing tea only as an addictive drink and they started using it as a fashionable drink. 

Through Canton River, exportation of tea was roughly 7 million tons to the European countries each year by the mid-18th century. Half of the tea was through British owned ships. Obviously, the crown did not take long to notice the growing popularity of the new luxury as a great source of income. 

Taxation of tea imports increased to 119 percent in the 18th century. The heavy taxation came with its downside. First, the smuggling of tea increased highly. Secondly, people started selling low-quality tea to an extent of dangerously adulterating it. People dried used tea leaves and mixed them with the new leaves and other plants like sloe, liquorice and willow to bulk up the more expensive tea leaves. The reduction of tea import taxation to 12.5 percent in 1784 eliminated tea smuggling but tea adulteration remained a key problem until the government made it illegal in 1875. 

Tea in coffee houses

London coffee houses were responsible for tea introduction to England. One of the coffee house merchants who offered tea was Thomas Garway. His coffee house offered both dry and liquid tea to people in 1657. Three years later, he issued broadsheets to advertise tea at six. People believed that tea would preserve good health until old age. 

The popularity of tea grew rapidly in coffee houses and by 1700, it was available in over 50 coffee houses. That distressed tavern owners because tea reduced their ale and gin sales significantly. The popularity was bad news for the Britain government too because it highly depended on the steady revenue stream from liquor sales taxation. By 1750, tea was the most favoured drink among the lower class individuals in Britain. 

To counter the rapid growth of tea, Charles II introduced several acts that forbid sales of tea in private coffee houses. The measure was aimed at countering sedition, but due to its unpopularity, the measure was very hard to enforce. An act introduced in 1676, taxed tea and required the coffee house operators to get a license. That was just a start of the many attempts of the British government to control or to profit from the growing popularity of tea in the country. By the 18th century, the taxation of tea import had hit 119 percent, something that led to tea smuggling.

The smuggling of tea

Ships from Scandinavia and Holland could bring tea to the British coast and stand offshore while the British smugglers met them with small vessels. They would unload the tea to these small vessels and take it to the buyers. Mostly, the smugglers were local fishermen who carried the tea inland via hidden paths and underground passages to their special hiding places. Local parish churches were the commonest hiding places. In 1784, William Pit the Younger succeeded in lowering the smuggling after introducing the Commutation Act, which reduced the tax on tea from 119 percent to 12.5 percent. Adulteration of tea did not stop until 1875 when the Food and Drug Act introduced severe penalties on the practice. 

The tea clippers

In the early 1800s, ships would take more than a year to transport tea from the Far East to Britain. But after the East India Company was given the monopoly on this trade in 1832, they saw a need to reduce the time the journey took. The Americans were the first to design the clippers or streamlined tall-masted ocean vessels, but the British were behind. The vessels moved fast at around 18 knots, a speed that is similar to that of the modern ocean liners. 

The race for speed influenced the start of an annual competition for the clippers to compete from the Canton River to the London Docks. The captain and crew on the ship that unloaded its cargo first won a hefty bonus. The Cutty Sark is one of the most famous clipper ships. Built-in the year 1868, the ship only made the run eight times. However, it remained a remarkable ship for that era. Today, Cutty Sark is on Greenwich exhibition. 

The afternoon tea

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford introduced afternoon tea in 1840.  It is said that the Duchess would get hungry around 4.00 PM. The evening meal was served at around 8.00 PM in her household, therefore leaving a very long period in between lunch and dinner. So, she asked a tray of bread, tea, butter and a cake be brought into her room late in the afternoon. That became a habit and she later started inviting friends to enjoy the afternoon tea. 

The pause for afternoon tea became one of the fashionable social events and during the 1880s, the society and upper-class women would wear long gowns, hats and gloves for their afternoon tea, which they served in their drawing room between four to five o’clock. Traditionally, the afternoon tea consisted of dainty sandwiches such as sliced cucumber sandwiches, scones served with preserves and cream, cakes and pastries. Tea from Ceylon or India was poured from silver teapots to the delicate bone china cups. Today, the afternoon tea is only a mug of tea and a small cake or biscuit in most suburban homes. 

The tea shops in Britain

Teashops are traceable to one person. In the year 1864, female manager of Aerated Bread Company started serving drinks and food to her customers but served her best customers with tea. Soon, everyone started asking for tea. That concept spread to other parts of Britain like wildfire. Not just because women found a good place to meet their friends but because they were able to socialize without damaging their reputation. 

Types of tea in Britain

The tea variety ranges from English breakfast tea and Earl Grey tea to Lapsang Souchong tea. All types of tea came from the Camellia Sinensis plant and people processed them in various ways. Black tea has remained the most popular type in the country and a shock for most visitors. Black tea, from Liptons, Twinings, PG Tips or Tetley, makes dark brews because the processors allow the leaves to oxidize before they dry them. That is the main reason the tea is served with milk. You will find people serving it black or with lemon. You might find people adding loose tea leaves in their teapots and then poured it into their beautiful china cups with saucers but behind closed doors, they would serve it in a mug. Green tea is made by limiting the amount of oxidation, therefore, producing a delicate flavour. Green tea is also popular for its health benefits. White tea is made from the young leaves, which are dried without any processing.

Related Article: Earl Grey vs English Breakfast Tea: Knowing the Difference

Tea gardens in Britain 

Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens in London started serving tea in 1730. Tea would cup the evenings of watching fireworks and dancing. The concept of tea gardens caught on and they opened in almost every part of Britain. Traditionally, tea gardens opened doors on Saturdays and Sundays and tea serving highlighted afternoons of dancing and entertainment. 

Tea and pottery

Originally, the Chinese used to drink tea from teacups without handles. When tea became a popular drink in Britain, the demand for cups with handles to match the habits of the British increased. That led to the growth of the pottery and porcelain industry in the country. Some companies like Spode, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton grew as a result.

Tea in the UK today

Tea has remained an important part of life in the United Kingdom, but it is on a decline. The quantity of tea imported into the UK dropped by over 10 percent within the five years leading to 2002 and ever since it has been dropping constantly. In 2014, tea sales reduced by 6 percent and most restaurants have reported selling around twice as many cups of coffee as those of tea they sold. In 2013, the country spent over £1 billion on coffee in the high street stores, around two times the amount they spent on tea bags. However, tea is unlikely to get out of the market soon. It will get fashionable again soon. 

Related Article: British Tea Etiquette: the Dos and the Don’t

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Mary L

When you discover something you love you want to share it with the world, that’s only natural. My passion had become my way of life, and I am finally able to share a cup of the good stuff with the ones I love. Proof that dreams really do come true when you can share your favorite brew.

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