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The History of Tea in England

Where would be without tea? There are few problems in life that can’t be solved with a nice hot cuppa. From the Palaces of Ancient China to your Nan’s living room tea has nourished, comforted and revived us for centuries. But it’s not all crumpets and raised pinkies, the Camelia Sinensis plant also has a chequered past. Tea has been at the heart of some of British Empires biggest socio-political conflicts. For national tea day we’ve delved into the history of tea and England and trust us, it’s a lot more scandalous than you may think!

Last to the tea party…

The origins of tea can be traced back to China to at least the 3rd century A.D., but it would be more than a thousand years before tea made its way to Europe. Introduced to the continent through Dutch and Portuguese trade routes in the 16th century, tea had a fashionable moment in Portugal, Germany, France and Russia, before finally being introduced to England in the 17th century. We have the Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza to thank. A girl after our own heart, Catherine couldn’t start the day without her morning cuppa. Her daily tea drinking ritual caught on, first in noble circles before being emulated by the upper classes throughout England.

dutch trade routes

It’s a mug life…

This brings us to the first sordid chapter of England’s love affair with tea. After being popularised by Catherine of Braganza, demand for this fashionable new beverage was on the rise, but a heavy tax was imposed on tea in 1689. This created something of a back-alley tea trade. By the 18th Century about 7 million tonnes of tea was being imported into England illegally – more tea than was being imported legally. Tea had gone gangster! Quality tea leaves became hard to come by, with unscrupulous types either drying and reselling used tea leaves, mixing tea leaves with leaves from other plants, or even dying inferior leaves with sheep’s poo and passing them off as pure tea! Thankfully, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger put an end to all this madness. He slashed tea taxes in 1784 and the illicit tea trade soon dried up.

tea gun

The home of the brave and the land of the tea…

Meanwhile, across the pond tea was sparking a revolution. King George III put a heavy tax on tea and granted the British East India Company a monopoly on its importation. Americans were outraged. The tea tax came to be seen as a symbol of British oppression. When five ships carrying a cargo of tea arrived at Boston harbour in 1773, some of the townspeople would not allow the ships to dock and others threw chests of tea overboard. The ‘Boston Tea Party Rebellion’, as it came to be known was a tipping point for the American Revolutionary War and America’s eventual declaration of Independence.

tea party boston

A tale of tea and poppies…

The Brits were hooked on tea and had begun to import vast quantities from China. But the Chinese weren’t particularly interested in the Western goods the Brits could trade in return. Silver was pouring out of England and into China. The British tried growing their own tea, but without much success. There’s an art to tea cultivation and the leaf to cup process was a closely guarded Chinese secret (more on this later…). The East India Company did eventually find a (morally dubious) solution though: opium! Crops of Opium were produced in India and then distributed by independent traders to China through middle-men. Understandably, the Chinese government were not thrilled with this turn of events. Opium addiction was becoming a big problem in China (apparently it’s a lot worse than tea addiction!) In 1839 the Chinese government confiscated all British opium stocks. This gave rise to a conflict between the two nations, which was to end with China giving away Hong Kong to the British.

opium wars

Robert Fortune the tea leaf!

In the 18th Century the British East India Company (the largest company the world has ever known, adjusted for inflation) were importing huge quantities of tea into England from China. After failed attempts at cultivating their own tea plantations in India, the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was enlisted on a spy mission to learn China’s closely guarded secrets of tea cultivation. This tea leaf (Cockney slang for thief!), spent two years in China disguised as a Chinese official, travelling in secret to areas where foreigners were prohibited. As a result of these questionable methods, tea plantations were successfully established in India and the production of Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam tea flourished. Today India is the biggest tea producer in the world.

robert fortune

A ‘sinking feeling’

Perhaps the most quintessential of British customs, ‘afternoon tea’ is actually quite a recent invention care of Ana, the 7th Duchess of Bedford from the 1830s. Anna complained of having a ‘sinking feeling’ between lunch and dinner so she created a meal to fill the gap! She took tea and light refreshments including cakes and sandwiches in her rooms. At first she enjoyed them alone, but soon began inviting friends to join her. The idea caught on and soon became a full blown social event!
afternoon tea

Tea in the 20th Century

By the 20th Century tea had become entrenched in British culture. In fact, when WWII was declared all tea cargoes were transported outside of London within 2 days of the bombings to protect this precious commodity. It was part of the essential rations distributed by the Red Cross and an extra, morale-boosting allowance of tea was made for soldiers on the front line.

tea rations

Into the future…

Today we are again seeing a resurgence of interest in quality tea. While coffee lovers have enjoyed specialty blends and hand roasted beverages, the tea industry is just catching up! We’re excited to be at the forefront of quality tea blends using large leaves and real ingredients. Lovers of yummy tea, raise your cups!

white tea

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