Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why the English took to Tea - Deborah Swift

I would certainly not have been able to finish any of my books without my regular top-up of that quintessentrially English drink, tea. I have inherited a number of teapots from my mother much like these from Vintage Dorset, and tea drinking has always been a big part of my family life.

Of course tea is not really English at all, it came first from China and later was introduced to India by the British as a way of suppliying the British Empire with a cheaper product .

At the end of the 17th century almost nobody in England drank tea,  but by the end of the next century nearly everyone from King to commoner did. In 1699 six tons were imported, but by the turn of the eighteenth century eleven thousand tons were inported!


The sudden enthusiasm for tea can be attributed to a number of factors - the first of which was the King's marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Her enormous dowry, suited to her position as daughter of King John IV of Portugal, included the trading posts of Tangier and Bombay, a fortune in gold bullion, and - a large chest of tea.

Catherine loved her tea and drank it from delicate thimble-sized cups. This tea-drinking caught on like wild-fire amongst the aristocracy, leading to many ladies also demanding this new elegant drink.

Because women were excluded from coffee shops drinking tea also became sociable, particularly amongst women, and in 1717 Thomas Twining of Devereux Court, who already owned a coffee shop, opened up a tea shop to furnish women with this fashionable and popular commodity.


Tea was still so expensive that ladies could not trust their servants to buy the tea for them as it would mean entrusting them with large sums of cash. So now the ladies could take a sedan to the shop, carrying their tea caddies, which were equipped with locks to prevent pilfering. They were able to buy directly from the shop or stay a while there to meet their friends and enjoy tea freshly prepared and served in porcelain dishes.

A whole ritual then evolved as a means of demonstrating how sophisticated and cultured you were. Books and articles were written on the etiquette of serving tea, and small snacks were introduced to cleanse the palate between tastings. Great effort was made to make the dishes and plates as dainty and genteel as possible, and the food as refined. Bread and butter was the usual accompaniment, cut up very small. This later became a whole afternoon meal, our 'Afternoon Tea'.

Tea Gardens then opened up where women could meet, and also a respectable place to meet members of the opposite sex. The first to open was in Vauxhall Gardens in 1732.An article about Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens can be found here on the Museum of London Blog.

Of course none of this would have been possible without the British East India Company, which during King Charles's reign grew to become a manifestation of British power in the East Indies. The first tea imports were from Bantam (now in Indonesia) in 1669, and it was part of a cargo of pepper, silk and other textiles. As the company grew it managed to establish trading posts in China, and despite warring with the Dutch, managed to retain control over the importation of tea.

For the poor, tea became an essential once people realised that it improved health and productivity.It was healthy because of its natural anti-bacterial effects (of course this was not understood then) and the fact it was made with boiled water. It was also more suited to a labouring workforce as it was a stimulant and not like ale, likely to send you to sleep!

The story of tea is a fascinating one and I can highly recommend these books: The True History of Tea - Erling Hoh
A History of the World in Six Glasses - Tom Standage
For All the Tea In China - Sarah Rose


And my new book THE GILDED LILY- during the writing of which I must have drunk hundreds if not thousands of cups of tea -  is released in the US tomorrow!



A fast-paced adventure peopled with ruthless villains and feisty heroines whose exploits grab the imagination and add suspense and excitement to a historical gem Lancashire Evening Post