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


  1. I love the history of tea and visited a tea factory in India last year where they had a little museum with all sorts of fascinating information. This was in Kerala. We came back with tea. This post is also intriguing and whets the appetite for more and the taste buds. So off to brew a cup of tea!

  2. Hi Carol, yes I always thought tea was completely indigenous to India, but it turns out many varieties were introduced by the Brits. Assam had its own tea plants though and so that was where they first began to cultivate China Tea. Only later did they the East India Company decide that the Assam tea plants native to India would fare better than the introduced Chinese ones (duh). I am such a tea fanatic I am guilty of following the Tetley Tea Folk on twitter!

  3. My teacher in primary school told that tea was first sent as humanitarian aid from China and India to be freely given to starving people during the Irish Famine (1845-50). According to his story many of those who got tea were totally unfamiliar on how to use dry tea leaves. At first many thought to throw the hot water away and then eat the soaked leaves.They obviously learned quickly as the Irish are now major tea drinkers.
    On another "strange" commodity, how to explain to the uninitiated that you must put a flame to consume tobacco?

  4. I cannot start the day without my pot of tea, in my own rose patterned bone china tea set! Thanks for a fascinating piece of tea history!

  5. Tea is the nector of the gods. Wonderful post. Best of luck with your new release.

  6. Lovely post. I drink LOTS of tea, brewed on top of a samovar. :)

  7. I blend my own tea and become very cranky without my cup in the morning. Thank you for posting the research books. I have a few of my own, but not all the ones you mentioned.

  8. Hi everyone - how interesting about the Irish Famine. I believe that initially tea was sometimes chewed in the way that tobacco was chewed (from Tom Standedge's book). Glad to meet all you other tea drinkers, I wonder what sort of blend Ellen drinks, it sounds fascinating - do tell Ellen!

  9. I knew about Queen Catherine bringing tea to England, and enjoyed learning more from this post.
    Tea is certainly my hot drink of choice. Can't stand coffee or chocolate! When I was in England I was invited to tea. I worried because I like sugar and milk in my tea and thought I would have to drink it plain. But I was happily surprised when offered milk and sugar for my tea!

  10. Congratulations on your release. I have it on my wishlist. :)

  11. Wonderful post, Deborah, and congratulations on your new release. It looks fascinating, too!


  12. Good post - and how fitting for an author to sing the praise of lovely, lovely tea :) I totally agree; no tea, no books - and reading your post I realised why (well, I already knew, at some basic level) - it's the tea that keeps me bright and chirpy through the night. And BTW, I liked your book - wrote a review on Goodreads :)(Love the US coverm have the UK version)

  13. Thanks Anna, glad you enjoyed The Gilded Lily, and it is lovely to have reviews and the honest opinions of readers. I like milk and sugar in my tea too Michele. In fact all this talk of tea has made me thirsty - there is a lovely Pinterest board about tea paraphernalia that I have joined here at - nice teapots, cake stands, anything tea related. (yes I am a tea fanatic!)

  14. Thanks for this quick history of tea drinking. As an American I'm surrounded by a nation of coffee drinkers. In an effort to convert one coffee drinker at a time, I now sell teapot cozies in my etsy shop. (Warning: Shameless self-promotion ahead!)

    I've got your new release on my "to-read" list.

  15. What a marvellous post. Tea is well loved all over the world, and this information might help tea to get back up there where it belongs in society.... either on the same level as coffee, or above it..!! After-all tea comes in so many beautiful tastes & varieties. There are even the magnificent "Tisane's" which Anglos call Herbal Teas!!! I must say I prefer the sound of the name in French... !!!
    We need to spread the word of how marvellous a cup of good steeped tea really is.... of course for those of us especially of British origin... in is ingrained in our bones....and might even be part of our genetic memory....!! But whatever it is, thank you for your history on tea. Appreciate your great work., and I do look forward to reading your book.

  16. Hello Suzette and Elizabeth. Ooh Suzette, your shop looks lovely - the turquoise Tea Snob Tea Cosy is my favourite, and the Heritage Cowl.And Elizabeth I think tisanes of herbs are a lot older than the traditional camellia plant tea, because they were used as patent remedies before they were used for pure refreshment I think. But you're right, 'tisane' is a lovely word.

  17. Gosh, how fascinating! I am completely addicted to tea and can't start the day without three cups. I take it weak so am not excessively caffeinated even though I drink so much. I have a prized badge which says "Where there is tea, there is hope!" above the British flag. Although I must admit, now I discover that women took to tea because there were excluded from men's coffee shops, I feel like drinking more coffee to make a political point! Thank you so much for enlightening me!

  18. Can't resist the pun - this is a lovely 'potted' history!

    All the very best with the book launch - a teasing title that I hope brings many sales to your door. I'd only add to your list of 'must reads' on tea all the books by Jane Pettigrew who writes accessibly and authoritatively on the subject. I think she'd also give you the definitive answer on the tea/tisane/herb question too.

    'Britain's Tea Poet' raises a cuppa to this blog post!

    1. Thanks Elizabeth, I didn't know there was a tea poet! And I'll go and look up Jane Pettigrew too. Thank you, and cheers (raises and clinks tea cup).


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