Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Polly put the Kettle On

by Maria Grace

"Polly put the kettle on, we'll all have tea." ~ Charles Dickens (1812-1870) Barnaby Rudge.

Since its popular introduction into English society, by Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, tea was an expensive commodity. At the beginning of the 1800’s over eleven thousand tons were imported, compared with just six tons a hundred years before. It was so expensive it was usually kept under lock and key, protected from pilfering by the servants. Both the cupboards and the tea caddies were locked to keep their tea safe.
Two primary types of tea were available, green and black. Black teas included bohea, souchong, congo (or congou) and pekoe, bohea being the cheapest, pekoe the most expensive. Of the green teas, single was the cheapest. Other varieties included hyson, caper, and bloom.   

Both forms of tea began with the same leaves, but they were processed differently. Green tea leaves are roasted as soon as they are gathered to prevent fermentation. Black tea leaves are allowed to ferment for some time. The brown/black color and flavor developed during fermentation. Roasting stopped the process. Typically different types of tea leaves would be combined to produce tasty blends for consumers.

The tea trade recognized nine different grades of quality in both green and brown/black teas. The cheapest might be found for 5-6 shillings per pound. The best grades could cost as much as 20 shillings or more a pound. In 1800 a year’s supply of tea and sugar could cost a family of six nearly as much as their yearly rent.  

Why was tea so expensive?
Two major factors contributed to the cost of tea: cost of import and taxes.

In the Regency era, tea had not yet been cultivated in India, so all supplies had to be shipped in from China. The journey from China to Britain could take more than a year to complete. In China, foreign traders were confined to trading in Canton. Trade was strictly regulated by Chinese officials with only the Hong guild licensed to deal with foreign traders. These merchants were taxed heavily by their own officials and in turn passed their expenses off to the traders, thus increasing the cost of exported goods.

Once the tea entered Britain, the local government would add their own taxes which further increased the cost. In 1784, dry leaf tea was taxed at a shilling a pound. By 1801, tax rates increased to 2 shilling, 6 pence a pound.


 Richard Twinning, of Twinning Tea company, estimated at least half of the tea drunk in England was smuggled. Even in 1820 tea was one of the two most smuggled commodities, the other being liquor.

Smuggled tea often came from Holland where it might be purchased for as little as 7 pence per pound. This tea was then transported to England by ship and sold at 2 shillings a pound, a third of what legally procured teas sold for.

Gunsgreen House where smugglers hid tea
The smugglers, who often were local fishermen, snuck the tea from offshore ships to smaller vessels which brought it to land in oilskin bags. On land, the tea was repacked in sacks to minimize the off taste from the oilskin and taken by horse to various hiding places. Parish churches often were used to stash the ill-gotten goods.
To make the smuggled tea even more lucrative, many smugglers adulterated the tea with other substances, until the Food and Drug Act of 1875 brought in stiff penalties for the practice.  

Adulterated tea 

Prepacked tea was not produced until 1826 making it very susceptible to contamination. Moreover, tea was never sold in outdoor public markets, but in smaller shops, like chandler’s shops, further increasing its vulnerability. Loose tea, sometimes called gunpowder was more difficult to successfully adulterate and was thus more expensive than dried and ground versions.

Green teas were generally thought easier to adulterate, so public preference shifted to black tea. Not to be outdone by wary consumers, unscrupulous merchants stretched black tea supplies with both used tea leaves, colorants and other contaminants.

Used teas leaves were in ready supply. In wealthy households, it passed through the household hierarchy. First the family brewed and drank of it. Then the used leaves would the given to the servants to brew and drink. Finally, they would end in the hands of a high ranking servant, cook or housekeeper, who, as part of her contract would be entitled to the used leaves. She would then dry and sell them to a char woman or directly to poorer families for as much as a shilling a pound.

Charwomen might resell the used leaves to a slop shop that would then process them for reuse. The leaves were stiffened with a solution of gum, colored with green vitriol (iron sulfate) or black lead or log wood and combined with fresh tea leaves. Willow, licorice and sloe leaves  might also be added to further extend the mixture.
Sloe leaves

Fake tea called ‘smouch’ or sometimes ‘British tea’ was also widely available. Counterfeit green tea could be produced from thorn or ash leaves, steeped in green vitriol or verdigris (copper acetate) and dried. These dyes were toxic and could produce a variety of symptoms including constipation.

Imitation black tea often contained the same hawthorn, ash and sloe leaves. It might also be a mixture of bran and animal dung or ‘chamber lye’ (the contents of a chamber pot). Dried and ground these were said to strongly resemble fashionable bohea tea in appearance if not in flavor.

Some estimates suggested up to three million pounds (weight) of these mixtures were produced a year. So while most of the nation drank ‘tea’, the contents of many tea cups might not have been as pleasant as the drinker might have wished. A great irony in this is, for the laboring class, even these adulterated teas were the safest way of taking in water because of the poor sanitary conditions of the water supply.

Fullerton, Susannah and Hill, Reginald. Jane Austen & Crime. Jones Books. (2006)
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England . Sutton Publishing (2004)
Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness. Penguin Books (1998)
Olsen, Kirstin. Cooking with Jane Austen. Greenwood Press (2005)
Wilson, Kim. Tea with Jane Austen. Jones Books (2004)


Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy and All the Appearance of Goodness.  Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Ugh! And I read this over my morning cuppa (from Twinnings, no less). Thanks very much for a most interesting article.

  2. Fascinating! Who would have thought that tea was so very upper-crust? It probably goes some way to explaining why the poor stuck to alcohol. We're very lucky these days to have so much choice.

  3. I love tea. All kinds! So glad I live in the 21st century....

  4. I'm glad I had my morning cuppa before reading this! ;-) Interesting read -- and to think some people won't even make a second cup from a tea bag!!!

  5. Blergh! Toxic dyes and ‘chamber lye’ in a cup of tea... not good.

    Thank you for the interesting post!

  6. What a great post, you can understand why the tea trade from India and Ceylon was such a success.


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