Tea, yeah, that’s the one. However, tea really is somewhat of a latecomer to Britain. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-17th century that tea first appeared in England.
This was happening even while the custom of drinking tea went way back to the third millennium BC in China. You see the use of tea expanded gradually from its Asian homeland, only reaching Europe by way of Venice around 1560. Some believe that Portuguese trading ships may have made contact with the Chinese as early as 1515.
It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe, with steady shipments by 1610.
During these times, Coffee Houses played a big part of acquainting tea to England.
It was the London coffee houses that were responsible for familiarizing tea to England. One of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound (ouch!), He was always talking about its qualities at “making the body active and lusty”, and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age”.
Tea soon gained acceptance in the coffee houses.B y 1700 more than 500 coffee houses sold tea. The tavern proprietors became really worried. The tavern owners began to slash their sales of ale and gin, and it was bad news for the government, who depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales. By 1750 tea had become the favored drink of Britain’s lower classes.
Taxation on Tea
Charles II did his bit to counter the growth of tea, with several acts forbidding its sale in private houses. This measure was designed to counter sedition, but it was so unpopular that it was impossible to enforce. A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a license.
This was just the beginning of government efforts to control, or at least, to profit from the popularity of tea in England. Then by the mid-18th century, the taxes on tea had reached a ridiculous 119%. This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry – tea smuggling.
Where to get a really good cup of tea:
The Parlour, South Molton, Devon, which was named the winner of the 1999 Britain’s Top Tea Place of the Year by the Tea Council. You could not really find a better place at the time.
Ships from Holland and Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast and then waited offshore until the smugglers would meet up with them and unloaded the precious cargo in small vessels. A lot of the time these smugglers were local fishermen who slipped the tea inland through secretive passages and hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the best hiding places was in the local parish church!
Even though it was smuggled, tea was still really expensive. This made it tremendously lucrative, so many smugglers began to taint the tea with other substances, such as willow, licorice, and aloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also redried and added to fresh leaves so that can be used over and over without a lot of desecration.
But then, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger announced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectually ending most of the smuggling. Tarnishing continued to be a problem, though, until the Food and Drug Act of 1875 brought in stiff penalties for the practice.
Back in the 1800’s large ships called tea clippers carried tea from the Far East to Britain. These voyages could take over a year or longer to deliver their prized cargo. When the East India Company was given a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832, they understood the need to shorten the time of this journey.
The Americans actually designed the first “clippers” or streamlined tall-masted vessels, but the British were close behind. These clippers sped along at nearly 18 knots by current accounts – nearly as fast as a modern ocean liner.
This became such a great deal that an annual contest was begun for the clippers to race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to deliver its cargo won the captain and crew a substantial bonus.
The Cutty Shark was the most famous of these clipper ships. The Cutty Shark was built in 1868 and it only made the tea run eight times, but for its time it was an extraordinary ship. The Cutty Shark is now on exhibition at Greenwich.
Afternoon tea is said to have started by one person. Her name was Anna the 7th. The Duchess of Bedford. Back In the early 1800’s, she started the conception of having tea in the late afternoon in order to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner which in trendy circles might not be served until 8 o’clock at night. This fashionable custom soon grew into what would be known as high tea among the working classes.
Note: This is my blog today (Russell VanCuren) and I credit much of the material in this article (the excellent “History of Tea”) on the website of the Tea Council and Tea in Britain at (britianexpress.com)