Tea Comes to England

In spite of its early discovery in Asia, tea was unknown to Europeans until the 16th century. The first western reference to tea was in a 1559 volume of travel literature entitled Voyages and Travels, compiled by Giambattaista Ramusio (Jonnes 1982: 101). It describes tea as a hot drink with medicinal qualities. In the 1560's, Father Gasper da Cruz mentions tea in a letter home to Portugal from China, and Father Louis Almeda does the same in a letter sent from Japan to Italy. In spite of these early reports of tea it was not brought to Europe until 1610. It was introduced to Britain by the Dutch and there is no record of its earliest entry into Tea was a rare luxury good and a social nicety for the rich. Served primarily to men, it was first called Cha, from the Cantonese slang for tea. The name changed later to Tay, or Tee, when the British trading post moved from Canton to Amoy, where the word for tea is T'e (Ukers 1935: 23).

In 1662 Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea, which had already become common in Europe. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink (Mintz 1985: 110).

In an attempt to please Charles II, the English East India Company brought small gifts of tea from Europe for Catherine in 1664 and 1666. Other than these gifts, the English East India company did not consider tea to be worth importing from China until 1668, and it was not considered a serious trading commodity for at least another nine years (Ukers 1935). In 1669 all imports from Holland were prohibited, including tea, granting the English East India Company a monopoly over this commodity.

First sold in apothecaries and a few coffeehouses, the acceptance of tea into British culture was relatively slow. In 1667 Thomas Garraway, the owner of a coffeehouse known as Garraway's, was one of the first to serve tea. According to Garraway's advertisements tea in Britain had only been used as a "regalia in high treatments." He advertised it as a medicinal drink, capable of curing almost anything, and charged 6 to 10 for a pound. His coffee house was a center for mercantile transactions, and he sold tea both by the pound, and prepared tea. Garraway's was not the only coffee house that served as more than simply a place to purchase, and drink, the new stimulant beverages.

Coffee houses were hubs of business and trade news, and patronized entirely by men. As coffee houses were places of sobriety and moderation, they were known as locales for discussions about literature, politics and art. One would go to a coffee house to read newspapers, hear the latest trade news, and to see friends. Most coffee houses had a distinct character and clientele, and every profession, trade and class had its coffee house of choice. By the 18th century, as coffee and tea began to enter the home, many of these coffee houses evolved into male only clubs. One of the better known coffee houses to evolve in this manner was established by Edward Lloyd in 1687. It later became the famous insurance company Lloyds of London (Twinings 1956: 7).

Coffee houses were so active in political discussion that the government felt threatened by them and made an attempt to abolish them. On December 29, 1675, Charles II issued a proclamation ordering that all coffee houses close permanently by January 10, 1676, as they were the "...resort of idle and disaffected persons" (Ukers 1935: 45). The outcry against this was so great he was forced to reverse his decision on January 8, and the coffee houses remained open (Ukers 1935: 45).

Catherine of Braganza's choice of tea was instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain. Because tea was introduced primarily through male frequented coffee houses, there would have been far less social acceptability for women to drink this beverage had it not been for her example. Catherine of Braganza's use of tea as a court beverage, rather than a medicinal drink, influenced its popularity in literary circles around 1685. By 1686 tea was selling in markets, and the English East India Company considered it to be a part of their regular trade. It was no longer only a specialty item brought back by a ship's captain for personal use (Ukers 1935).

Until the 1700's, tea was a small part of Europe's trade with Asia. Prices were unstable until the 1710's, when direct regular trade between China and the East India companies created a situation in which larger quantities of tea were ordered because of an increased demand. In 1720, English Parliament prohibited the import of finished Asian textiles, with the goal of encouraging local textile manufacture. Until this time tea had been viewed as a secondary commodity, but now it was regarded with increasing interest, and it replaced silk as the primary Chinese export. Fortunately for the merchants who were forced to stop importing silk, tea drinking was gaining popularity in Britain.

Because of the increased tea trade a direct trade route was swiftly created between Canton and Britain, and tea prices stabilized (Smith 1992: 275). The market was flooded with green tea from China. Both tea and coffee were increasing in popularity during the beginning of the eighteenth century, but coffee became more difficult to import as demand for these two commodities grew.

Until the beginning of the eighteenth century, the only regions of the world supplying coffee were Arabia, New Guinea and Eritrea, a province in Ethiopia. All of these area were then free of European control, and incapable of increasing the amount of coffee produced. Although the Dutch attempted to grow coffee in other regions of the world, Arabian coffee remained the most popular. Coffee supply and prices were unstable, and rising demand pushed prices higher. Tea supply and prices stabilized earlier than coffee, so merchants preferred to deal in this commodity, and consequently advertised it more vigorously (Smith 1992: 275).

It has been suggested that tea gained popularity over chocolate and coffee in the late 1700's because it was more patriotic to drink tea, as it came from British colonies, whereas coffee came from the non-British Arabia, and chocolate from the Spanish and Portuguese controlled Americas (Smith 1992: 277). This was true during later years, but this theory neatly overlooks the historical fact that during the time in which tea actually supplanted coffee, both commodities were imported from politically independent nations; coffee came from Arabia, and tea was grown in China. It was not until the early nineteenth century that tea was grown in British colonies such as Java, India and Sri Lanka.

The amount of tea imported increased again in the first half of the eighteenth century. From 1650 to 1700, Britain imported about 181,500 lbs of tea. In the 1750's about 40 million lbs of tea were legally imported to Britain. However, as the smuggling trade was active in the eighteenth century, and it is very difficult to estimate how much tea was actually imported and consumed (Schivelbusch 1993). It is likely that as much tea was being smuggled in from Europe as was legally imported by the English East India Company. Sawdust, sand, and other floor sweepings were sometimes added to the tea by smugglers and traders to increase its volume despite legislation passed against the practice in 1725 (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939: 242). It is hard to imagine what this would have done to the quality of the taste of the tea, and how an infusion made of tea that was often mixed with these other "ingredients" could have become popular. It has been suggested that this adulteration of green tea made the public wary, so there was a change in preference to black teas. It is uncertain, however, why the demand for tea, green or black, increased so quickly during this time period, especially given the for questionable quality.

One reason tea became more popular than coffee lies in the nature of its preparation. Coffee grounds can only be used to make coffee once, as reusing grounds yields coffee with a far inferior taste. Tea leaves, however, can be used several times without a marked taste difference, although the resulting beverage is weaker than the original infusion. Until tea dropped in price in the middle of the nineteenth century, members of the working class in Britain bought second hand tea leaves from the bourgeoisie and let the tea steep longer to compensate. The amount of tea used can also be reduced, and a weak cup of tea is far more palatable than a weak cup of coffee. The price of tea per pound is always higher than that of coffee, but a smaller amount of tea is used per cup than coffee, making it more economical. (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939).

Chinese tea was imported until 1833. Due to increasing tensions between Britain and China, trade was restricted in 1831 when China only allowed foreign merchants contact with the Canton port. In 1834 all ports were closed to foreign vessels by an Imperial Edict from the Chinese Emperor until the end of the Britain-China war in 1842 (Ukers 1935: 77). The first tea from Java did not appear until 1835, and very little was produced in Java until a few decades later, so it is not clear where the British imported the bulk of their tea from between 1834 and 1842. The tea trade with India did not start around 1838. However, prices for this tea were very high and supply was not regular until the 1860's. In Sri Lanka (Ceylon) tea was not grown until the 1880's. Although tea drinking was common, consumption remained modest, at about three pounds per person a year, until the 1840's when consumption began to skyrocket. (Ukers 1935)

Clipper ships, first built in the early 1830's in the United States, provided the fastest means of transporting tea between China and the west. They became common in the early 1840's, in Britain when trade with China resumed. They could travel to China and back in the same amount of time an earlier ship sailed half the voyage. Tea Clippers were vital to the tea trade until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and were in operation until the end of the 1880's. During their heyday the Tea Clippers caught the attention of the public and there were many popular and well publicized races between ships, often with large prizes for the crew of the winning ship (Ukers 1935). The increase of tea on the British market due to the clipper ships aided in driving down the price of tea so members of the working class could afford it.

Blending teas began around 1870 when tea merchants such as Twinings began to blend different varieties of tea from differing regions to achieve a stable taste. Twining's English Breakfast Blend, for example, has tasted essentially the same for decades. Now the consumer was sure of exactly what flavor she or he was buying, and would be more likely to buy more once a favorite blend was discovered. A reduction of import duties lowered the price of tea, so buying more of the favored blend was economically easier than ever before. Tea prices plummeted with the introduction of black tea from Sri Lanka in the middle to late 1880's.

During the First World War there was a strong temperance movement and tea became a popular alternative to alcohol. By 1938 the per capita yearly tea consumption reached 9.11 pounds, and tea was firmly established in British culture.

Site Home  | Tea Home  | Chinese Beginnings  | Tea Comes to England  | Afternoon Tea in Britain  | Tea and the Working Class  | The Health Debate  | Pre-Colonial Sri Lankan History  | Robert Knox and Tea  | Bibliography