History of Tea in the UK
It’s no secret that the British have long had a love affair with Tea. In reality, the word “Tea” alone has for centuries become synonymous with all things stereotypically “British” from croquet to cucumber sandwiches. The history of Tea in the UK started some 350 years ago. Ever since, we as a nation have proudly wiggled our pinky fingers while sipping brew after brew after brew.
This looks set to continue, with the average growth rate of the Tea Industry forecast to be 2% by 2021. Indeed, every year, more people in the UK choose to start their morning with a cuppa. It appears, at least to some, that it’s in our blood.
Tea Arrives in the UK
The story of Tea, according to legend, began in 2737 BCE. It didn’t find its way to the British Isles, however, until the 17th Century. Although history of Tea had existed in the East for thousands of years, Europeans had heard little about it until the 1600s.
Portuguese merchants living in Asia were some of the first Europeans to try it, but did little to influence it spreading to the West.
It was not through the Portuguese, nor even the British that commercial supplies of Tea arrived in Europe. It was, in fact, the Dutch, who after establishing a trading post on the present-day Indonesian island of Java, began transporting Tea from China to Holland. There, it quickly became a fashionable drink and eventually spread to neighbouring countries.
Britain, never one to immediately encourage continental trends, remained suspicious of Europe’s new love for Tea. It’s likely that it eventually arrived on our shores through the British East India Company, whose sailors returned home laden with gifts for loved ones, this is where the History of Tea in the UK story began.
On 23 September 1658, the London republican newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, published the first Tea advert in the United Kingdom. It read:
“China drink called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee”.
This, in the words of Casablanca’s Rick Blane, was the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” between the British people and Tea.
With advertising came increased demand for Tea. Soon after, Coffee Houses across the country began to sell it. Coffee itself, however, had only arrived in Britain no more than a decade before. The first Coffee House in England opened in Oxford in 1650, followed by another in London in 1652.
One of the first Coffee House owners was Thomas Garway, who ran an establishment in Exchange Alley in London. In 1660, he published a Tea advertisement of his own. In it, he wrote that Tea benefits its drinkers by “making the body active and lusty… preserving perfect health until extreme old age”.
Though somewhat of an exaggeration, it’s true to say that, according to modern science, frequently drinking Tea can indeed improve health in small yet significant ways.
The definitive turning point, when Britons made the change from Coffee to Tea, came about through the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Though Coffee Houses had played a significant role in the history if tea drinking in the UK, it was Catherine of Braganza, in particular, who made drinking tea truly fashionable. She was a Portuguese princess, and a Tea addict, who introduced the beverage to the wealthier classes of Britain.
Taxes and Smuggling of Tea
Despite its increasing popularity, Tea was an expensive beverage rarely available to anyone except the middle and upper classes. Britain had no direct trade route with China at this time, and so relied heavily on imports from the Dutch. This, as well as a 1676 act that taxed Tea while requiring Coffee House owners to apply for a licence, increased the price of Tea dramatically.
By 1689, further taxation had led to legal Tea sales all but drying up. Consequently, smuggling began to take its place. Vessels from Holland and Scandinavia brought Tea to the British coastline. There, the ships would wait offshore for the smugglers who would arrive in smaller boats to take the produce to Britain illegally. Underground passages through the cliffs allowed the smugglers, often local fishermen, to sneak inland unnoticed.
Records suggest that by the end of the 18th Century, smugglers imported 7 million lbs of Tea annually, compared to legal import of 5 million lbs. In 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger decided enough was enough. He slashed tax from 119% to 12.5%, making Tea affordable to the masses. As a result, smuggling virtually ceased within days.
Britain and Indian Tea
In 1800, the British Empire had dominion over several countries across the globe. Britain itself, however, continued to rely heavily on China’s Tea trade. Thirty years earlier, unrest in the thirteen American colonies - most famously the 1773 Boston Tea Party - had led to Britain losing a large portion of North America. Consequently, it had also lost its monopoly over Tea in what was by then The United States of America.
Meanwhile, ever growing tensions between Britain and China led to the Empire losing its primary source of Tea. It appeared for a time that the country was heading toward economic disaster, with its taste for Tea spelling bankruptcy. Britain needed an answer, and so it looked to India, a colony that had since 1612 been under the jurisdiction of the British East India Company.
Previous attempts to grow Tea in India using the Chinese Tea plant, Camellia sinensis var sinensis, had failed. In 1823, however, a Scottish merchant and adventurer named Robert Bruce made an incredible discovery that changed the British Empire’s Tea trade for years to come. He travelled to Rangpur (present-day Sibsagar) in Upper Assam to meet Bessa Gaum, the chief of the Singpho, one of the principal indigenous tribes of the Indian north-east.
Bruce intended to gain a better understanding of the native plants of the region. As a result, Bessa Guam presented him with leaves from a plant resembling that of Camellia sinensis var sinensis. Bruce knew that, if proven to be a relative of the Chinese Tea plant, Britain could kickstart a Tea Industry in India with great ease. This lead to a significant change to the History of Tea in the UK and one which continues today.
Robert went on to clarify his findings with his brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who studied the leaves at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. He indeed confirmed that the plant given to Robert Bruce was a variety of the Tea plant, later dubbed Camellia sinensis var assamica. And so, with that, an Indian Tea industry was born.
A noteworthy moment in the history of Tea in the UK was the ‘invention’ of Afternoon Tea. It’s hard to imagine, after all, a more quintessentially English pastime than sipping from a Teacup while enjoying a selection of finely cut sandwiches and cakes. The idea came from Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in 1840.
The Duchess had long found herself hungry at around four o’clock in the afternoon. Having to wait another four hours for dinner at eight o’clock would not suffice. To whet her appetite, the Duchess requested a tray of Tea, bread with butter, and cake. In time, it became somewhat of a habit, and soon after, she began to invite others to join her.
This eventually became the Afternoon Tea we recognise today, a social event originally reserved for the upper classes but now available to everyone. Throughout the 19th Century, in particular, Afternoon Tea saw women change into long gowns, dainty gloves and elaborate hats as part of the ‘ritual’. The Tea of choice most commonly came from India.
Tea Trade in the UK
With mass imports arriving from India, the history of Tea in the UK had taken a new turn. By 1851, Britain imported less than 2lbs of its Tea from China. Indian Tea, particularly Assam Tea, had taken its place. Merchants soon began transporting their produce in Tea Clippers, sleek ships designed for efficiency, which famously led to the clipper races of the 1860s.
For these races, clippers would gather at the Canton River to race down the China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope. From there, they would sail up the Atlantic, past the Azores and into the English Channel. At the Thames Estuary, other ships would tow the clippers into the river, with the first to have its cargo hauled ashore winning the race.
The most famous clipper of them all was, and still is, the Cutty Sark. This vessel, built in Dumbarton in 1868, made only eight Tea runs. The opening of the Suez Canal meant that steamships could benefit from much shorter journeys. As a result, the Cutty Sark spent only a few years as part of the Tea trade before turning to trade in wool from Australia. Nevertheless, it came to represent the era of the Tea Clipper. Today, the Cutty Sark is on exhibition at Greenwich in London.
Britain and Ceylon Tea
Around the same time that Tea Clippers sailed across the world, a plant based disease called Coffee Rust had severely damaged the economy in British Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka).
Years before, however, a Scotsman named James Taylor had already begun experimenting with Tea growing in Ceylon. Eventually, it would prove a tremendous success.
By the time Coffee Rust took hold, Taylor had already established 19 acres of Tea at his Loolecondera estate in the Kandy region. In 1872, three years after the outbreak, Taylor established a fully equipped Tea factory. Just one year later, in 1873, he made the first international sale of Ceylon Tea. Soon after, former Coffee planters flocked to the estate to start afresh with Tea.
But success did not come easily. First, nearly 120,000 hectares of land had to be stripped of dead or dying Coffee plants to make way for Tea plants. These exploits did not go unnoticed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, wrote:
“The Tea-fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion at Waterloo”.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Britain had two colonies, India and Ceylon, well catered to Tea production. This supported the rise and dominance of the British Empire for years to come. It also contributed significantly to the Industrial Revolution.
Britain and Kenya Tea
In 1903, another British colony, Kenya, played a small but significant role in the history of Tea in the UK. A Briton named G.W.L. Caine was the first to plant Tea in the East African colony. However, this was initially for ornamental purposes only. It wouldn’t be for a few more years that Britain saw the true potential of a Kenya Tea industry.
In 1910, Arnold Butler McDonnell, a Scotsman, purchased 350 acres of land from the British government, a farm named Kiambethu some 20 miles from Nairobi. Initially, McDonnell had planned to grow Coffee. However, at an elevation of 7,200 ft, his crops failed. He then tried other crops but they, too, wilted and died. After nearly ten years of disappointment, McDonnell tried Tea.
Finally, in 1918, Arnold planted 20 acres of Indian Camellia sinensis var assamica Tea. To his delight, the plants flourished. In time, his endeavours paved the way for a new era of prosperity for the British Empire, which peaked in the 1920s.
Tea in the UK Today
Britain’s Empire, the largest Empire the world has ever seen, ended officially in 1997. Britain’s love for Tea, however, did not. During the Second World War (1939-1945), Prime Minister Winston Churchill had viewed Tea as being as vital to the British people as the defences that protected our coastline. In the 1950s, the mass production of Tea Bags in the UK saw a surge in sales. Now, in 2019, Britons drink 165 million cups of Tea every day.
Here at The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, we stock over 1,000 different Types of Tea. From Green Tea to Black Tea, White Tea to Oolong Tea, or even Herbal Tea to Fruit Tea, we have it all. Loose Leaf or Tea Bags - the choice is yours. Now you know about History of Tea in the UK we have a history of our own, beginning in 1982 with the establishment of our Kent-based factory. Since then, we have packed every Tea, Coffee and Tisane fresh to order. This ensures not only quality but also consistency.