The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company was founded in 1982. We are an establishment of family values, with decades of first-hand experience in Tea and Coffee. From plant to cup, the Smith family have journeyed through the vast Tea gardens of Assam in India, and on to the quaint English countryside of Pluckley, Kent.
Today, we stock over 1,000 types of Tea and over 80 types of Coffee. Our selection grows with each passing year. Four generations of the Smith family have worked within the Tea Industry dating back to the early 20th Century. Mr Richard Smith, the current owner, belongs to the most recent part of his family's history with Tea.
Where our Story Began
Mr Robert Culham Stammers Jr, grandfather of Mr Richard Smith, was born in 1905. His parents, Robert Sr and Helen Stammers, were foreign representatives of Marshall's, a Gainsborough engineering company supplying agricultural machinery to countries around the world. The family frequently travelled on business to one of the company's biggest customers, pre-revolution Russia. It was here that the young Robert Jr spent a sizable proportion of his childhood.
At the age of seven, Robert Jr was sent to live in Lowestoft, England, with his Uncle Frank and brother. There, he attended a local preparatory school. His education eventually took him to Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Gainsborough, before becoming an apprentice draughtsman and engineer with Marshall's. During this time, Robert met his wife-to-be, Madeline.
In 1927, Robert, then aged 23, happened upon an advertisement by the Rajmai Tea Company of Assam. They were seeking a plantation assistant with engineering experience. It would turn out to be an opportunity that changed his and later Madeline's lives forever.
Robert Travelling to India
Boarding the 7,000-ton vessel, SS Nankin,The Cruel Laws of Nature in February 1928, Robert began his long journey to the Behora Tea Estate in Assam, India. The passage took five weeks, starting from London's Albert Dock. From there, he travelled via Malta, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Madras (India) and then onto Calcutta.
A further 600 miles on the train, taking two days and a night, finally brought him to the renowned northeastern Indian state of Assam. Surrounded by the northern Himalayas, the Brahmaputra plains and the Deccan plateau, Mr Stammers found himself initially ill-prepared. He later recalled:
"I had no idea what a Tea plantation looked like and had somehow the idea they were like smallholdings".
"I was quite awed by the size of the estate, which covered 2,000 acres. I found it to be a self-contained community of about 3,000 people, with its own processing factory, hospital, schools and cinema".
Starting Work on Behora Estate
Mr Stammers noted that some 845 acres of the Estate were under Tea cultivation. Much of the remaining land was devoted to rice-growing to sustain the local workers. This was in addition to bamboo, thatch and timber used for housing. The houses themselves also took up a sizable proportion of the area. The factory, meanwhile, was extraordinarily large and constantly bustling. Inside, Robert was delighted to find machinery made by Marshalls, a warming reminder of his family's ever-growing legacy.
For the first few years, Mr Stammers' responsibilities lay solely within the factory walls. He oversaw the daily work of some 100 labourers. This was out of an estimated 1,300-strong workforce which stretched out across the rest of the Behora Tea Estate. In 1929, his fiancee, Madeline, sailed out to join him. The couple married at St John's Church, Calcutta.
Back at the estate, Madeline was captivated by the nearby landscape. She said:
"It was a marvellous life. We had our own ponies, and cattle for milk, though our monthly groceries came up from Calcutta by steamer - a three-week journey!"
With India then under the British Raj, Mr Stammers found he was required to join the Assam Valley Light Horse. This was an auxiliary cavalry regiment tasked with keeping the peace in the region. He continued his duties until the subcontinent attained independence from Britain in 1947. In the meantime, Madeline showed great enthusiasm tending to her garden.
Twice-weekly, polo matches were a feature of life for both Madeline and Robert. It was necessary, in fact, to have more than one horse. This was because of the immense heat experienced riding around the estate. To ensure the welfare of the horses, Robert frequently switched between them to give the others time to rest.
After six years of working in the factory, Mr Stammers was promoted from junior to senior assistant. His hard work and determination, along with his integrity and outstanding initiative, saw him rise through the ranks. With this, his managerial responsibilities extended to some of the company's other Tea estates. Indeed, Robert had proven himself to be a tremendous asset.
Robert vividly recalled one particular incident involving a local herd of wild elephants. The estates' water supply came from a spring some 300 feet up in the hills. From there, it reached the workers via an installed pipeline. One day, however, the water dried up. The cause turned out to be the elephants who had grown wise to the flowing water within the protected pipes. As a result, they had severely damaged the much-needed system for their own gain!
Further concern came about with the shadows of war on the horizon. While Madeline, their son, Bob, and their daughter, Janet, were visiting England, hostilities broke out. Leaving Bob to attend school in the UK, Madeline and Janet departed for India on the first convoy out of Liverpool. Little did they realise at the time that both Europe and Asia would eventually become warzones.
As Axis-aligned Japanese forces advanced through Burma (Myanmar) and towards India, Janet was forced to change schools three times. She moved first from her school in Shillong to a convent in Simla. From there, she eventually attended another convent in Darjeeling. Finally, in desperation, Madeline chose to tutor Janet from the relative safety of their home. Even this sense of security was near shattered when the Japanese were but 28 miles from the plantation.
The Cruel Laws of Nature
And the Japanese were not the only concern for the Smith Family. An earthquake that shook the very foundations of the Behora Estate, damaging much of the property, led to even more complications. When the estate manager lost his home to the disaster, he forced the Smith Family out from their bungalow so that he could take up residence. As a result, Robert, Madeline and Janet were forced to live in the schoolhouse.
Meanwhile, Janet's beloved Fox Terrier, Kim, slept outside. One day, however, they left the schoolhouse to find the dog nowhere in sight. As it turned out, during the night, a leopard had been prowling around the Estate. It didn't take long to realise that Kim would not be coming home. Janet was, of course, devastated.
Back to Business
After the war, Robert was appointed the manager of the estate. Inspired in his new position, he wasted no time bringing about much-needed change. The estate opted for quality over quantity, with Mr Stammers' transformations often ensuring the highest prices in the London market. He recalled:
"The bushes were pruned in the cold weather, but from April to October they had to be plucked every seven days. During the busy season, we had 700 people doing nothing but plucking. [Workers] picked just the best - two leaves and a bud - for they knew I would not countenance any rough parts of the plant being sent for processing".
Robert not only oversaw the production elements of day-to-day life, however. He was also largely responsible for accountancy, the administration of medical services, Tea-tasting and the safeguarding of worker welfare. He performed his duties with due diligence and, indeed, passion. He cared about Tea the same way that we continue to do so today.
Robert, along with his wife Madeline, returned to the UK in March 1960, aged 55. He had spent 32 years of his life with The Rajmai Tea Company - 19 years under the British Raj and 13 in an independent India. They carried with them fond memories of their time on the Behora Estate of Assam. However, their legacy continued through their children, Janet and Bob.
The two siblings stayed in India after their parents' retirement. During this time, Janet's future husband-to-be, Malcolm Smith, was serving in the Armed Forces after leaving school in Tonbridge, England. Their paths wouldn't cross for a few more years. But in the meantime, Malcolm performed his duties in the Black Watch, and later with the Gurkhas, with exemplary distinction.
Malcolm's Military Service
Mr Malcolm Smith, father of Mr Richard Smith, served with the 4th Gurkha Rifles on the 'North-West Frontier' of British India. During the partition of India in 1947, however, this region became part of Pakistan. Consequently, many Gurkha units, including the 4th, were promptly transferred into the Indian Army. Malcolm was instead transferred into the 10th Gurkha Rifles, a regiment that became part of the British Army.
The 10th Gurkha Rifles went on to serve in the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). During the largely jungle-based Guerrilla conflict, Capt. Smith made headlines when he, accompanied by a patrol, engaged Communist insurgents. However, Malcolm also sustained injuries when a grenade exploded nearby, which damaged his hearing.
As a result, Malcolm was sent to recover at a hospital in Scotland. There, he decided a change was in order. His fluency in Gurkhali, he thought, would serve him well. And so, he visited the Glasgow offices of James Finlay Ltd, a Tea Plantation company. This would become the start of his journey into the world of Tea. It would also lead to the first meeting between Malcolm and Janet.
As Fate Would Have it
But his new venture didn't go as expected. Instead of sending him to Darjeeling, where many of the locals spoke Gurkhali, James Finlay Ltd sent Malcolm to Assam. Here, the locals mostly spoke Assamese - a relatively alien language to the former Captain! Nevertheless, it was also here, at the Assam Tea Estates of Lattakoojan and Nahatoli, that Malcolm was introduced to Janet Stammers. They eventually married and lived on the pluralise estate for around three years.
Malcolm and Janet had proven themselves to be assets to the Indian Tea Industry, as had Robert Stammers Jr years before. The couple moved to Calcutta (Kolkata) when Malcolm joined Warren Plantations. This prestigious company, supported by some 40,000 workers, served as an agent to numerous Tea Estates. This included the Darjeeling gardens of Ging, Phoobsering and Tukdah. In Assam, meanwhile, it included Deohall, Hatimara and Thowra.
For the next 20 years of their lives, Janet and Malcolm frequently visited these estates while living in the Alipore neighbourhood of Calcutta. It was also during this time, on January 29th, 1963, that their son and our current owner, Mr Richard Smith, was born.
Janet and Malcolm in Calcutta
When not visiting the estates, Malcolm was the chairman of the Bengal Club in Calcutta. This was a society epitomising elegance and class. It had indeed outlasted its colonial founders and yet retained its majesty. He was also the chairman of the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club. In time, his love for sport was passed down to his son.
Janet, meanwhile, also enjoyed games of golf and bridge, as well as the occasional Coffee morning. She partook in charitable work within the city while maintaining her role as her household's Memsahib. Her duties included organising the staff, ensuring their welfare, and, of course, looking after her sons, Howard and Richard Smith.
Richard Smith in Calcutta
"Life in Calcutta was always quite splendid", said Richard, who spent his younger years travelling into the city on shopping expeditions, wandering through the markets and streets. He was also faced with the harsher realities of life in Calcutta. This included seeing the beggars on the street and the children whose parents had maimed them so that they could receive sympathy and food.
By the river banks, Richard often saw and smelled the burning ghats, the Hindu tradition of cremating dead bodies. The ritual signifies breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, a concept the young master Smith became quite accustomed to throughout his childhood.
Another element to everyday life was the wildlife. Richard recalled:
"You used to get a lot of Grey Langurs [monkeys] coming into the garden - and lots of snakes. Every day, I'd have to check the bed with a cricket bat for snakes!"
Richard also developed an appreciation for sport:
"Sometimes in the afternoon you'd travel through the city and play golf at the famous Tollygunge Club".
Some of his most vivid recollections, however, are of the city during the Monsoon season:
"We had high steps down to the back garden... [during the monsoon] you could, in theory, dive off the top step and swim in the garden".
"As a youngster, I was always carried to school. In the rainy season... Hirisi Kes Das [the family's in-house bearer] even carried me through the rain waters, being especially careful to avoid the open manhole covers!"
The End of an Era
Malcolm, like his father-in-law, worked his way up through the ranks. He had started his career in the world of Loose Leaf Tea as an assistant. By the end of his tenure, he managed the Head Office of Warren Plantations based in Calcutta. He split his time between the city and the Estates of Assam and Darjeeling. For many of his visits to the gardens, the rest of the Smith family came with him. Richard remembers these visits well:
"The main [Assam] estate we stayed on was Deohall... it was very wild. One day, we came downstairs, everyone gathered around the dining table, and underneath the table, there was a bit of a noise. It was a Cobra. So everyone obviously left the room, and then the Bearer had to go in and shoo it out".
"And in Darjeeling, when we used to stay, the early morning clouds would be down in the valley below. And Kangchenjunga [the third highest mountain in the world] would be straight ahead".
But Malcolm's new duties with Warren Plantations would eventually take the family back to the UK. He was to work from the London Office while also travelling to Tea plantations around the world as a consultant. It was the end of an era.
"The days of the old Tea planters from overseas were coming to an end. My father's generation was probably the last of that," said Richard.
The Smith Family Returns to the UK
Janet, Malcolm and Richard returned to the UK in 1978. This coincided with a period in Assam and Darjeeling when former colonial-managed estates were being handed over to Indian entrepreneurs. It was a time of significant change. And that wasn't to end for the Smith family, who had plans of their own for creating a UK-based Tea company.
Richard split his time between working in Tea and studying economics at London Polytechnic. During this time, Mondays and Fridays were used for building up the groundwork that would become The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company. At their home in Pluckley, Janet and Richard began this humbling enterprise by packing Tea Bags by hand from chests of 10,000. Richard recalled:
"Before the Tea Machine came, we used the bedroom at the top of the house to count out 10s and then put them into 80 Tea Bag parcels".
Their first customer, the local village shop, was the inspiration for the name of these hand-packed Tea Bags, Pluckley Tea. Indeed, this is now our flagship product. And rightfully so. It remains the most popular Tea we stock, and continues to enthral the thousands around the world who brew it for their morning cuppa'.
Our Company Finds Its Home
As the foundations for The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company grew, so too did the need for a bigger space. The decision was made to move production from their home to the nearby business estate of Pivington Mill. This is where we remain today. After a couple of smaller moves around the estate, the company settled into its current premises. The building had previously been a flax mill attached to a Dutch barn. Now, it was our home. Soon after, Janet and Richard decided to extend the business' expertise to Coffee as well as Tea.
"I think you soon realise you wouldn't survive as a business without Coffee", said Richard, who himself fondly enjoys a cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe first thing in the morning. This, however, came with its own challenges, as Richard recalls:
"Coffee and Tea don't necessarily mix because of the hygroscopic nature of Tea".
This meant that extra care had to be taken, as it continues to do so today, to separate the two products. And further challenges were on the horizon.
Orchards on Fire and Elephants in Kent
The slash-and-burn agriculture techniques used at the nearby farm posed a problem. More than a problem, in fact. The absorbent nature of Tea combined with the smoke coming from the fields spelt disaster. Though Lapsang Souchong is famously smoked under pinewood fires, this, of course, doesn't apply to all types of Teas. Richard said:
"The workers didn't know any better... so we had to go and find the farmer and explain the situation. The risk was that if the smoke came into our building, our entire stock could be lost".
Suffice to say, the problem was resolved soon after.
Another incident in the early history of the company took place when a 25-year-old Richard was interviewed by a local paper. When asked by the journalist if the Tea was grown locally, Richard assumed he was joking. Nevertheless, he played along. He told the journalist that the Tea was, indeed, grown in Pluckley. In fact, as they spoke, elephants were assisting the hundreds of Tea workers on the nearby Pluckley Tea Plantation. The journalist, believing everything said by Richard, ended up publishing the elaborate tale - elephants and all! Oops!
A New Century - Present Day
Malcolm had sadly passed away in 1996 after an incredible career in Tea. Richard and Janet continued to honour his legacy, and the legacy of the Stammers, every day. In fact, by the early 2000s, "The Kent Tea and Trading Company", as we were then known, had become a thriving family-run business. Its stock was growing with each passing year - as it continues to do so today. The decade before, Richard had assisted another Tea Company in establishing its roots in neighbouring Sussex. However, following difficulties experienced by The Sussex Tea Company, Richard decided to combine forces. From then on, we became The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company. We haven't looked back since.
Our story continues through every cup of our Tea and Coffee brewed. Whether you like Pluckley Black Tea or Gunpowder Green Tea; Colombian Coffee or Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, we have a beverage for you. We hand-pack everything fresh to order here in our Pluckley-based factory, nestled away within the stunning Kentish countryside. This ensures not only quality but also consistency. One can choose between buying online or, for the more adventurous, visiting our Factory shop at Pivington Mill!
Mr Richard Smith, reflecting on our heritage, said:
"Tea is in the blood".
He was then reminded again of his time in Calcutta. He recalled days wandering past the Victoria Memorial near Fort William and the Hooghly River. The Empress of India was indeed fond of her Tea. With this in mind, he quoted a well-known saying in Hindi:
"थोड़ी चीनी, थोड़ी चाय, रानी विक्टोरिया, बहुत अच्छी".
"A little sugar, a little Tea, Queen Victoria very good".