The History of Tea in the UK

The History of Tea in the UK
We all know that Britain is classed as a nation of tea drinkers.  But how did tea take over the country?  We look back into the mists of time to find out…

These days, tea is thought of as a quintessentially British drink, yet it originally came from China, and the history of tea there goes back some 4000 years.  Supposedly, the first tea was created quite by accident, with legend telling us that leaves falling from the Camellia Sinensis trees into the Emperor’s boiled water created the very first infusion.  It is impossible to know if this is actually the case, but it is certainly true that tea was available in China many centuries before its arrival in Europe.

In fact, the first known mentions of tea drinking amongst Europeans only begin to crop up in the history books around the sixteenth century, and occur mostly from the Portuguese traders and missionaries living in the East at the time.  However it was only when the Dutch began to encroach on these trade routes in the last few years of the sixteenth century that tea started to be shipped back to the West as a commercial import.  A trading post in Java was established and tea soon became a fashionable drink for the wealthy Dutch.

Britain was a little slower to adopt this continental trend, but it was actually the fashionable coffee houses that first started to sell tea.  The language used in their advertisements of the time suggest that tea started as a novelty item that was quite unfamiliar to the general populace.  It was the Royal Family, however, that really brought the drinking of tea to the fore.  When Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, the turning point occurred; a Portuguese princess, Catherine was extremely partial to a good cup of tea, and introduced it as a fashionable drink to the court – a trend that soon spread to the wealthy upper classes.  It was at this point that the East India Company began to import tea into Britain, with the firstorder being placed in 1664.

From this point on, the British took to tea with great enthusiasm, with the drink gaining popularity in the coffee houses and within the homes of the upper classes.  However, tea was far too expensive at this point in history to be adopted by the working masses.  This was in no small part down to taxation; the first tax on tea was 25 pence in the pound, and in fact tax on tea was only abolished as recently as 1964.  This high tax lead to a burgeoning illegal trade which imported up to 7 million lbs annually, which is even more impressive when contrasted with the official import figure of 5 million lbs annually!  As the illegal tea trade was not subject to the same standards as the official tea put through customs and excise, this lead to adulteration, with old and used tea leaves being adding to different leaves to make a cheaper product, there were even reports of sheep’s dung being added to this mix to make a realistic colour for a substandard product.  In 1784, the tax was cut to put an end to these problems, and tea became affordable.

The end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China brought about a revolution, when tea started to be grown in India nearer to their base of operations.  This cultivation of tea within a British colony was a great success and consumption of tea boomed with the advent of these new imported blends such as Assam and Ceylon.  Annual consumption per head rocketed from 2lbs to 6lbs.

Since then, tea drinking has been firmly ensconced in the British psyche, with only rationing during the Second World War curbing consumption.  To this day the main players in the tea trade are British companies, and with new research indicating that tea has a wealth of health benefits, we think it is safe to say that the Great British tradition of tea is here to stay.

Phew, after that whirlwind tour through tea history, we think it's time to reward ourselves with a brew of our finest Plymouth Tea!

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  • Katie Beresford