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Published on Jun 11, 2013 in Europe, News

The Origin of Tea in Britain

         When someone mentions Great Britain, various images usually come to mind: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge and, more than likely, the drinking of tea. In fact, each day in Britain, more than 165 million cups of tea are consumed. Yet the British were relative latecomers in their consumption of tea as tea didn’t actually gain popularity in Britain until the middle of the eighteenth century.

         Tea has been consumed in China since around 3000 B.C. When Portuguese and Dutch traders from Europe arrived on China’s shores in the sixteenth century, they noticed the wide use of tea and took back home with them wooden trunks filled with various types of Chinese teas. Gradually, Europeans began to like this new Chinese drink and by the early seventeenth century it became a common commodity on trading ships returning from Asia.

As Portuguese traders brought home tea from China, its high price and exotic appeal spread throughout the aristocracy. It also became the most popular drink in Holland as a result of being transported there by Dutch traders. But Britain still lagged behind other countries in its consumption as tea was usually only found in coffee houses and some establishments that served alcoholic beverages.

Then in May of 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne after the unpopular Commonwealth administration, set up by Oliver Cromwell, collapsed. But in being restored to the throne, Charles II inherited a great deal of debt and was low on cash. In addition, the reinstated government continued to create even more debt. In looking for a way out of his financial woes, Charles II decided he would marry a foreign princess and ask for a great dowry. And that’s what he did. He married Catherine of Braganza, whose father was King John IV of Portugal.

In 1662 Catherine arrived in Britain with, among other things, a supply of tea she had transported with her from Portugal. Catherine was considered somewhat of a fashionista at the time and it wasn’t long before Catherine’s taste in tea spread throughout the royal court. The drinking of tea eventually spread to Britain’s middle class, and to London’s coffee houses where locals would come to discuss business as well as to socialize.

Although the drinking of tea was growing in popularity, it was unpopular with the government. Tea was rapidly gaining in popularity at the expense of traditional alcoholic beverages. Since tea was untaxed, it took revenue away from the government who had come to depend on a steady revenue stream from the sale of liquor. By 1700 over 500 coffee houses were selling tea in Britain, much to the distress of tavern owners and the government alike. Moreover, it was Britain’s lower classes that initially adopted tea as their favorite drink. By 1750 it was the drink of choice throughout the lower levels of British society.

Because of the substantial loss in revenue from so many people now drinking an untaxed beverage, it was decided in 1676 to enact a tax on tea, but only in liquid form, and require coffee houses to apply for a license in order to serve it. The way it worked was that the merchant would brew the tea in the morning, an excise officer would visit the merchant after the tea was brewed, and then the tea would be stored in barrels and reheated as necessary throughout the day. But if you drank tea late in the day your tea would be completely different, and probably taste worse, from that which someone had drank that morning. In 1689 the government changed the way tea was taxed. Instead of taxing the liquid form of tea, the government taxed tea by the leaf thereby improving the taste of tea for all Britons. Still, tea was very expensive by the standards of the time with a government tax on tea being as high as 119%.

With the substantial tax on tea, smuggling tea into Britain became commonplace. Since smugglers operated throughout the country, they subsequently were responsible for dispersing tea throughout Great Britain. Eventually, smugglers started bringing more tea into Britain than was imported legally. As a result, the profits of tea merchants were decreasing rapidly and they placed a great deal of pressure on the government to take action. Subsequently, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger, according to David Ross, Editor of Britain Express, introduced the Commutation Act which dropped the tax on tea to 12.5%. With the stroke of a quill the smuggling of tea in Britain effectively ended.

When the tax on tea dropped, it rapidly became the drink of choice among the working class. At the same time, according to the United Kingdom Tea Council, a debate raged within Britain as to whether tea was actually good for you or whether its use was injurious to your health. There wasn’t much in the way of a scientific evidence, as we know it, at that time. Consequently, there was intense debate as to whether or not to allow the lower class to drink tea because it was possibly harmful to them. But this was mostly snobbery on the part of the middle and upper classes who essentially looked down on the poor. Nevertheless, these arguments raged on for years until the early 1800s when tea, which was now provided by the British government to the Navy, was considered to be a health beneficial alternative to the consumption of alcohol.

In the eighteenth century, almost everyone drank alcoholic beverages – men, women, and even children in Great Britain. It was basically a part of one’s diet as the water in cities and towns was often polluted. It was common, for example, to drink beer or ale with breakfast. Alcoholism was a persistent problem in the eighteenth century. Therefore, in the nineteenth century there began a temperance movement in Britain fueled by concerns of alcoholic over-indulgence. Tea was offered as an alternative to alcohol. It was cheap, made with boiled water, and therefore safe to drink. During the 1830s the temperance movement proved to be so successful that new cafes and coffee houses were opened to offer alternatives to those who wanted to socialize or meet and have an alternative to alcohol. By the 1880s tea rooms became fashionable in Britain. It was especially popular with women who now, for the first time, had a way to meet with friends outside of their home and have a cup of tea. Previously, meeting with friends in a tavern, even when having a cup of tea, would have carried with it a social stigma.

The tea which originally arrived on British shores was imported from China. However, that changed over time as the British had a preference for stronger teas and they soon found that tea from India was more to their liking. By 1900 only 5% of British tea came from China.

Although tea was consumed in cafes and other outside venues, it was primarily a drink one consumed at home, especially at breakfast, and by all social classes. The custom of drinking afternoon tea actually evolved from Britain’s upper class and, more-than-likely, from ladies afternoon tea-parties in the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century afternoon tea had morphed into something of a tradition. However, according to the United Kingdom Tea Council, tradition has it that afternoon tea was invented by Anna Maria, the wife of the Duke of Bedford, who in 1841 started drinking tea, as well as having a small bite to eat, to tide her over between lunch and dinner. It’s said that the Duchess invited friends to join her for afternoon tea and that by the 1860s this practice became fashionable.

Most people, outside of Great Britain, don’t know the difference between afternoon tea and high tea. But there’s actually quite a difference. Afternoon tea pretty much consists of tea, biscuits, finger sandwiches, and the like. It’s a light affair and it varies slightly depending on the venue. But not exactly a Big Mac and fries. High tea, on the other hand, usually consists of tea and a hearty hot meal. The reason that some prefer high tea to afternoon tea is that, for many people, their midday meal is their main meal of the day. This is particularly true in Europe. Subsequently, high tea is enjoyed by many who pass up the stop-gap measure of afternoon tea to satisfy their hunger pangs, and go straight for the gusto with high tea.


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