The history of our humble cuppa

8 Jun 2018

Often thought as a quintessentially British drink. The history of tea goes back to 2737BC when rumour has it the Chinese Emporer Shen Nung was sleeping beside theCamellia Sinesis bush - a cup of boiling water by his side; leaves fell into the cup and tea was the resulting brew!

Although tea was being traded in Portugal and Holland it was the marriage of Charles the second to Princess Catherine of Portugal in 1662 that helped tea become a fashionable but expensive drink of the nobility and upper classes.

The East India company began to import tea from China in 1664 on their famous tea clipper ships.

Tea became a popular drink in coffee houses, frequented by middle and upper class men, however as yet tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes. Coffee shops also sold tea in loose form and so wealthy ladies were able to gather at home for tea parties. Silver tea kettles and delicate china made it a very genteel affair. In the mid 1750's handles were added to tea cups to prevent the burning of delicate hands! It was unusual at this time to add milk to tea although sugar - another expensive import was used and added to the exclusivity of the tea party. In 1784, The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, slashed the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Suddenly tea was affordable to everyone, and Britain took to drinking it with an enthusiasm that continues today.

In 1851, virtually all tea came from China and we Brits were drinking less than 2lb each per year. But by 1901, buoyed by cheaper imports from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) annual consumption had gone up to 6lb per person. Tea was firmly established as an essential part of British life. William Gladstone - Prime Minister until 1894 said 'If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you and if you are excited it will calm you'

So important was tea to the nation it was officially recognised during the First World War, when the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting drink continued to be available at an affordable price. The government took control again during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952. Each person was given 2oz (50g) a week, extra was issued to the armed forces and civilians doing vital work (fireman and steel workers). Tea with added sugar and powdered milk was sent in Red Cross Parcels to British prisoners of war. The vast reserves of tea that were stored in London were dispersed to warehouses outside of the capital in case of bombing. Churchill reportedly commented that 'tea was more important than ammunition and helped restore at least a semblance of calm and normality'.

In January 1946, the author and journalist George Orwell published an essay called 'A Nice Cup of Tea' in the Evening Standard newspaper, calling tea 'one of the main stays of civilisation in this country'.

Tea bags were first developed in America for commercial production during the 1920's. While the American population took to tea bags with enthusiasm, the British were naturally wary of such a radical change in their tea-making methods. Due to material shortages during the war it wasn't until the 50's that tea bags really gained popularity. By 2007 96% of the British tea drinking public used a tea bag!

With thanks to for their invaluable help and knowledge with this blog.

tea clipper

The Cutty Sark tea clipper


London coffee house


17th century tea drinker!

tea drinking in WW2

Tea during WW2

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