For many, tea is the best drink of the day – at any time of day. For others they can’t start the day without it, while some have it at ‘elevenses’ or for afternoon tea. Over 350 years tea has become our national drink, but while we view it as British, it’s been drunk in China as far back as 2737bc.
Although tea was probably brought back by sailors as a gift, it was a royal tea addict who began the British love affair with a cuppa…
Tea fit for a queen: Tea was brought to the royal court in Britain due by Catherine of Braganza, the queen of Charles II who had enjoyed tea in her childhood in Portugal.
Tea parties– supplied by coffee houses: Tea quickly became the beverage of choice among the aristocracy in 17th century England and then enjoyed by the middle classes too. It was drunk at London coffee houses by wealthy men when doing business or discussing the events of the day.
Some coffee houses sold leaf tea so it could be enjoyed at home by women at afternoon tea parties. They used dainty cups with no handles to brew the green or black tea, then poured it into the saucer to drink. They didn’t tend to add milk, but they often added sugar, even though it was also an expensive import.
Such was the popularity of tea that household servants often had a tea allowance. The housekeeper often had it built into her contract that she was allowed to keep any leftover tea that wasn’t drank and either consume it herself, or sell it to locals.
Stewed tea in a barrel: It wasn’t the best quality tea that coffee houses served. As its quantity was taxed by volume, it was brewed up in the morning, stored in barrels to await the visit from the excise officer. Then it was reheated as required – even if it was many hours old. After 1689 it was taxed by the leaf and the quality of tea served started to improve.
Is tea good for you? Tea has always been associated with health claims – both good and bad. A 1657 advert proclaimed its virtues of “making the body active and lusty”, and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age”. Clearly in those days there was no Trading Standards to clamp down on to over-claiming
In 1748, the great preacher John Wesley argued that we shouldn’t drink tea at all as it led to ‘numbness disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind’. He claimed that he’d suffered a disorder which entirely cleared up when he abstained from tea. The irony was that in later life, Wesley took up tea drinking.
Tea snobbery and the class system: From early 18th century well into the 19th century, the great class tea debate raged on. Middle class commentators talked about whether the working classes should be allowed to drink it, as it might injure their health and worse still, while they were drinking tea they weren’t working to make money for the rich!
The irony was that in later years, as tea became more popular and cheaper, it was given away by employers – just like the modern tea break.
High tea became common among poorer households in the 19th century at the end of a long working day: strong tea was served with wholesome food. Unlike afternoon tea for the rich being between meals, high tea was the main meal of the day for workers.
Tea and temperance: In the 19th century the upper classes promoted tea out of fear that alcohol would make work impossible and make workers difficult to deal with or unable to work. At mass meetings, usually at Methodist churches, people signed a pledge not to drink – which was ironic as one of the Methodists founders was John Wesley a fierce anti-tea campaigner.
In part 2 of tea, we look at how the price of tea led to the rise of tea smuggling and the health benefits of enjoying a regular cuppa.