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In part 1 of tea, we looked at how tea drinking became quintessentially British. Here in part 2 we look at how the price of tea skyrocketed, how it led to a boom of smuggling and why tea is good for your health.
£1, 243 for 1lb of tea: The price of tea was astronomic. In Georgian times, if you could get a ship back with tea, you were an instant millionaire. This was partly because only 1 in 3 ships came back from China with tea that could be sold: they either perished on the treacherous seas, especially around the Cape of Good Hope, or sea water got into the tea and ruined it.
In 1650, the price ranged from £6 to £10 per pound of tea. That’s the equivalent of £1, 243 in today’s money.
The price was also kept high by government tax and commercial greed. The first tax on tea in the leaf was 1689 at an eye-watering 25p in the pound: so high that it almost stopped sales. By the 1780s it had reached 119%!
From 1600, the East India Company had a monopoly on importing goods from outside Europe. They restricted supply to keep prices artificially high to maximise their profits.
Clipper races to carry tea: After 1834 when the East India Company lost the monopoly on trade with China, there was a rush of merchants and sea captains to bring back tea and make a fortune. They used fast new clipper ships. There was even a race, leading to the famous clipper races of the 1860s from the Canton River in China to the River Thames: the winner was the first to unload its cargo. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 ended clipper racing and led to steam ships trading with China.
Smuggling tea: Wherever there is high demand and a high price, it makes smuggling highly likely. So in the 18th century, tea became even more profitable for smugglers than alcohol.
As tea smuggling was rife, sometimes the East India Company ended up with a tea mountain that they couldn’t sell. They tried dumping it on the US market, which eventually led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the American Revolution in 1775. Perhaps that’s the true origins of the phrase ‘storm in a tea cup’.
By 1775 it’s estimated that from 4 to 7 million pounds of tea were smuggled to England every year – more than was being imported legally.
Slashing the tea tax: Tea smuggling hit the profits of the East India Company and hit the tax that the government was able to collect. The answer was simple: reduce the tax and sell tea cheaper. Due to pressure from tea merchants who found smuggling ate – or rather drank – into their profit, the tea tax was then slashed by William Pitt the Younger in 1784 from 119% to 12.5% – so smuggling stopped almost immediately. The amount of tax gained by the government soon exceeded the pre-tax slash price. Governments continued to tinker with tea tax until it was abolished in 1964.
One lump or two? Just as cocaine is ‘cut’ to make it go further nowadays, smuggled tea was mixed – or ‘adulterated’ – with twigs, dried plant leaves, plus tea leaves that have been used and dried again – and amazingly even floor sweepings and sheep droppings. Sometimes to make the colour look more realistic, copper carbonate was added, but this was poisonous: This led to the rise of black tea and so also the rise of putting milk into tea.
If you poo-poo the idea of tea from animal droppings, then you’ll turn your nose up at one of the world’s most expensive teas. Panda Dung Tea bushes are fertilised with panda droppings by a entrepreneur who even has a patent to make it this way. It will set you back an eye-watering £35,000 per kg. That’s about £100 a cup!
Da-Hong Pao, meaning Big Red Robe, is today the king of Chinese teas. A legendary tea with countless medicinal properties, it’s the world’s most expensive tea at £600,000 per kg.
Tea Bags: The first tea bags were made from silk in 1908, but the 1920s was the ‘decade of the teabag’ and widely replaced the use of the tea ball – a perforated metal container on a chain. They were usually made from cloth or gauze. Only 5% of British tea was made from tea bags in the 1960s, but 96% is made that way today.
£7,500 is the highest price ever paid for a teabag. It wasn’t just any old teabag. To celebrate PG Tips’s 75th anniversary, it had Boodles the jewellers create a teabag studded with 280 diamonds and filled it with Silver Tips Imperial Tea from the Makibari Estate: the most expensive Darjeeling tea in the world.
Tea rationing: In WWI, tea was not initially rationed, but as merchant ships began being sunk by German submarines, the government took control of tea imports and prices. In WWII, the government realised that morale-boosting tea was a vital part of the war effort, so it took control of all tea stocks 2 days after the war started. The German blockade led to rationing in 1940 of 2oz of tea per week for anyone aged over 5. Tea rationing continued until 1952.
Tea – part of your 4 a day. It’s recommended to have 4 cups of tea a day to gain the maximum benefit. Tea contains half the caffeine found in coffee. It’s also a natural source of fluoride to help protect your gnashers from tooth decay and gum disease. So a cup of tea keeps the dentist away.
We all know that tea refreshes you. It makes you feel better and reduces stress – with a cup of tea you feel you can cope with anything. Cheers.