The History of Tea in Britain
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Despite its stereotypes with British culture, it took centuries for tea to arrive in the West. So what is its history? Why was it important? The answers to these questions, and more, will be revealed in this guide.
The Origins of Tea
There are various stories of where and how tea first originated. One of the most famous dates back to 2700BC. The Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree with some boiled water, some leaves from the tree blew into the water and created an infused drink by accident. True or not, there is plenty of evidence to show that tea-drinking became established in China many centuries before it was enjoyed in the West.
Tea in Europe
Tea-drinking in 16th century Europe is mentioned, mostly by Portuguese merchants who lived and traded in the East. However, the Dutch were the first to ship tea as a commercial import at the end of the 16th century. Tea soon became very fashionable in the Netherlands, and, from there, spread to other western European countries; but given its high price it was a luxury only the rich enjoyed.
Tea in Britain
One of the first references to tea in Britain was in 1658,
when an advertisement in a London newspaper announced that the 'China Drink’, “Tcha”, was for sale at a coffee house in the City.
The advert’s phrasing suggests readers would know little about it at this stage.
Tea becoming fashionable
Charles II’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 was a catalyst for tea becoming popular. She was a big fan of tea, and her influence made it fashionable among the wealthy classes. As a result of increased demand and interest, the East India Company started importing tea into Britain, its first order being placed in 1664.
The role of tea in trade and slavery
Taxes on import
With its rise in popularity around the 17th and 18th centuries, huge taxes of 119% of the value were imposed on tea imports to Britain. This not only ensured it stayed a drink for the rich, but also caused widespread tea-smuggling. By the late 18th century, it is estimated more tea was brought in by smugglers than via the legal route.
Smugglers avoided taxation, reducing the cost to the consumer, meaning there was more availability in rural coastal areas where smuggling thrived. Both these factors helped bring tea to the masses.
Around 1785, the government, under pressure from tea merchants, drastically reduced the import taxes to 12.5%, effectively ending the smugglers’ trade overnight since they could no longer compete on price. Despite this, tea remained relatively expensive.
Links to slavery
Tea, coffee, and chocolate drove a huge rise in the global sugar trade as consumers sought to sweeten their bitter tastes. Europe started importing sugar in the 16th century; demand grew with tea’s popularity. Much like tea, sugar was initially an expensive luxury product, exclusive to the rich, but despite the high sale value, the expanded production of the sugar trade depended on enslaved people - many abducted from Africa - to harvest, process, and pack sugar for export around the world.
Unfortunately, even today there are still connections to slavery and the high demand for tea. In 2013 slave trading originating from tea estates was exposed publicly, and the world’s leading producers all made pledges to act. Despite this, many tea workers still live in poverty and are exploited through forced labour.
Origins of British tea-drinking culture
One of the most well-known and now commonplace rituals around British tea-drinking is afternoon tea. This is often associated with ‘high society’ having been started in the 19th century by the Duchess of Bedford (one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting). With gas-powered lighting more commonplace in wealthy English homes, it meant dinner time became later. With the widening gap between meals, and subsequent afternoon appetite, the Duchess started a trend for afternoon tea.
It soon became a new vehicle for social engagement and a growing middle class drove its popularity as a sign of status.
As tea started out as a drink for the rich, it quickly became a symbol of the rules and customs expected of aristocratic life. Occasions such as afternoon tea would demand smart dress and observing many rules around the making of the tea. These included using only bone china, and stirring backwards and forwards rather than in circular motions.
Even today, stylised behaviour in the drinking of tea include: holding the saucer between waist and chest height, never holding the cup with two hands, and only taking small sips.
The tradition of afternoon tea, along with its associated customs, may seem a distinct part of British culture. However, other countries, most notably Japan, had developed long-standing rituals around tea long before it had even reached Britain.
Backlash among the rich
After smugglers had brought tea to the masses in the 18th century, more people than ever had a taste for it. However, many richer people believed tea was inappropriate for the working classes and debated whether they should even be allowed to drink it. This didn’t stop it continuing to rise in popularity and some poorer households even started to enjoy afternoon tea by pooling their resources.
New Tradition - High Tea
Prior to the industrial revolution most people worked in agriculture and had a main meal at midday and a light supper in the evening. In the late 18th century many people started working shifts in factories and mines, which made hot midday meals less convenient. This brought about the rise in high tea at the end of the working day, which included hot food and, of course, a strong cup of tea. The evolution of high tea is a poignant marker of how the working classes developed their own customs and culture around tea, bringing a new era of tea no longer being a drink exclusive to the rich.
Tea’s new culture
Poorer people generally drank their tea black or with watered-down milk, and unrefined sugar – if any at all. In contrast, richer people enjoyed theirs with cream and small lumps of white sugar. With the culture around tea changing, it became seen increasingly as something warming to make quickly, and to drink ‘on the go’. The ‘working class tea’ became so common, that the wealthier classes coined the rather derogatory term “M.I.F” meaning “milk in first” to describe someone of lower class.
In 1953 Tetley introduced tea bags to Britain – previously only popular in America – but other companies soon joined them. In the early 1960s, tea bags made up less than 3% of the British tea market, but by 2007 it was 96%. This brought convenience and affordability to tea drinking like never before, and now the majority of Britons drink it every day.
For more information on this topic, check out our section on British History and Revisionism.