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Tea - A Brief History

Tea was common in China centuries before it reached the UK and ended up the staple drink in an Officer’s diet. Legend has it that tea was discovered when a Chinese emperor in 2737BC was boiling water. A wind blew some leaves from a Camellia sinensis tree into the water, and the emperor, being a herbalist decided to try the drink. Under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), tea became the national drink of China. In the late eighth century, the first book was written about tea called Ch’a
Ching, by a writer called Lu Yu. Ch’a Ching means ‘Tea Classic’ in English, and it was shortly after this that Japanese monks, who had drunk tea on their travels to China, introduced it to Japan. It caught on very quickly and is now as integral to
Japanese culture as it is to military culture, the Japanese Tea Ceremony comes from rituals described in Ch’a Ching.


Tea wasn’t mentioned as a drink in Europe until the sixteenth century, and this was by Portuguese traders and merchants who had tasted the drink whilst traveling in the East. The first people to ship tea commercially were the Dutch, who started using Portuguese trading routes in the East in the late sixteenth century. Tea quickly became a fashionable drink for the Dutch, and by the early seventeenth century they were shipping tea from China via Java. The trend spread across Europe, but as it was very expensive only the wealthy could afford to drink it.

Due to its distance from mainland Europe, tea actually took a while to catch on in the UK - London’s first coffee house was established in 1652, with no mention of tea in descriptions. It is likely that sailors from the British East India Company brought tea home as gifts, but the first dated reference to tea was in 1658, in an advert in the London newspaper Mercurious Politicus. The advert stated that ‘Chinese Drink’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. It was only when Charles II, the King of England at the time, married Catherine of Braganza that tea really caught on in England. Catherine was a Portuguese Princess who loved tea, and this established it as a fashionable beverage in court, then among the wealthy in England. The first order of China tea was for nearly 50kg, imported by the British East India Company in 1664 from Java.

Tea quickly became a hugely popular drink in coffee houses in England, although as these were only frequented by upper and middle-class men, it was still only selected members of society who could enjoy it. Upper-class women would drink tea in their own home. The reason tea was expensive was because of the extremely high tax placed on it. Tea was still taxed, called a ‘tea duty’ until 1964!
The high taxation of tea created a black market for the beverage. The enthusiasm for British people to drink tea but not pay the high prices for it was matched by the enthusiasm of criminals to smuggle it in! By the eighteenth century, a huge
criminal network was established, bringing in as much as 7 millions lbs of tea over the 5 million legal import limit. The huge demand for tea meant that criminal gangs could use brutal methods and even ship different leaves and herbs, not quality
controlled by customs, under the name of tea. If the leaves didn’t produce the right colour to mimic tea, anything from sheep dung to copper carbonate!

Eventually, to stop this illegal trade, in 1774 the Government relaxed the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%! This stopped smuggling very quickly as it instantly made tea affordable. In the eighteenth century, there was a lot of debate as to whether or not tea was good for health. Humanitarians at the time were concerned that excessive tea drinking could lead to ‘weakness and melancholy’ in the working classes. These
concerns didn’t matter for the wealthy as they weren’t expected to work! Tea, however, played a vital role in the temperance movement- which aimed to reduce people’s consumption of alcohol, as it was offered as a substitute at temperance meetings.


The vast majority of tea was imported from China until 1834 when the East India Trading Company’s monopoly on Chinese Tea ended, and they began growing tea in India. Assam was the first tea plantation, although it was destroyed very quickly by stampeding cattle. By 1839 enough tea had been grown in Assam for it to be sold in Britain. In 1858, the British government took control of India and cultivation spread to other regions of India. By 1888 British imports of tea from India were larger than those from China. The end of the East India Trading Company’s monopoly on tea also caused the tea trade to become a free for all.


Merchants and sailors used their own clippers, sleek ships with tall masts that could sail very quickly. Competition between British and American merchants led to the clipper races in the 1860s. These races started in China, where the boats sail
down the Canton River, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the English Channel, before being towed up the River Thames. These races, unfortunately, ended with the opening of the Suez Canal, as steamships could then start using trade routes.

By 1901, when tea was being imported from China, Sri Lanka, and India, the average consumption of tea per head was 6lbs, compared to 2lbs 50 years previously. During the First World War, the British government took over importing tea to ensure that it continued to be at an affordable price, as they could see its value as a morale booster for both Tommies and Civvies alike. The government took control again during the Second World War when they rationed tea between 1940 and 1952. The London Tea Auction, which had been going since the 1700s was re-established in 1952. This auction was the center of communication for the tea trade. The final London Tea Auction was held in 1998, after which it was deemed that worldwide communications and auctions occurring in tea-producing countries made it redundant. It was after the tea auctions stopped that the tea bag became popular. Invented in America in the early 20th century, they didn’t become popular in Britain until the 1970s. It’s hard to imagine tea without tea bags now, as Britain drinks 165 million cups of tea per day! How could our soldiers be home in time for tea and medals without the golden liquid we love so dearly?

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