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Tea and tea drinking in England

Now, listen and learn, son! Tea, is a herb, that has been dried out. So to bring it back to life you have to infuse it, in boiling water. That is BOILING water! Every, everywhere I have been in this country, they slap down a cup of tepid nonsense, you know with the tea bag, lying beside it, which means I have to go through the ridiculous business of dunking it, in the lukewarm piss: waiting for the slightest change of colour, to occur. And at my age, I haven’t got the time!

Says Maggie Smith in the film “The Second Best Marigold Hotel” and I think her thoughts and reaction are perfect reflection of the British nation’s connection to tea. When I was on a team building in Bristol, one of my English colleagues was upset at breakfast because of the temperature of the water and was complaining as he could not have a decent cup of tea. The following day I sent him the link with the above scene and his instant response was: “That’s it! This is what I mean!” (At this point let me remark, although the Hungarian voices and translations are always brilliant, on this occasion Maggie Smith’s sarcasm and frustration did not come through in the Hungarian version.)

There have been several posts about tea, yet I attempt to present interesting and less known facts about it. I promise, you will read and see things that will surprise you.


The “nice cup of tea” is not only one of Britain’s cultural icons, it is an institution. Would you think that Churchill believed the moral of the country and its troops during the Second World War, could be maintained due to tea and it even possibly helped to defeat Germany? By the way, the government secured all stocks of tea when the war broke out and by 1940 tea was rationed, the weekly allowance was 2oz per person. But let’s just not go ahead that fast! There is much more to know about tea, which was the most expensive drink in the 17th century, but has become the cheapest by the 20th.

The way to England

Tea was first imported to Europe by the Dutch and Portuguese around 1610 and it got to England in 1657. (interestingly, coffee got to Europe by the Dutch as well and cocoa by the Spanish, so none of them by the English.) Britain started to import tea in the 1660’s, through the English “East Indian Company” It took 12-16 month for ships to get to England.

Tea was first available in coffee houses which might seem to be odd, but as coffee got to England earlier, it explains why. The first coffeehouse in England opened in Oxford in 1650 and within just 25 years there were ca 3000 coffeehouses in the country. Coffeehouses had male guests only who discussed politics and economy whilst enjoying a cup of coffee, tea, chocolate, wine or brandy.

Lloyds coffeehouse in London by William Holland

Interestingly, tea was taxed in a liquid form at the beginning which meant coffeehouses had to brew a batch in the morning and then the tax officer would come around and check it. Then tea would be reheated whenever someone ordered some.

This taxation was changed in 1689 and tea was taxed in leaf format. Coffeehouses soon realised it made sense to sell tea in leaf format as well, which was required by women who were not allowed to socialise in public, but they wanted to enjoy the drink at home, or when they visited each other. Tea was also recommended by doctors against headache, sleepiness and concentration problems.

The Waitress by John Robert Dicksee

Tea drinking was expensive and only the wealthy people could afford it at the end of the 17th century. It is said to be down to Charles II’s Spanish wife, Kathrine of Braganza that tea drinking became popular at the English court. However, when the tax of the tea was reduced from the massive 119% to 12.5% in 1784, tea reached other classes of the society and resulted in an increased import. However, before this massive reduction, 5 million pounds weight (lbs)of tea was imported legally and 7 million lbs of tea was smuggled into England – quite how they calculated that, I have got no idea… Anyway, after 1784 tea was enjoyed by many and tea drinking helped to save the nation from the gin craze that caused many problems such as crime and illnesses. Tea drinking became so popular, that some wealthy families even rebuilt their country house to create a tea room and this was the time when tea houses and tea pavilions appear at English estates.

The Octagonal Temple at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire was originally a tea house. Later it was converted into a family chapel

The first merchants and retailers

The first tea shop was opened by Thomas Twining in London in 1717. Twining was famous for his tea blending such as Earl Grey, which however was first invented by the Jacksons of Piccadilly in the 1830s and named after Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, (British prime minister between 1830-34) and English Breakfast which interestingly was created in 1933 only. “The London Fog” is a name of a drink made of Earl Grey, steamed milk and vanilla syrup.



Later new retailers appeared on the market such as:

  • Hornimans Tea which was founded on the Isle of Wight in 1826 and by 1891 became the worlds biggest tea trading business and produced Friedrich Nietzsche’s  (German philosopher) favourite tea.
  • Mazawatte tea
  • Lipton which was famous for its blending as well. Thomas Lipton’s slogan was: “The perfect tea to suit the water of your town.“ The famous yellow label was developed in 1890, but today it is sold on the Continent only and in other countries in the world but not in the UK.
  • Brooke Bond, a company in Lancashire creating the famous brand PG Tips in 1930.
  • Typhoo, a tea company in Birmingham, established in 1903.

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea probably contributed to the even wider spread of tea drinking and transforming it to a ritual. You may know that it was introduced in the 1840s when Queen Victoria’s friend, Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford was hungry between lunch and dinner, which was moved from between 4pm to 5pm in the late 17th century to 7:30pm in the 1840s. She realised that with tea, cakes and sandwiches she could survive until dinner and soon she shared her new habit with friends and the custom was born.

Afternoon tea became such a big ritual that from the 1870s, a so called tea gown became fashionable. This was made of a light fabric to make it more comfortable to wear, yet it was elegant enough to wear it in front of friends and family. The rich enjoyed their afternoon tea at home, the lower classes had their cup of tea in tea rooms.

A tea gown from 1905

Tea rooms

It might intrigue you how tea rooms appeared and one would normally think it would be something that developed from the coffeehouses. Well, it did not! At the end of the 19th century, the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) shop in Fenchurch Street in London served tea and snacks to their best customers, which became so successful that the manager lady thought it would be worth opening shops that offer specifically this product range. The management agreed and soon they had 50 tea rooms and more importantly, the concept was so successful that department stores and hotels adopted it, which meant other places were created where women could meet in public.

Set for afternoon tea at Nuffield Place, Oxfordshire. Typical cake stands

Tea cups and accessories

The first kettles in England were made of silver around 1670, but porcelain soon became fashionable and the status symbol of the aristocracy. Handle-less porcelain bowls were imported with tea (handles appear in the 1750s only), but porcelain was originally the ballast of the ship. However, when people realised that it was a elegant, translucent, water and heat resistant material, it became so demanded that it was called “white gold”. European potteries competed against each other to discover the method of making porcelain, which the Chinese have been producing for centuries. The so called hard-porcelain was developed in Germany, in Meissen in 1709 and the soft-porcelain in Britain in 1740. This latter one was perfected by Josiah Spode in 1805 by adding bone ash to the recipe. The most famous potteries in Britain were: Wedgewood (1759), Spode (1767), Minton (1793), Royal Doulton (1815).

Tea accessories at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

It goes without saying that for this delicate ritual, other gadgets were needed as well: teapots, jars, kettles, milk jugs, teaspoons, trays, sugar box, tea caddies and even furniture.

One of the most surprising pieces is the tea caddie, which was kept locked so that the servants could not pinch any and its key was tied around the mistress‘ waist.

Tea caddie

Perhaps the most bizarre tea gadget is the Teasmaid which is an electric kettle combined with an alarm clock which was launched in 1930 first for tea lovers. It was so popular that they added a built in radio in 1970.


Tea with milk

The British have always liked to have their tea with sugar, but they started to add milk around 1720. You will be surprised to know that the habit of adding milk to the tea originates in France in the 17th century, which was followed by the English. Interestingly this habit is the other way round today.

The famous question: tea or milk first?

There are plenty of articles that support one or the other – I have recently read one which explained according to the Queen’s butler, milk should come first and of course you do believe the Queen’s butler, don’t you? This is a bit like the chicken and the egg situation and as long as the world stands, there will be people supporting one or the other theory. But there is a theory supported by many experts which I find acceptable and logical. They say, cups, mugs and bowls were made of clay before porcelain was introduced. These cups were heavy and did not hold the heat. Therefore, milk had to come first to cool the cup down then the hot water to avoid it cracking. The aristocracy, however, who could afford to use the new heat-resistant porcelain, could pour the hot drink first to the cup and then add the milk. Logical, isn’t it?


There are things that have become such a great part of our lives that we do not even think about how they were invented or developed. The teabag is one of them. Interestingly it was invented as a result of a misunderstanding when the tea merchant in New York, Thomas Sullivan prepared tea samples for his clients, which he placed into small silk bags. Some of the clients mistakenly thought this was the way it should be infused, so they used the little silk bags and reported back to Sullivan that the silk was too fine and another material is needed for the purpose. Sullivan soon started to produce gauze tea bags that were ideal for infusing in hot water. The teabag reached England only in 1935 when Tetley started to apply them in their products. I find it rather surprising that by 1968 only 3% of the tea came in teabags but by 2000 it was 90%. As for the different shapes of the teabags, you can find square and rectangular, circle or pyramid shapes. The pyramid is said to have more room for the tea to brew and expand.




Having looked at the tea’s history one can really appreciate why the English are so proud and keen on their hot drink. Indeed, there is so much involved in tea drinking, it is not just about the cup of tea. And if anything I learnt in this country, then it is using nothing but hot water when making a cuppa – just like Maggie Smith suggested.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Hi Gizella

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