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“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water.” 

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Tea – a potted history

Consider the humble cup of tea.  A drink we take for granted, a commonplace beverage we’ve all made from a teabag. It’s a British institution. But did you know tea has provoked criminal activity, changed our social habits and even triggered revolution? And how was it discovered?

There are various legends surrounding the origins of tea. The most famous is the Chinese story of Shen Nung, the emperor and herbalist, who was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron. He tasted the resulting brew, and tea was born.

An alternative story links tea drinking to the Indian prince Bodhidharma, who converted to Buddhism and believed that it was necessary to stay awake constantly for meditation and prayer so took to chewing leaves from the tea shrub, which acted as stimulant, helping him stay awake.

By the 3rd century A.D. the character “ch'a”, was developed to refer specifically to tea. This word evolved into the slang term “char” which is much used by chirpy cockneys, Dick Van Dyke fans and the general tea-slurping public in the UK today.

The East India Company

The East India Company was perhaps the most powerful commercial organisation that the world had ever seen. In its heyday it not only had a monopoly on British trade with India and the Far East, but it was also responsible for the government of much of the Indian sub-continent. This meant that the East India Company (or, to call it by its proper name, the British East India Company) was crucial to the history of the tea trade, placing its first order of tea in 1664.

It was at the East India Company on Leadenhall Street that the London Tea Auction was held. This grand tradition lasted 300 years. From the very first event in 1679, until the last sale on 29 June 1998, the London Tea Auction was a regular event that made London the centre of the international tea trade.

Catherine of Braganza and Charles II

Charles II's Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was a Portuguese princess who had grown up with a taste for tea. When she married Charles and came to England, tea gradually became a fashionable drink in aristocratic circles. This led to tea becoming a popular drink for the entire nation and the East India Company's imports rocketed. By 1750, annual imports had reached 4,727,992lbs.

Tea Smuggling

By the eighteenth century, tea was massively popular, but still an extremely expensive commodity. The monopoly on imports held by the merchants of the East India Company meant that tea prices were kept artificially high to protect profits, added to which the government imposed a high level of duty. This created a demand among the British population for cheaper tea, and when that demand could not be met by legal means, smuggling flourished.

Due to the fact that tea was light and easy to transport, tea was ideally suited for smuggling and became even more profitable than gin and brandy, in which there was also a healthy smuggling trade. This situation continued for years, until the William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783. With the Commutation Act of 1784, he slashed the tax on tea so dramatically that smuggling became pointless. Thereafter virtually all tea was imported legally by the East India Company.

Boston Tea Party

Tea smuggling really hit the profits of the East India Company, so it asked the British government for permission to export to America, which at this time was still a British colony. Permission was granted, and it was decided that the tea would carry a tax of 3d per lb. The Americans were outraged considering such taxes illegal. They were doubly angered by the decision that the Company should also have a monopoly on distribution, another move intended to help it out of financial trouble. When the Company's ships arrived in Boston in late 1773, the townspeople resolved that the tea should not be brought ashore nor the duty on it on paid. But the colonial administration would not allow the ships to leave port. The deadlock eventually resulted in the Boston Tea Party, when a mass of townspeople boarded the ships and threw all the cargo of tea overboard. This was one of the key events that sparked the American War of Independence. Which started over a cup of tea!

Tea Customs

Afternoon Tea - is said to have originated with one person - Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. In the early 1800's she launched the idea of having tea in the late afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. 

Tea Gardens - The popular pleasure gardens of Ranelagh and Vauxhall in London began serving tea around 1730. An evening of dancing and watching fireworks would be concluded with a cup tea. The idea caught on, and soon Tea Gardens opened all over Britain.

Tea Shops – This can again be traced to one person. In 1864 the female manager of the Aerated Bread Company began the custom of serving food and drink to her customers. Her best customers were favoured with tea. Soon everyone was asking for the same treatment. The concept of tea shops spread throughout Britain like wildfire.