Jessica Hope explores the vast history of Britain’s love affair with tea

It has instigated wars, it has boosted morale in times of conflict, become a national symbol and empires have been built on it. Yes, that simple drink that you probably gulp down multiple times a day – tea – has much more to its history than you first might think.

After water, tea is the most popular beverage consumed across the world, with us Brits drinking an impressive 165 million cups of it every day. That amounts to 62 billion cups being made per year, and 25% of all milk consumed in the UK goes into our brews.

But where did our nation’s unfathomable love for this warming drink first originate, and how have our attitudes towards it changed over the centuries? Sling a teabag into your mug (or get your diffuser out if you prefer loose-leaf), put the kettle on, and discover where our love for this drink first came from . . .

A drink for one and all

Legend has it that tea was first created more than 4,000 years ago when the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree when some leaves dropped into a bowl of water being boiled by his servant. Known for his interest in herbs and their remedies, the emperor decided to try the drink. The leaves were in fact from the camellia sinensis plant, which is where we get our tea leaves from. While the likelihood of there being any truth in this tale may be small, it makes you wonder how such a simple drink became so popular around the world.

For centuries the Chinese drank tea, believing greatly in its medicinal qualities. When China began to expand its trade routes across the world in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans got to experience tea for the first time. The East India Company, established under Elizabeth I, held a monopoly on trade with Asia and merchants travelled to Canton, looking for goods that might make them profit back in Britain. While they recognised the medicinal properties of tea, British merchants had no idea that this commodity was going to become one of the most heavily traded items in centuries to come.

To begin with, it was coffee that was the hot drink that really took off in the later half of the 17th century in Britain. In the 1660s coffee houses sprang up across the country, becoming places where people (mostly men) would drink, converse with their companions and read the pamphlets and gazettes distributed there. These houses became known as penny universities, where people of different classes and professions could mix and have sober and stimulating conversations about their ideas and beliefs – making this a world away from the drunken antics associated with taverns.

The Public Breakfast by Thomas Rowlandson, 1798, © Victoria Art Gallery / BANES Council

Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza is associated with the introduction of tea to the royal court at this time. Originally from Portugal, when Catherine moved to England for her marriage in 1662, she brought tea leaves with her from Portuguese merchants and supposedly began a trend around court for drinking tea.

Tea soon became fashionable among the elite and by the early 18th century the East India Company was importing 100,000 pounds of green and black tea into Britain from China. The popularity for tea soon caught on across all areas of society and by 1750 five million pounds of tea was being imported every year.

The sudden rise in popularity continues to confound historians to this day. How did a commodity become so in demand and accessible to all classes in such a small space of time?

It cannot be a coincidence that the growth in tea imports correlates with the increase of sugar consumption in this country. By 1720 black tea overtook green tea as the preferred leaf, and sugar and milk began to be added to make it more palatable. As Amanda Vickery states in Radio 4’s In Our Time podcast on tea, tea was a simple, hot drink that people could now prepare in their homes – it wasn’t a costly or complicated method like hot chocolate or coffee at the time. Plus, it was non-alcoholic, making it a sobering and respectable drink, and unlikely to make you unwell because the water was boiled.

This meant that by the middle of the 18th century, tea was now considered the British national drink. And if even the poorest people were unable to access tea, there are reports that people would even pour hot water over stale bread as a substitute.

There were reports that some servants in large Georgian houses in cities such as Bath would try and steal the leaves from their employer’s tea caddies, resulting in many housekeepers having to lock the caddies and sugar loaves away from wandering hands. Servants began to demand that alongside employers, they should also have an allowance for tea written in to their contracts.

By the mid-18th century, Bath had become a popular resort for the wealthy to visit and tea played an essential part in the social scene. Tea rooms opened allowing the social elite somewhere respectable to go in the day time to socialise, and prominent visitors to the city would also host public breakfasts at the Assembly Rooms or one of the open gardens where visitors and residents were invited to take tea. To meet the sheer demand, 672 tea dealers were registered in Bath and Bristol in 1784, out of a possible 1,769 shopkeepers in the area.

Medicinal qualities

Tea kettle, lamp and stand, silver, fruitwood handle, William Shaw and William Preist, London, 1755/56 © Holburne Museum

When it was first introduced to the British market in the 17th century tea was advertised as a tonic. It was thought to benefit a person’s health, as seen in a broadsheet commissioned by coffee house owner Thomas Garraway in the mid-17th century. It stated that tea was good at “persevering perfect health until extreme old age” and “good for clearing the sight.” Tea could also be used to treat “gripping of the guts, cold, dropsies, scurvys and it could make the body active and lusty.”

Medical writers promoted the benefits of drinking tea, including Cornelius Bontago who recommended people drink between 15 and a staggering 250 cups of tea a day in 1685. However, there is evidence that the East India Company may have been paying certain writers of the day to over-exaggerate the health benefits of tea in order to increase sales.

Despite the supposed medicinal qualities, there were others who were sceptical about the increase in tea consumption. 17th century physician Simon Paulli stated that tea “hastens the death of those that drink it, especially if they have passed the age of 40 years,” while philanthropist Jonas Hanway wrote in 1758 that working class women who drank tea were “neglecting their spinning, knitting etc, spending what their husbands are labouring hard for, their children are in rage, gnawing a brown crust, while these gossips are canvassing over the affairs of the whole town . . .”

These fears surrounding the consumption of tea by the working classes continued into the late 18th and 19th centuries. With the rise of the Methodist movement and what some considered to be the “battle for temperance” over the supposed unruly working classes, Methodist John Wesley believed that tea and coffee could have the same effects as alcohol on the body and mind. In his book Primitive Physick (1747), he wrote that tea and coffee “are extremely hurtful to persons who have weak nerves”, and suggested that people drink “small weak beer” instead.

Morale booster

Tea had become an integral part of British people’s lives, so when the First World War broke out in 1914 the government believed that tea was an incredibly important commodity that could boost morale, and therefore oversaw the importing of tea to make sure that everyone in society had access to it.

Similarly in the Second World War, the government moved the tea warehouses from along the River Thames to somewhere considered safe from foreign attacks, as ministers realised how important this drink was to the state of the nation. There were even jokes made that if Hitler had been able to prevent the imports of tea to Britain during the war, then the British may have surrendered early on in the conflict.

While teabags were created in the USA in the early 20th century and quickly became popular, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that they started to catch on in Britain. As technology developed, Brits turned their backs on cleaning out their teapots and began using the simplified teabag for their brews. Tetley became the first big brand to advertise teabags in the 1950s and other brands soon caught onto the craze.

Nowadays teabags have their own dedicated spaces in our kitchens at home and work, and they make up around 96 per cent of the British tea market. Time to put the kettle on again methinks . . .

Read more: Six of the best places for afternoon tea in Bath

Main image: A Lady taking Tea, Charles Christian Rosenberg (1745 – 1844), painted on glass, after 1795 © Holburne Museum