Tea in Britain: a Social History Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tea in Britain: a Social History

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A young Eric Sykes, ace comedy writer and perfomer, enjoying a nice cup of tea.

Who would have thought in the 16th Century, when the Portuguese and Dutch traders brought the first tea from China into Europe, Britain would adopt the drink as its national beverage?

Who could have anticipated the changes this drink would make to our society?

Tea has been at the forefront of many things, be it taxation, union organised tea breaks, or the great British institution of tea time; and somewhere in between we have had Tea Houses and Tea Dances!

Where Did It Start?

An entry in Samuel Pepys' diary for 25 September, 1660, says he had been discussing foreign affairs with some friends of the fashionable and wealthy London set:

.. and afterwards did send for a cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before..

Just months prior to that entry in Pepys' diary some gifts were delivered to Charles II. One of those gifts was a crate of tea. It is possible that Charles sold off some of his brides' dowry, sent by King John IV of Portugal prior to his marriage to the Portuguese princess. Being very expensive, selling the tea would have cleared a lot of Charles' debts. There was certainly none to be had when the princess arrived at court.

Catherine of Braganza introduced tea to the English royal court. The young queen shared her childhood drink with her ladies-in-waiting and her friends, thus setting a trend among the 17th Century aristocracy. The ladies would hold their own 'tea parties' at home. Their husbands, during their business activities, took the beverage away from the elite circle of the royal court.

For the queen's birthday in 1663, politician and poet, Edmund Waller wrote a poem in her honour:

Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of Queens, the best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse's friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Regress those vapours which the head invade,
And keep the palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen.

Coffee Houses

Both 'green' and 'black' tea were sold in coffee houses. These houses are where the wealthy business men and aristocracy made their deals. The Turkish style coffee was deemed unhealthy, the patrons were traders from most classes, so the houses themselves were thought to be too rough for ladies to frequent; besides a 'lady' did not concern herself with such vulgar thoughts as business! Their husbands or a servant would purchase loose tea leaf for brewing at home.

Tea Parties

Women of wealthy households created a fashion for tea parties in their homes. Indeed, it became important to be seen to be on the most popular invitation lists! Each home would boast delicately fashioned silver tea kettles and finely designed bone china tea cups and saucers were used. Tea caddies were ornately crafted and set in a cradle which could be left on display, but locked to prevent theft of the expensive leaf. The hostess, aided by a servant, would serve each of her guests with their tea. Another way of showing the wealth of the household would be to offer sugar to sweeten the bitter drink. The ladies would then settle to the daily round of gossip in their elegant surroundings.


Such was the popularity of tea, it soon became another form of revenue. Tea was taxed during the period between 1660 and 1689, but only in its liquid form. This meant an entire day's tea would need to be brewed in the morning and kept in barrels. Tax was levied by the barrel and an excise officer would visit the coffee houses daily and levy the tax to be paid. The tea would be re-heated throughout the day as needed. After 1689 tea was taxed as loose leaf and paid on purchase. This meant an improvement in the flavour as the tea could be brewed fresh for the afternoon visitors conducting business over a cup of tea.


The price of tea fluctuated with the changes in tax levels. More wanted to drink it than could actually afford to do so. To smuggle the tea into the country would mean it was cheaper. During the 18th Century, this was how tea began to spread from the cities to more rural areas. Nobody gave a thought as to how the smugglers came by their contraband.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, it was thought that more tea was smuggled into the country than came from legal sources!

The Boston Tea Party

Because of the tea being smuggled into Britain, the East India Company was losing out on their profits. Not being allowed to export to America, the company requested the British Government levy a tax on tea exports in an effort to stave off bankruptcy. As the East India Company owed in excess of £1 million to the government, the Tea Act was passed in 1773. Duty on tea was levied a 3d per lb on exports to America. The levy was considerably cheaper than the British were paying for their tea. That autumn the East India Company sent four ships laden with tea to America.

In November, 1773, three of the ships arrived at Griffin's Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts - the fourth was stranded at Cape Cod. The ships couldn't offload without the tax being paid, nor could they return with their cargo, which had been purchased legally by the American importers. Finally, after all negotiations failed, some of the menfolk of Boston disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and, mimicking the war cry of the Indians, they boarded ships. Hoisting the crates onto the decks, each crate was split open and poured into the harbour.

It was a very peaceful protest. No-one was injured or threatened. Nor did the crew members attempt to stop the protesters. The men even brushed down the decks when they had finished.

For the next three days rowing boats were launched and the harbour waters beaten, to stop any attempt to 'salvage' the tea leaves floating thickly on the surface of the water.

In an attempt to punish the people of Massachusetts, the British government passed more laws in 1774 which became known as the Intolerable Acts. This was intended to close the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. It had the opposite effect. In September 1774, representatives of the colonies began to meet up to plan resistance towards the Acts. This eventually led to the American Revolution; the war formally began with the Declaration of Independence being signed in July, 1776.

Tea Breaks

Tea became cheaper after 1785, when the government slashed the duty, making it more affordable although it was still not cheap. Eventually, household servants were given a tea allowance. Employers began to provide free tea to their other workers. During the 20th Century this would eventually become the modern tea break, with full union backing.

Afternoon Tea

It is thought to be the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, Anna Maria, who complained the gap between lunch (1pm) and dinner (7pm) made her feel faint with hunger. She would ask for small nibbles of sandwiches, cake or biscuits to be served with her tea. So began the tradition of 'afternoon tea', which became a social event in most wealthy households. Soon the social etiquette of 'At Homes' began.

High Tea/Teatime

Today tea is indulged at anytime of the day. During the 19th Century the term 'teatime' became fashionable amongst all classes, though with a very different meaning.

Once, the working classes; especially field and manual workers, would have had their main meal at midday. Supper would be had later in the evening. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, more were working long shifts in the factories or the mines. It was not practical to go home for their hot meal during the day. Children were also being educated, so a cold snack was likely to have been eaten at lunchtime.

So, rather than being a stop-gap between meals, 'high tea' became the main meal of the day. Under modern terms 'Tea Time' has become the main meal time for most of the British population.

Tea Dances

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Tea Dances became popular for the Young Set1. The eligible ladies and gentleman of the wealthy and aristocratic families used to entertain their friends by 'cutting the rug' - dancing in each other's homes. This was seen as the genteel way of entertaining and chaperoning young ladies - allowing them to associate with suitable young men in the middle of the afternoon, as parents or governess's watched over them.

A new sensational dance arrived in London in 1910. Performed in the Sunshine Girl on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre, the Argentine Tango soon became all the rage. The Waldorf Hotel began offering latin dance classes, soon Tea Dances were being held on a daily or weekly basis at the Waldorf, Savoy and other London hotels. Gradually the tea dances went nationwide as popularity increased. The fashionable set continued to patronise the Tea Dances until 1920, when the 'Charleston' came in, thus entered the cocktail set.

The Waldorf continued its Tea Dances until 1939, when a German bomb shattered the glass roof of the Palm Court, bringing home the severity of the situation. All Tea Dances were cancelled at the hotel, which only re-established them in 1982. Even during World War II, Tea Dances were popular. These were primarily organised by the Church and the Red Cross, to give our servicemen some civilised company and entertainment between battle campaigns.

Tea Room Nippys

One of Britain's biggest tea suppliers and confectioners was J Lyons & Co. In 1909 the company opened the first of its 'Corner Houses'. These were huge stores of four or five floors, containing elegant restaurants on each floor - each with a different theme and price range. The stores also contained hair salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies, food halls and, of course, Tea Rooms.

Each store employed approximately 400 staff members but, none are more renowned than the Nippys. These young ladies had to be nimble on their feet, dexterous with their hands and, above all, polite at all times. As per the old Victorian adage; each Nippy was seen and not heard, as she nipped through the narrow pathways between each table.

The Nippy's job was to take the order from the table, deliver the tea and confectioneries then, most important of all, clear the table as quickly as possible - without making the patron feel hurried. Once more the table was ready for use!

Tea Shops

With the advent of fast foods during the 1960s, the Corner Houses, along with many large restaurants, began to close. However, the Tea Rooms still flourished and were moved into smaller, more manageable Tea Shops.

Reading Tea Leaves

The art of reading tea leaves is called Tasseography or Tasseomancy. The art didn't originally come to our shores with the tea. It is thought to have come here via ancient Greece, where they used to scry wine sediments in a bowl. Divination of herbal remedies and wine dregs were already part of our mystic history centuries before tea arrived in Britain.

Modern tea reading is still shrouded in folklore. The leaf patterns are read from the bottom of the cup (the past), up to the rim (the near future). The signs seen are purely at the interpretation of the reader, as so many symbols are similar to each other. Whether it is sought out by the patron, or just a party game, the reader must be cautious during the interpretation.


The most common old wives' tale is having bubbles on the top of the tea: this is said to mean money is coming.

A small piece of tea stalk floating on the top of tea means a stranger shall be calling that day.

Two people should never pour from the same pot, this means either a falling out, or, if two women pour, that the mistress of the house will become pregnant. Yet another, that one of the women will give birth to gingerheaded twins!

Never put the milk into the cup before the sugar. It is bad luck!


Now we are in the 21st Century, tea is still here. We have many blends of tea hailing from Sri Lanka, India and China. We have herbal teas, root teas and decaffeinated teas. Since coming to our shores tea has been ridiculed as a demon drink, almost worse than alcohol according to the early Wesleyan Methodists. Others believe in its powers as a cure-all, diuretic and calming drink for the nerves.

Whatever your inclinations, tea will be still be part of our history for many centuries to come.

1A term of affection that became a nickname for the groups of wealthy friends gathering together.

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