How About a Cuppa? A Brief History of Tea in the United Kingdom

Tea Party 1

Today, it is the quintessential British drink. An entire culture is based around it and it is hard to think what life in the United Kingdom would be like without it. Not so bad for a few leaves in water, isn’t it? Of course, with such a cultural impact, tea in the United Kingdom has a long history.

Despite being thought of as British, tea as a drink originates in China. The legend goes that in 2737 B.C., the emperor, Shen Nung, sat under a tree as his servant boiled water. When leaves from the tree fell into the hot water, the emperor decided to try drinking it. Though this is just a legend, for many centuries, tea remained a province of the East until Dutch and Portuguese trading ships began importing tea leaves to Europe in the 16th Century.

As it slowly made its way to England, tea was first introduced to the English court by the British East India Company and Catherine of Braganza, queen to King Charles II. Treated as a drink of the rich, ironically, it was England’s coffeehouses that introduced it to the general public. Beginning with coffeehouse owner Thomas Garraway, tea became immensely popular with the public and the British East India Company’s imports of it quadrupled by the 18th Century.

With the massive increase of tea importation, the government began to tax tea more and more, from 25p per pound in 1689 and in different amounts until tea duties were abolished in 1964. This lead to a rise to tea smuggling that by the end of the 1700s created an organized crime network that would rival the modern day’s drug cartels. Another problem during this period was the adulteration of tea, cutting it and mixing it with leaves and other ingredients. Oftentimes this changed the color of the tea, and so smugglers would also include sheep dung and poisonous copper to make the color look more normal. It wasn’t until 1784 that the British government finally relented and slashed the tax on tea for the first time. However, this was too late to stop one notable protest, as American colonists boarded ships in Boston harbour and dumped the tea into the water, a key moment in the beginnings of the American War for Independence.

The Cutty Sark - The Most Famous Tea Clipper

The Cutty Sark – The Most Famous Tea Clipper

During the 1800s, tea trade and smuggling was in part responsible for the creation of a new breed of ship, the tea clipper. Clippers were streamlined vessels with small masts built primarily for speed. Ships often raced each other into port as the first vessel to land often received a huge bonus. Much like the smuggling of alcohol gave birth to stock car racing in America, tea smuggling helped to create an interest in sailing races.

Also during the 19th Century, the concept of “tea time” was created. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have originated the custom of afternoon tea as a means to bridge the time between lunch and dinner. As with tea’s original introduction, the custom eventually migrated to the working classes. Though not as strictly observed in the modern era, many restaurants and tea rooms still observe High Tea in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Food served at High Tea can often include biscuits and small sandwiches.

With the introduction of the tea bag and other modern conveniences, tea drinking has become an essential part of life, from a cuppa in the morning to a comfort when things have gone wrong in life. British brands are highly favored in many countries around the world and there are a wealth of flavors from which to choose. Whether you like English Breakfast, Earl Grady, Lady Gray, or any of the numerous new styles that have taken root in today’s tea shops and tea rooms, tea is certainly a mainstay of British culture.

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  1. avatarAnon says

    “High tea” started as a working-class dinner. Biscuits and small sandwiches are more typical for afternoon tea; heartier foods are served for high tea (the definition is “a fairly substantial meal that includes tea and is served in the late afternoon or early evening”)..

    This explains the confusion best:
    “It is important to add that the Afternoon Tea menu served in the UK today is often referred to as high tea in many other parts of the world. Because of this some hotels, such as The Ritz in London, use the term ‘High tea in London’ to advertise their Afternoon Tea because a large proportion of their customers are from overseas.
    Some venues do serve a special high tea menu, in addition to Afternoon Tea, which includes additional savoury items such as Welsh Rarebit, English muffins, pies or omelette.”

    I’m guessing the problem started with us Americans. The term “high tea” sounds ever so fancy – you can’t help but picture upturned pinkies (also incorrect. by the way – keep those pinkies down) and gloved ladies’ hands – so I think it gets confused as such frequently.
    Personally, I don’t think people should be encouraged to use the wrong term, especially when that term already has a (different) meaning.

  2. avatar says

    I have to hold back a cringe every time someone said they went to ‘High Tea’. Depending on the circumstances I will correct them, but dealing with pedantics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…

  3. avatar says

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has some funny things to say about tea, and about Arthur Dent’s futile quest to find a decent cup, during which he has to explain the entire history of tea to an “intelligent” drinks vending machine. I guess this is all just part of the fact that “The Galaxy” in Hitchhiker’s was really just the rest the world (mostly the US), Earth was England and Arthur was the quintessential Englishman abroad.

    • avatarMarianne says

      Douglas Adams also wrote a diatribe about making tea. It’s in “‘The Salmon of Doubt” and worth a read. As a Brit living in the US, one of my peeves is the appalling tea served in restaurants here. A jug of tepid water and a sad Lipton’s teabag. Last year I visited New Brunswick briefly and they actually made me a pot of tea in a cafe. As for the tea bag dangling in a cup of “hot” water. Never to be taken out. Well! Happily, our local Kroger stocks PC Tips. What a miracle. I thought High Tea was what was served in upper class nurseries.

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