An insight into how tea came to Britain and took over

The history of tea in Britain is especially close to home as this is where I am from, and unlike what most would assume it has a very interesting very bloody historical tale to it. Spanning the opium wars and invention of tea pirates. And yes you heard that correct, tea pirates.

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First, let us start at the beginning. Until the mid-17th century (late Ming, early Qing Dynasty), the only teas consumed in China were Green (un-oxidised) and Oolong (semi-oxidised) teas. The tale goes that while a passing army entered the Fujian Province, they decided to take shelter at a nearby tea factory. This held up production at the factory and leaves were left out in the sun, causing them to oxidise for a longer period, resulting in darker leaves. In an effort to accelerate the drying time, they decided to smoke the leaves over pine wood, thus creating Lapsang Souchong, which became one of the very first black teas and was produced in the area around Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province.  This high mountainous area was called Lapsang and the small leaf tea trees Souchong – hence the name.

But tea only reached Europe in the 17th Century, when European explorers first reached China. With the first documented recording of in Europe being from 1610, when Dutch merchants first brought back Chinese black tea, so they could sell it widely around Europe.

Amusingly despite the British being renowned tea drinkers, it was originally considered a “mysterious oriental drink”. Although despite derision from common people it was sold at very high prices in London coffee houses so that only the aristocracy could afford it. In fact, Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley, was one of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea; he sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. From this beginning, it became a drink that identified the “well-to-do”, and so became popular as a drink to indicate your wealth and position in society.

Whilst, black tea did not reach the British palace until 1662, when Princess Catherine from Portugal married King Charles, bringing several crates of Chinese black tea as her dowry. From that moment onward it has been an indispensable part of the life of British royalty. 

Charles II did his own bit by passing several acts forbidding the sale of tea in private houses to counter its growth, the horror; this measure was designed to counter sedition, but it was so unpopular that it was impossible to enforce. A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a licence. This was just the start of government attempts to control, or at least to profit from, the popularity of tea in Britain. By the mid-18th century, the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. Higher than any other tax previously enforced.

This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry – tea smuggling. Ships from Holland and Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast and then stood offshore while smugglers met them and unloaded the precious cargo in small vessels. The smugglers, often local fishermen, snuck the tea inland via underground passages and hidden paths to special hiding places, including parish churches. However, even the smuggled tea was expensive and therefore extremely profitable, so many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, liquorice, and sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also re-dried and added to fresh leaves. Finally, in 1784, William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. Which sounds like the start of a good novel.


What impressed westerners most about black tea was not only the robust flavour the tea produced but also the improved lifespan of the leaves over time. As British demand for black tea grew, so did the holes in their pockets, as they struggled to pay for their tea treasures in a market that was quickly being monopolised by the Dutch. By 1750, they were purchasing millions of pounds of tea every year from China. Even though they managed to counterbalance it with the opium trade to some extent, it was obvious that their tea addiction was getting exorbitantly expensive and unsustainable. 

This was part of how the opium wars began. As farmers in China would not accept currency or gold that wasn’t their own nor were the British able to convert their legal tender into the local equivalent. So instead the British merchants smuggled opium into the country to sell for the equivalent currency in order for them to buy the tea to take back home. Thereby, in fact, fueling the opium wars. The more you know.

This motivated British traders to explore other avenues for acquiring black tea. After several failed attempts, Scottish explorer, Robert Bruce, made a startling discovery in 1823 when he found a native tea plant that was growing in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley and being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe. While Robert Bruce died before he could get the plant officially classified, his brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, dispatched the tea samples to the Botanical Garden in Calcutta on Christmas Eve of 1834. On closer analysis, these were officially classified as a variation of the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis var sinensis). This plant was named Camellia sinensis var Assamica (Masters) Kitamura.

Initially, the British considered the Assamese plant inferior, but they later realised that the Chinese variety was unable to survive the hot weather conditions in Assam. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with the Assamese plant and by 1838, the first consignment of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Darjeeling was transferred to the East India Company in 1835, and the Chinese tea variant was deemed suitable for the region in 1841. Dr A Campbell was the first to plant Chinese seeds in Darjeeling that he had brought from Kumaon. Commercial plantations started in the 1850s and 113 plantations were set up in Darjeeling by 1874, covering 18,888 acres and accounting for a production of 3.9 million pounds.

The positive results from Assam and Darjeeling inspired many similar endeavours towards cultivating tea across the entire foothills of the Himalayas and other parts of India. By 1863, 78 plantations had been set up in Kumaon, Dehra Dun, Garhwal, Kangra Valley and Kulu. In South India, Dr Christie was the first to explore the potential of tea plantations in the Nilgiri in 1832. By 1853, India’s tea exports had reached 183.4 tons. They further soared to 6,700 tons by 1870 and 35,274 tons by 1885.

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In 1840, the Duchess of Bedford introduced the idea of afternoon tea in order to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, which in fashionable circles might not be served until 8 o’clock at night. This fashionable custom soon evolved into high tea among the working classes, when this late afternoon repast became the main meal of the day. As the price of black tea slowly became more affordable, a cup of tea in the morning and afternoon quickly became widely popular with all levels of British society, with the result that today drinking black tea is almost synonymous with British society. This evolved into a whole society arisen beneath subtle tell and hidden insults, perfect for a high society socialite.

Don’t forget to have some tea on me.

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