Some Thoughts on the History of English Tea

East India Trading Company
East India Trading Company logo

In China, the custom of drinking tea leaves has been around for thousands of years, at least since the Tang Dynasty (June 18, 618 – June 4, 907) if not earlier. However, tea only migrated into England much later in the 1660s when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who enjoyed the pleasures of drinking tea and brought that custom with her to England. Tea was thus experienced by the courts of England in the 1690s onward, however tea did not become a popular beverage until the British East India Trading Company began a vigorous campaign to popularize tea amongst common people – mainly to establish a “return cargo” (a trade) with the East Indies that seemed fair in exchange for their exotic fabrics.

It was in the coffee houses of London in the early 1700s that tea was made popular to the lower classes. By 1750, tea was the most favored drink of Britain’s lower classes. This greatly upset tavern owners at the time, who lost a lot of their alcohol sales to tea. Another entity unhappy with the popularization of tea was the British Government who also lost a lot of taxes on the sales of liquor when tea rose in popularity.

William Pitt the Younger
William Pitt the Younger

Unfortunately, the fine teas in China were in great demand by England, however the Chinese had very little use for English goods, so the teas were paid for in silver bullion – again cutting into England’s wealth and causing great critique from some. In fact, Charles II did his part to try to stop the growing sales of tea in England with several acts forbidding the sale of tea in private houses. These acts were extremely hard to enforce though, as the public resented such efforts to control the sales of tea.

Finally in 1696, a tax was placed upon all teas and all coffee house operators were required to apply for a license. Taxation efforts rose to an absurd 119% tax by 1750, causing the creation of a new industry…tea smuggling. Tea would be smuggled on ships from Scandinavia and Holland, and often smugglers would “cut” the tea with other herbs such as willow or licorice to make a profit. Some tea smugglers would even use old used tea leaves to blend in with their shipment. All of this was effectively ended when in 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%

From there, tea flourished in England, with Tea Gardens being introduced in the mid-Eighteenth century, and “Afternoon Tea” being established in the 1800s. In 1864, the first official Tea Shop was opened in England by the Aerated Bread Company, and spread in popularity thereafter. To this day, tea is seen as a symbol of Great Britain, but also – to some extent – British Colonialism. In today’s world, tea is still very much a part of British culture and very representative of British society.

[Editor’s note: Our blog is chock full of great articles on this topic. Use our search feature to find them!]

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