Great Tea Races of Yesteryear

As a non-smoker, I wouldn’t walk a mile for a Camel, as the old ad slogan goes. But a cup of tea, that’s another story entirely. If the prize were a pound of tea, I might even consider entering a race for it.

Which is a not so graceful way of steering the discourse to an historical event I saw discussed in a few places on the Web recently. If the notion of an “old woman’s race for a pound of tea” brings to mind a Monty Python sketch, you’re not alone. But this was actually a bonafide event (though presumably a not so serious one) that took place in 1851 at the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games.

Old Women's Tea Race (Photo source: screen capture from site)
Old Women’s Tea Race (Photo source: screen capture from site)

The games are considered by some to be a forerunner to the modern-day Olympics. They have been taking place since 1850 in Shropshire, England and the latest incarnation was held there in July, 2012. According to one account the average age of the “old” women in the 1851 race was actually only about thirty. Because many of them were farm workers and dressed accordingly, the race found them showing off a little more of their charms than was considered proper at the time. As a result the race was apparently not held again. More shocking details here.

Speaking of tea-related races, a rather notable one took place about fifteen years later. Dubbed The Great Tea Race of 1866 by some, the contest took place between several tea clipper ships who did their best to traverse the distance from China to London faster than their opponents. For an overview of clippers, speedy cargo ships that were all the rage with nineteenth century tea traders, refer to my overview, which appeared here a while back.

Although hardly the first such race between clipper ships, the 1866 event captured the public’s attention in way few others seemingly had. The contestants (although the race was not really an official event) included the Ariel, the Taeping, and the Serica, all of which left port in Fuzhou, China on May 30, and the Fiery Cross, which set out a day earlier.

After about 100 days on the water, the proceedings wrapped up with what nearly amounted to a photo finish. The Ariel took first place, with Taeping only about ten minutes behind and Serica pulled in about two hours after that. Even though Fiery Cross had a jump on the other competitors it wasn’t sufficient to keep this colorfully named ship from taking last place.

For a more in-depth look at clipper ships and The Great Tea Race of 1866, be sure to check out this article from Smithsonian magazine.

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