Tea History – The Commutation Act of 1784

The notion of tea as anything but a relatively inexpensive commodity is something of an unfamiliar concept to most modern-day tea drinkers. Yes, there are plenty of varieties that you can lay your hands on these days that are quite expensive, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re looking for a passably good tea at an affordable price, you shouldn’t have much problem finding it, and if you’re even less choosy, you should be able to get a real bargain.

Scottish Breakfast Tea (ETS image)
Scottish Breakfast Tea (ETS image)

Which was hardly the case when tea first began to make its way into Europe a few centuries ago. In the early days of tea drinking in England, for example, the beverage was a luxury that could only be afforded by the rich. There were some fairly obvious reasons for this, including the relative scarcity of tea, coupled with the fact that it had to be shipped from halfway around the world, at a time when a journey like this one was measured in months.

According to one account, the price of a pound of tea in England in 1650 could go as high as $1,650, as measured in today’s dollars (US). As the years went on, another factor that contributed to the high price of tea in England were the immense taxes levied on this relatively new commodity. This was a major factor in the growth of a black market for tea, and it’s thought that up until 1745 as much as three times as much tea was smuggled into the country as was brought there by legal means.

By the time the so-called Commutation Act was passed in 1784 the tax on tea had risen to the staggering amount of 119%. In the years leading up to it, it was estimated that a significant amount of those revenues went to fight the war with the American colonies. A certain tea trader named Richard Twining, whose family had already been in the tea trade for nearly eight decades, was instrumental in influencing the British government to lower the tea tax to a much more reasonable rate of 12.5%. As a result, within one year tea imports of the legal variety nearly tripled.

In 1785, Richard Twining put down some of his thoughts about the tea industry in a short volume called Observations on the Tea and Window Act: And on the Tea Trade. For another perspective, from a year later, try The Principle of the Commutation Act Established by Facts, by Francis Baring.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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2 thoughts on “Tea History – The Commutation Act of 1784

  1. Pingback: Tea Themes on Our Blog | Tea Blog

  2. Pingback: Richard Twining’s Observations on the Tea Trade (1785) | Tea Blog

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