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The Remarkable Captain Pidding

[Editor’s note: we welcome the first article from a fellow tea blogger. Enjoy!]

From The Carlisle Patriot, 18 May 1844 :

“CHINESE OLIO AND TEA TALK. – This is the title of a weekly paper just commenced by Captain PIDDING, whose celebrated mixture of teas is so well known. We have seen the first number, and as far as we can judge, it contains much useful and interesting information respecting the Chinese, as well as the tea trade in general. It will be seen by an advertisement elsewhere that it is the intention of Captain PIDDING to publish valuable information relative to the tea sales in London, which must recommend his “Olio” to the trade generally, and to all establishments where the consumption of tea is large.”

Assam tea via Captain Pidding? Not quite! (ETS image)
Assam tea via Captain Pidding? Not quite! (ETS image)

Captain Pidding was a tea pioneer; a big personality who laid down a style that others have emulated since: he was dishonest, a braggart and a subscriber to the “anything for a quid” school of business.

He claimed to have been a Captain of an East India Company Tea Ship: there’s some debate on the truth of this. He sold tea in boxes covered in Chinese characters that were found to be printed in England using meaningless characters. He claimed that his original teas were sourced from famous Chinese merchant Howqua: evidence is that it was not. His claims to quality were dubious at best.

A posting as captain of a ship did not offer him financial security, as there exists a memorandum of agreement between ‘Pidding, Commander of the ‘Thames’, and John Campbell of Leadenhall Street, merchant, for the former to be advanced £3,000 by Campbell, 31 December 1832, extended by a further £2,000 on 11 January 1833’.

In the mid-1830s he was bankrupt, had been found to be fraudulent and to have many irregularities in his business dealings.

Yet in 1839, this man bought the entire first ever shipment of Assam tea to arrive in London, then sold it in small lots for a substantial profit. How?

At about that time, medical expert George Gabriel Sigmond, M.D. F.S.A. F.L.S, Professor Of Materia Medica To The Royal Medico- Botanical Society, produced  “Tea: Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral” which trumpeted the virtue of Assam Tea.

A popular theory is that Pidding and Sigmond were working together, with Sigmond financing the purchase. Alternatively, they may have been independent opportunists.

But I’m starting to think that Sigmond was simply writing what he believed. He authored books on medicine, religion and on theories whereby those two meet, plus a biography section of a collection of plays by Sheridan. His tracts show incredible research and are extensive.

On the other hand, Pidding’s family were ‘colourful’, as they say. His brother George Raymond Pidding  was transported to Australia for forging receipts, where his descendants still proudly mention the “captain and tea merchant” in the family tree. George and John’s dear old Dad sold fake potions and was a regular visitor to the local Court, usually over unpaid bills.

So the next time you read dodgy claims or incorrect information designed to sell you tea, the purveyor is no doubt a proud successor to Captain John Rhodes Pidding.

Robert Godden is a tea guy from Australia.

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