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British Tea Culture Essays

Since the eighteenth century, the United Kingdom has been one of the world's greatest tea consumers, with an average annual per capita tea supply of 1.9 kg (4.18 lbs).[1] The British Empire was instrumental in spreading tea from China to India; British interests controlled tea production in the subcontinent. Tea, which was an upper-class drink in mainland Europe, became the infusion of every social class in Great Britain throughout the course of the eighteenth century and has remained so. Tea is a prominent feature of British culture and society.[2]

In both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the drinking of tea is so varied that it is quite hard to generalise. While it is usually served with milk, it is not uncommon to drink it black or with lemon, with sugar being a popular addition to any of the above. Strong tea, served in a mug with milk and sugar, is a popular combination known as builder's tea.


Early mentions[edit]

The first record of tea written in English came from English merchants abroad. In 1615, Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, wrote in a letter to merchants in Macao requesting that they bring him "a pot of the best sort of chaw". Peter Mundy, a traveller and merchant who came across tea in Fujian, China in 1637, wrote, "chaa – only water with a kind of herb boiled in it".[3]

Green tea exported from China was first introduced in the coffeehouses of London shortly before the Stuart Restoration (1660); in 1657, tea was offered as an item in a London coffeehouse in Exchange Alley.[4] The owner Thomas Garraway had to explain the new beverage in a pamphlet, and an advertisement in Mercurius Politicus for 30 September 1658 offered "That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, ...sold at the Sultaness-head, ye Cophee-house in Sweetings-Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London". [5] In London "Coffee, chocolate and a kind of drink called tee" were "sold in almost every street in 1659", according to Thomas Rugge's Diurnall.[6] Tea was mainly consumed by upper and mercantile classes: Samuel Pepys, curious for every novelty, tasted the new drink in 1660 and recorded the experience in his diary: [25 September] "I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before". Some years later, in 1667, Pepys noted that his wife was taking tea on medical advice – "a drink which Mr Pelling the Pottecary tells her is good for her colds and defluxions". The Royal College of Physicians debated whether any of the exotic new hot drinks would "agree with the Constitutions of our English bodies".[7]

Stuarts and Georgians[edit]

In 1660, two pounds and two ounces of tea bought from Portugal were formally presented to Charles II by the British East India Company.[8] The drink, already common in Europe, was a favourite of his new Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, who introduced it at court after she married Charles II in 1662. As tea was her temperance drink of choice, it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy. Catherine of Braganza's choice of tea was also instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain – because tea was introduced primarily through male-frequented coffee houses, there would have been far less social acceptability for women to drink this beverage had it not been for her example. Catherine of Braganza's use of tea as a court beverage, rather than a medicinal drink, influenced its popularity in literary circles around 1685.[9]

The British East India company made its first order for the importation of tea in 1667 to their agent in Bantam, and two canisters of tea weighing 143 lbs 8 oz arrived from Bantam in 1669.[10] In 1672, a servant of Baron Herbert in London sent his instructions for tea making, and warming the delicate cups, to Shropshire;

"The directions for the tea are: a quart of spring water just boiled, to which put a spoonful of tea, and sweeten to the palate with candy sugar. As soon as the tea and sugar are in, the steam must be kept in as much as may be, and let it lie half or quarter of an hour in the heat of the fire but not boil. The little cups must be held over the steam before the liquid be put in."[11]

The earliest English equipages for making tea date to the 1660s. Small porcelain tea bowls were used by the fashionable; they were occasionally shipped with the tea itself. Tea-drinking spurred the search for a European imitation of Chinese porcelain, first successfully produced in England at the Chelsea porcelain manufactory, established around 1743-45 and quickly imitated. See tea set.

Black tea overtook green tea in popularity in the 1720s when sugar and milk were added to tea, a practice that was not done in China. The growth in the import of tea parallels that of sugar in the 18th century.[12] Between 1720 and 1750 the imports of tea to Britain through the British East India Company more than quadrupled.[13]Fernand Braudel queried, "is it true to say the new drink replaced gin in England?"[14] By 1766, exports from Canton stood at six million pounds on British boats, compared with 4.5 on Dutch ships, 2.4 on Swedish, 2.1 on French.[15] Veritable "tea fleets" grew up. Tea was particularly interesting to the Atlantic world not only because it was easy to cultivate but also because of how easy it was to prepare and its ability to revive the spirits and cure mild colds.[16]

Thomas Twining opened the first known tea shop in 1706, which still remains at 216 Strand, London. In 1787, the company created its logo, still in use today, which is thought to be the world's oldest commercial logo that has been in continuous use since its inception.[17] Under Associated British Foods since 1964, Stephen Twining now represents the company's tenth generation. In 2006, Twinings celebrated its 300th anniversary with a special tea and associated tea caddies. Twining's is a Royal Warrant holder (appointed by HM The Queen).

Victorian and later[edit]

Some scholars suggest that tea played a role in British Industrial Revolution. Afternoon tea possibly became a way to increase the number of hours labourers could work in factories; the stimulants in the tea, accompanied by sugary snacks would give workers energy to finish the day's work. Further, tea helped alleviate some of the consequences of the urbanization that accompanied the industrial revolution: drinking tea required boiling the water, thereby killing water-borne diseases like dysentery, cholera, and typhoid.[18]

The popularity of tea occasioned the furtive export of slips, a small shoot for planting or twig for grafting to tea plants, from China to British India and its commercial cultivation there, beginning in 1840.

Between 1872 and 1884 the supply of tea to the British Empire increased with the expansion of the railway to the east. The demand, however, was not proportional, which caused the prices to rise. Nevertheless, from 1884 onward, due to innovation in tea preparation, the price of tea dropped and remained relatively low throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Soon afterwards London became the centre of the international tea trade.[19] With high tea imports also came a large increase in the demand for porcelain. The demand for tea cups, pots and dishes increased to go along with this popular new drink.[16]

Roger Fulford argues that tea rooms benefitted women in the Victorian era, in that these neutral public spaces were instrumental in the "spread of independence" for women and their struggle for the vote.[20] Paul Chrystal characterises tea rooms as "popular and fashionable, especially with women", providing them a dignified and safe place to meet and eat - and strategise on political campaigns.[21]

British-style tea[edit]

Brewing the tea[edit]

Even very slightly formal events can be a cause for cups and saucers to be used instead of mugs. A typical semi-formal British tea ritual might run as follows (the host performing all actions unless noted):[22]

  1. The kettle is brought to a rolling boil (with fresh water to ensure good oxygenation which is essential for proper diffusion of the tea leaves).[23]
  2. Enough boiling water is swirled around the teapot to warm it and then poured out.
  3. Add loose tea leaves (usually black tea) or tea bags, always added before the boiled water.
  4. Fresh boiling water is poured over the tea in the pot and allowed to brew for 2 to 5 minutes while a tea cosy may be placed on the pot to keep the tea warm.[24]
  5. A tea strainer is placed over the top of the cup and the tea poured in, unless tea bags are used. Tea bags may be removed, if desired, once desired strength is attained.
  6. White sugar and milk (in that order) may be added, usually by the guest.
  7. The pot will normally hold enough tea so as not to be empty after filling the cups of all the guests. If this is the case, the tea cosy is replaced after everyone has been served. Hot water may be provided in a separate pot, and is used only for topping up the pot, never the cup.

The question of milk[edit]

"By putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is likely to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round"

—One of Orwell's eleven rules for making tea from his essay "A Nice Cup of Tea", appearing in the London Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.[25]

Whether to put milk into the cup before or after the tea has been a matter of debate since at least the mid-20th century; in his 1946 essay "A Nice Cup of Tea", author George Orwell wrote, "tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country and causes violent disputes over how it should be made".[26] Whether to put tea in the cup first and add the milk after, or the other way around, has split public opinion, with Orwell stating, "indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject".[26]

Another aspect of the debate are claims that adding milk at the different times alters the flavour of the tea (for instance, see ISO 3103 and the Royal Society of Chemistry's "How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea".[27]) Some studies suggest that the heating of milk above 75 degrees Celsius (adding milk after the tea is poured, not before) does cause denaturation of the lactalbumin and lactoglobulin.[28] Other studies argue brewing time has a greater importance.[29] Regardless, when milk is added to tea, it may affect the flavour. In addition to considerations of flavour, the order of these steps is thought to have been, historically, an indication of class. Only those wealthy enough to afford good-quality porcelain would be confident of its being able to cope with being exposed to boiling water unadulterated with milk.[30]

A further point of discussion on when to add milk is how it affects the time taken for the liquid to reach a drinkable temperature. While adding milk first will cause an initial drop in temperature which leads to a more shallow cooling curve (thus slower cooling) while also increasing volume (which would slightly increase the surface area through which the tea could lose heat), one study noted that adding milk first leads to the tea retaining heat out of all proportion with these effects. The major mechanism by which hot tea cools is not conduction or radiation but evaporative loss which is affected by the physical properties of the milk.[footnote 1] The study concluded that lipids in milk prevent water evaporating so rapidly thus retaining heat longer.[footnote 2]

Drinking etiquette[edit]

There are opinions as to the proper manner in which to drink tea when using a cup and saucer.[31] Historically, during the 1770s and 1780s, it was fashionable to drink tea from saucers. Saucers were deeper than is the current fashion and so more similar to bowls like their Chinese antecedents.[32] If one is seated at a table, the proper manner to drink tea is to raise the teacup only, placing it back into the saucer in between sips. When standing or sitting in a chair without a table, one holds the tea saucer with the off hand and the tea cup in the dominant hand. When not in use, the tea cup is placed back in the tea saucer and held in one's lap or at waist height. In either event, the tea cup should never be held or waved in the air. Fingers should be curled inwards, no finger should extend away from the handle of the cup.[22]

Tea as a break[edit]

British workers by law, have the right to a minimum of a twenty-minute break in a shift of six hours; government guidelines describe this as "a tea or lunch break".[33] More informally, this is known as elevenses, i.e. a couple of hours before the midday meal, traditionally served at 11 am.

Builder's tea in a mug is typical of a quick tea break in the working day.

Tea as a meal[edit]

Main article: Tea (meal)

Tea is not only the name of the beverage but also of a light meal. Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, is credited with its creation, circa 1840, to ward off hunger between luncheon and dinner, as the latter was being served later and later. The tradition continues to this day in tea rooms in the UK. While these establishments have declined in popularity since World War II, there are still many to be found in the countryside. In the West Country, cream teas are a speciality: scones, clotted cream and jam accompany the drink. Afternoon tea, in contemporary British usage, usually indicates a special occasion, perhaps in a hotel dining room, with savoury snacks (tea sandwiches) as well as small sweet pastries.

A social event to enjoy tea together, usually in a private home, is a tea party.

"Tea" (sometimes "high tea") can also mean the savoury, hot early evening meal. This usage is common in working class British English and in Northern England, Scotland, and Ulster (almost exclusively in County Donegal and Northern Ireland). See Tea as the evening meal.

Tea cards[edit]

In the United Kingdom, a number of varieties of loose tea sold in packets from the 1940s to the 1980s contained tea cards. These were illustrated cards roughly the same size as cigarette cards and intended to be collected by children. Perhaps the best known were Typhoo tea and Brooke Bond (manufacturer of PG Tips), the latter of whom also provided albums for collectors to keep their cards in. In the brand named Brooke Bond Dividend D, the card was a dividend ("divvy") against the cost of the tea.

Some renowned artists were commissioned to illustrate the cards, including Charles Tunnicliffe. Many of these card collections are now valuable collectors' items.

A related phenomenon arose in the early 1990s when PG Tips released a series of tea-based pogs, with pictures of cups of tea and chimpanzees on them. Tetley's tea released competing pogs but never matched the popularity of the PG Tips variety.

Popularity of tea in UK[edit]

Historians argue about the origins of tea’s popularity and many attribute it to one or two factors. Ukers argues in All About Tea: Volume I that the rise in popularity of tea in Great Britain was largely due to tea’s reputation among men as a medical drink that can cure a wide array of ailments and its burgeoning presence in the coffeehouses where elite men congregated.[34] As for tea’s popularity among women, he briefly acknowledges that Princess Catherine of Braganza made tea fashionable among aristocratic women, but largely attributes its popularity to its ubiquity in the medical discourse of seventeenth century. Ellis, Coulton, and Mauger trace tea’s popularity back to three distinct groups in Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. These groups were virtuosi, merchants, and elite female aristocrats.[35] They argue that the influence of these three groups combined launched tea as a popular beverage in Great Britain. Smith, in his article “Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism” differs from Ukers and Ellis, Coulton, and Mauger in that he argues that tea only became popular once sugar was added to the drink and tea with sugar became associated with a domestic ritual that indicated respectability.[36] Mintz, in both “The Changing Roles of Food in the Story of Consumption” and Sweetness and Power, agrees and disagrees with Smith. Mintz acknowledges that sugar played a monumental role in the rise of tea, but contradicts Smith’s connection of tea to respectability.[37] While Smith argues that tea first became popular in the home, Mintz believes tea first became popular in the workplace, as people drank tea during the workday for its warm sweetness and stimulating properties.[38] It was later that it entered the home and became an “integral part of the social fabric.”[39] After reviewing the discourse, it is clear that while many historians attribute tea’s rise to prominence in England to only two or three varying factors, it was actually due to a combination of up to six factors that changed and progressed over time as tea became more common throughout various levels of English society.

The history of European interactions with tea dates back to the mid-sixteenth century. The earliest mention of tea in European literature was by Giambattista Ramusio, a Venetian explorer, as Chai Catai or “Tea of China” in 1559.[40] Tea was mentioned several more times in various European countries afterwards, but Jan Hugo van Linschooten, a Dutch navigator, was the first to write a printed reference of tea in 1598 in his Discours of Voyages.[41] However, it was several years later, in 1615, that the earliest known reference to tea by an Englishman took place in a letter exchanged between Mr. R. Wickham, an agent for the British East India Company stationed at Japan to a Mr. Eaton, who was stationed in Macao, China.[42] In this letter, Wickham asked Eaton to send him “a pot of the best sort of chaw,”[42] phonetically how one would write chàh, the local (Cantonese) dialect word for tea. Another early reference to tea appears in the writings of trader Samuel Purchas in 1625.[43] Purchas describes how the Chinese consume tea as “the powder of a certaine herbe called chia of which they put as much as a walnut shell may contain, into a dish of Porcelane, and drink it with hot water.”[43] Though there were a number of early mentions, it was several more years before tea was actually sold in England. Thomas Garway, a tobacconist and coffee house owner, was the first person in England to sell tea as a leaf and beverage at his shop in Exchange Alley in 1657.[44] Immediately after Garway began selling it, the Sultaness Head Coffee House began selling tea as a beverage and posted the first newspaper advertisement for tea in Mercurius Politicus in 1658.[45] The announcement proclaimed “That Excellent and by all Physicians approved China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other Nations Tay, alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness Head Cophee House in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.”[45] While tea slowly became more common in coffeehouses in the years that followed, the first tea shop in London did not open until 1717 and it was not until this time that tea became commonly used.[46] In between tea’s earliest mentions in England and its widespread popularity little over a century later, many factors contributed the craze for this previously unknown foreign commodity.

The first factor that contributed to the rise in popularity of tea was its reputation as a medical drink. Tea first became labeled as a medical drink in 1641 by Dr. Nikolas Dirx, who wrote under the pseudonym “Nicolas Tulp” and was a celebrated Dutch physician.[47] Tulp praised tea in his book, Observationes Medicae, claiming that “nothing is comparable to this plant” and that those who use it are “exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age.”[48] He goes into detail on the specific merits of tea, such as curing “headaches, colds, ophthalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach, and intestinal troubles.”[48] It is important to note that Tulp was also a director of the Dutch East India Company, so his praise of tea was likely a marketing tactic.[49] Thomas Garway, the first English shopkeeper to sell tea, published a broadsheet in 1660 titled “An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf TEA” which also praised tea’s medical benefits. Garway claims that “the Drink is declared to be most wholesome, preserving in perfect health until extreme Old Age,” as well as “maketh the body active and lusty,” “helpeth the Headache,” “taketh away the difficulty of breathing,” “strengtheneth the Memory,” and “expelleth infection.”[50] There were many more published works on the health benefits of tea, including those by Hartlib in 1657, Bontekoe in 1678, Povey in 1686, and Tryon in the 1690s.[51][52][53] Even John Locke, the famous English philosopher, developed a fondness for tea after spending time with Dutch medical men in the 1680s.[54] Ellis, Coulton, and Mauger refer to these men as “virtuosi”: scientists, philosophers, and doctors who first took an interest in tea and contributed to its early popularity as a pharmaceutical.[55] But, such as with the case of Tulp, some of these men may have been influenced by Indies companies and merchants who wished to create a market for tea. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that these writings about the so-called health benefits of tea contributed to rise in popularity of tea in England.

The proliferation of works on the health benefits of tea happened to come at a time when people in the upper classes of English society began to take an interest in their health, which ties into the second factor that gave rise to tea’s popularity. As most historians will say, PrincessCatherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married King Charles II in 1662, introduced tea to the aristocratic class and made it fashionable among the ladies of the court.[49][56] According to Ellis, Coulton, Maugher, “tea was six to ten times more expensive than coffee” in the 1660s, making it an extremely expensive and luxurious commodity.[57] Tea’s association with luxury was perhaps why it became so popular among the elite. Whenever it was consumed in the court, it was “conspicuously on display” so as to show it off.[55] Tea drinking became a central aspect of aristocratic society in England by the 1680s, particularly among women who drank it while gossiping in the home.[58] Catherine of Braganza’s introduction of tea to ladies was significant because it made tea an acceptable drink for both sexes, when it easily could have been categorized as a men’s drink if it had remained only available in the coffeehouses that only men frequented. Wealthy ladies’ desire to show off their luxurious commodities in front of other ladies also increased demand for tea and made it more popular. Another factor that made tea desirable among the elite crowd was the addition of sugar, another luxurious commodity which was already well-established among the upper classes.

Though tea was already gaining popularity on its own, the addition of sugar is what allowed tea’s popularity to soar, making sugar the third factor that contributed to tea’s rise. According to Smith, the English began adding sugar to their tea between 1685 and the early eighteenth century.[59] At this time, sugar was already being used to enhance the flavor of other foods among the elite and had a reputation as an ostentatious luxury.[60] Because both tea and sugar had status implications it made sense to drink them together.[61] Furthermore, sugar imports into England were growing rapidly because the supply of sugar was highly elastic due to the growth of sugar plantations in the Americas.[62] But, as previously mentioned, the elite classes of England were starting to care more about their health and literature on the unhealthiness of sugar was beginning to circulate in the late seventeenth century.[63] Adding sugar to tea, however, was seen as an acceptable way to consume sugar because it suggested that “one had the self-control to consume sugar in a healthy way.”[63] Sugar also masks tea’s bitterness, so it simply made tea more desirable because it tasted better. As the supply of both tea and sugar grew during the early eighteenth century, the combination of the two commodities became more universal and increased the popularity and demand for both products.

Tea would not have become the English staple it is known as if not for the increase in its supply that made it more accessible. When tea was first introduced to England, the British East India Company was not directly trading with China and merchants relied on tea imports from Holland.[64] Because this tea was so expensive and difficult to get, there was very little demand for it, except among the elite who could afford it and made special orders. It was not until after 1700 that the British East India Company began to trade regularly with China and ordering tea, though not in large quantities.[65] Smith argues that the tea trade was actually a side effect of the silk and textile trade because these were the Chinese commodities that were most desired at the time.[65] In 1720, however, Parliament banned the importation of finished Asian textiles and traders began to focus on tea instead.[65] This new focus marked a turning point for the English tea trade and is arguably why tea became more popular than coffee. Once the British East India company focused on tea as its main import, tea attained price stability soon after. Conversely, the price of coffee remained unpredictable and high, allowing tea to grow in popularity before coffee became more accessible.[66] Furthermore, the rising demand for tea and sugar was easily met with increased supply as the tea industry grew in India, which prevented sharp price increases that would have discouraged people from buying it.[67] In fact, the price of tea actually fell as it was becoming more popular among the upper-middle and middle classes. The significant drop in tea’s price between 1720 and 1750 was a major turning point for tea in England. The increase in supply of tea was one of the most important factors that boosted its popularity in Britain and opened up the world of tea to new levels of society.

The fifth factor that led to tea’s dominance in both Great Britain and Ireland was its adoption as a domestic ritual enjoyed by a variety of groups in the middle and upper classes. Because tea began as a luxury for only the super-rich, it already had a reputation as a high-class commodity. But as prices slowly dropped in the eighteenth century, more people at the middle levels of society had access to it. According to Smith, drinking tea became associated with respectability.[68] When people drank tea, they were expected to possess certain manners and behave in a particular way.[68] Soon, drinking tea became a domestic ritual among families, colleagues, and friends who were just wealthy enough to afford it, which also increased demand.[67] The association between tea and respectability became so ingrained in both British and Irish culture that it reached a point where it could not go out of fashion.[63] Tea-drinking among these groups was also soon considered patriotic. Because the British East India Company had a monopoly over the tea industry in England, tea became more popular than coffee, chocolate, and alcohol.[69] Tea was seen as inherently British and tea-drinking was encouraged by the British government because of the revenue gained from taxing tea.[70] Unlike coffee and chocolate, which came from the colonies of Britain’s rivals in various regions of the world, tea was produced in a single massive colony and served as a means of not only profit, but colonial power.[70][63] Mintz goes so far as to argue that the combination of ritualization and increased production in the British colonies was how tea became inherently British.[71] As the British continued to import more and more tea throughout the eighteenth century, tea slowly went from a respectable commodity consumed by the well-mannered classes in domestic rituals to an absolute necessity in the British diet, even among the poor working classes. It was at this point that tea became universal among all levels of society.

Tea’s popularity finally reached the working class in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century and was soon considered an everyday necessity among poor laborers. According to Scottish historian David MacPherson, tea had become cheaper than beer in the early nineteenth century.[72] Furthermore, sugar had also become extremely cheap by this time and the two were almost always consumed together.[73] However, the poor consumed tea much differently than the well-mannered ritual adopted by the upper classes. For starters, according to Mintz, “tea-drinking among the poor probably began in connection with work, not in the home.”[74] Day laborers brewed their tea out in the open and brought their tea equipment with them to work, as opposed to the private domestic ritual that had previously surrounded tea-drinking.[39] Tea’s cheapness at this time definitely contributed to its adoption among the poor, but there were other factors as well. Drinking a hot, sweet beverage transformed their meals, which generally consisted of dry bread and cheese, and made them go down more easily.[39] Additionally, the warm beverage was especially appealing given Britain’s cold and wet climate.[39][71] The poor also got a significant calorie boost when sugar was added, which gave them an energy bump when combined with tea’s stimulant properties.[71] Though the price of coffee had also gone down by this point, tea was the preferred drink because, unlike coffee, it still tasted good when diluted, which is often how the poor consumed it in order to save money.[75] John Hanway, an eighteenth century social reformer, observed the widespread consumption of tea by the poor in 1767. He described “a certain lane...where beggars are often seen...drinking their tea,” as well as “laborers mending their roads drinking their tea” and tea “in the cups of haymakers.”[76] Just two centuries after the first appearance of tea in English society as a beverage for aristocrats, tea had become so widely popular and available that those at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy were consuming it as their beverage of choice.

The rise in popularity of tea between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries had major social, political, and economic implications for Great Britain. It defined respectability and domestic rituals, supported the rise and dominance of the British Empire, and contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution by supplying both the capital for factories and calories for laborers.[39] It also demonstrates the power of globalization and imperialism to transform a country and shape it into the modern society it is known as today. Tea remains a popular drink in Britain in the modern day and is still considered to be the epitome of British ritual and identity.

Tea today[edit]

In 2003, DataMonitor reported that regular tea drinking in the United Kingdom was on the decline.[77] There was a 10.25 percent decline in the purchase of normal teabags in Britain between 1997 and 2002.[77] Sales of ground coffee also fell during the same period.[77] Britons were instead drinking health-oriented beverages like fruit or herbal teas, consumption of which increased 50 percent from 1997 to 2002. A further, unexpected, statistic is that the sales of decaffeinated tea and coffee fell even faster during this period than the sale of the more common varieties.[77] Declining tea sales were matched by an increase in espresso sales.[78] Regardless, Tea still remains an extremely popular drink and is still engrained in British culture and society.

See also[edit]




  • Teasmade, an English appliance that combines a kettle and a teapot to make tea automatically by alarm clock
  • Brown Betty (teapot), an iconic type of teapot made from British red clay, known for being rotund and glazed with brown manganese
  • Cube teapot, a heavy-duty type of teapot invented for making tea on ships
  • Tea set, the pot, sugar bowl, milk jug, etc.




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  26. ^ abGeorge Orwell, Ian Angus, Sheila Davison (1998). "The Complete Works of George Orwell: Smothered under journalism, 1946". p. 34. Secker & Warburg
  27. ^"How to make a Perfect Cup of Tea"(PDF). Royal Society of Chemistry. 2003. Archived from the original(PDF) on 2014-08-11. 
  28. ^Rowland, S. J. (December 1933). "The Heat Denaturation of Albumin and Globulin in Milk". Journal of Dairy Research. 5 (1): 46–53. doi:10.1017/S0022029900000911. 
  29. ^Kyle, J. A.; Morrice, P. C.; McNeill, G.; Duthie, G. G. (2007). "Effects of Infusion Time and Addition of Milk on Content and Absorption of Polyphenols from Black Tea". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 55 (12): 4889–4894. doi:10.1021/jf070351y. 
  30. ^Beverly Dubrin (1 October 2010). Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More. Charlesbridge Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-60734-363-9. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
  31. ^Sapsted, David (8 Aug 2007). "Tea room outlaws biscuit dunking". The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  32. ^Titus, Susan. "Tea: A Brief History". Retrieved 25 April 2016. 
  33. ^"Rest breaks at work". Retrieved 9 May 2016. 
  34. ^Ukers 1935, pp. 23–46
  35. ^Ellis, Coulton & Mauger 2015, pp. 31–76
  36. ^Woodruff D. Smith, “Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (Autumn 1992), 259-277.
  37. ^Mintz 1993, pp. 261–270
  38. ^Mintz 1985, pp. 110–117
  39. ^ abcdeMintz 1993, p. 266
  40. ^Giambattista Ramusio, Navigatione et Viaggi, Vol. II, Venice, 1559, in Ukers 1935, pp. 23–24
  41. ^Jan Hugo Van Linschooten, Discours of Voyages, London, 1598, in Ukers 1935, p. 26
  42. ^ abUkers 1935, p. 37
  43. ^ abSamuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, Vol. III, London, 1625, in Ukers 1935, p. 38
  44. ^Ukers 1935, p. 38
  45. ^ abUkers 1935, p. 41
  46. ^Ukers 1935, p. 46
  47. ^Ukers 1935, p. 31
  48. ^ abDr. Nicolas Tulp, Obersaciones Medicae, Amsterdam, 1641, in Ukers 1935, pp. 31–32
  49. ^ abSmith, 268.
  50. ^Thomas Garway, “An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf TEA,” ca. 1660, preserved in the British Museum, in Ukers 1935, pp. 38–39
  51. ^Ellis, Coulton & Mauger 2015, pp. 32, 34
  52. ^Thomas Povey, Esq., “A Famous Tea Manuscript of 1686,” Oct. 20, 1686, in Ukers 1935, p. 40
  53. ^Smith, 296.
  54. ^Ellis, Coulton & Mauger 2015, p. 43
  55. ^ abEllis, Coulton & Mauger 2015, p. 31
  56. ^
An English tea caddy, a box to store loose tea leaves
In the mid-18th century, tea still had exotic connotations: salt-glazed stoneware teapot, Staffordshire, ca.1750 (Victoria and Albert Museum)
Tea with milk that has not yet been stirred
  1. ^Water molecules whose temperature is far above the average temperature of the tea escape and it is only these above average temperature molecules that have sufficient energy to escape the surface of the tea. As the tea's temperature drops the rate of evaporation, and thus rate of heat loss by evaporation, also drops and evaporative loss becomes a minor mechanism.
  2. ^For this reason Chinese tea cups come with lids to retain heat as it is common practise in China to add tea leaves to a cup and brew in the cup and so the water temperature must be kept high for sufficient time. Also, insulated cups/travel mugs for hot beverages come with lids as it is anticipated that the beverage will be imbibed some while after being heated.

A Social History of the Nation's Favourite Drink

This section contains an extended examination of the social role tea has played in British society, and subsequent debates.

Jump to:

  1. The origins of tea in UK society
  2. Tea at seventeenth century London Coffee Houses
  3. Tea for the wealthy and the advent of tea parties
  4. Tea for the Masses and the smuggling
  5. The great tea debate and the Temperance Movement
  6. Time for tea
  7. Afternoon Tea
  8. High Tea
  9. Tea in the First and Second World Wars
  10. Post-war rationing of tea until 1952
  11. 'Milk in first or tea in first'

The origins of tea in UK society

A cup of tea is a vital part of everyday life for the majority of people in modern Britain - in fact tea is so integral to our routine, that it is difficult to imagine life without it! But it was not always so; tea was once a luxury product that only the rich could afford, and at one time there was even a debate about whether it might be bad for the health. It was over the course of several hundred years that tea gained its place as our national drink, and only relatively recently that its health-giving properties have been recognised.

a lover of tea since her childhood in Portugal

Tea first became established in Britain because of the influence of a foreign princess, Catherine of Braganza, the queen of Charles II. A lover of tea since her childhood in Portugal, she brought tea-drinking to the English royal court, and set a trend for the beverage among the aristocracy of England in the seventeenth century.


Tea at seventeenth century London Coffee Houses

The fashion soon spread beyond these elite circles to the middle classes, and it became a popular drink at the London coffee houses where wealthy men met to do business and discuss the events of the day. But the tea that was being drunk in those seventeenth century coffee houses would probably be considered undrinkable now. Between 1660 and 1689, tea sold in coffee houses was taxed in liquid form. The whole of the day's tea would be brewed in the morning, taxed by a visiting excise officer, and then kept in barrels and reheated as necessary throughout the rest of the day. So a visitor to the coffee house in the late afternoon would be drinking tea that had been made hours before in the early morning! The quality of the drink improved after 1689, when the system of taxation was altered so that tea was taxed by the leaf rather than by the liquid.


Tea for the wealthy and the advent of tea parties

Some coffee houses also sold tea in loose leaf form so that it could be brewed at home. This meant that it could be enjoyed by women, who did not frequent coffee houses. Since it was relatively expensive, tea-drinking in the home must have been largely confined to wealthier households, where women would gather for tea parties. Such a party would be a genteel social occasion, using delicate china pots and cups, silver tea kettles and elegantly carved tea jars and tea tables. All the equipment would be set up by the servants, and then the tea would be brewed by the hostess (aided by a servant on hand to bring hot water) and served by her to her guests in dainty cups. Both green and black teas were popular, and sugar was frequently added (though like tea, this was an expensive import); in the seventeenth century though, it was still unusual for milk to be added to the beverage. We can imagine then that while seventeenth century men were at the coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives gathered at one another's homes to do exactly the same thing - just in a more refined atmosphere!


Tea for the Masses and the smuggling

Fluctuations in the level of tax meant fluctuations in the price of tea, and during the seventeenth century frequent tea-drinking was beyond the means of the majority of British people.But despite its high price, the British took to tea drinking with enormous enthusiasm. In the eighteenth century there was a clear gap between the large number of people who wanted to enjoy tea regularly, and the relatively small number of people who could actually afford to do so. And into this gap stepped the smugglers. If tea was smuggled in, no duty was paid on it, so it could be sold much more cheaply. Highly-organised smuggling networks were developed to cater for the popular demand for tea. Though these gangs of smugglers could frequently be ruthless in their practises, such was the popularity of tea-drinking that many people were prepared to turn a blind eye. By the later eighteenth century, it is estimated that more tea was smuggled into Britain than was brought in legally. This had two important effects for tea drinking: firstly, because it made tea affordable, it made the beverage ever more popular among all sections of society, and ever more integral to everyday life. Secondly, because the smugglers were based in coastal areas and their networks spread across the countryside, it drove the enthusiasm for tea drinking out of the larger towns and cities and into rural areas.

slashed the duty on tea, making it much more affordable

By 1785 the government (under pressure from legal tea merchants whose profits were being seriously undermined by all the smuggling) slashed the duty on tea, making it much more affordable. This wiped out the illegal smuggling trade virtually overnight. It still was not cheap, and for many years tea was often adulterated with leaves from other plants or with leaves that had already been brewed, which made it more affordable but much less pleasant! There was a great deal of concern about adulteration - some unscrupulous individuals added poisonous chemicals to make green 'tea' the right colour - and these concerns led to an increase in popularity in black tea, and a parallel increase in the addition of milk to tea. Such was the popularity of the beverage that many employers provided free tea to their employees (just like tea breaks in offices and factories today!) while household servants were often provided with a tea allowance. Although it is not documented, these employers were surely well aware that a cup of tea was just the thing to refresh their employees and perk them up.


The great tea debate and the Temperance Movement

But not everyone agreed that tea was an appropriate drink for the working classes. Indeed, from the early eighteenth century well into the nineteenth century a debate raged among middle and upper-class commentators about the benefits or otherwise of tea drinking - and particularly about whether the lower classes should be allowed to drink tea at all. This was partly based upon a consideration of whether tea might be injurious to health (it was a long time before the benefits of tea to health would be scientifically proven) but also partly based upon snobbery and a belief that the poor existed essentially to serve the needs of the rich.

its particular targets were tea, coffee and hot chocolate

In 1706 a book by a doctor from Montpelier, France, was translated into English. Its title: Wholesome Advice against the Abuse of Hot Liquors'. Its particular targets were tea, coffee and hot chocolate. In the late seventeenth century, great medicinal claims had been made for hot drinks, including tea, and this book was a response to them, arguing that though while moderate consumption could be beneficial, an excess of hot drinks caused the blood and insides to heat up and that 'Excess of Heat is the most Common Cause of Sickness and Death'. Indeed, noted the doctor, 'The name of Phlegeton, one of the rivers of Hell, coming from a word that signifies to Burn, denotes, That the Abuse of Hot Liquors contributes very much to People the Kingdom of Death'. Medical science at the time was so basic that the 'evidence' presented in the book was based largely upon vague anatomical knowledge and references to Bible stories and classical Greek and Roman texts. It is noted, for example, that Methuselah, the Old Testament figure who lived almost a thousand years, never drank hot liquors.

John Wesley and abstinence from tea

This book though counselled moderation rather than abstinence (and noted indeed that an excess of cold is equally as damaging as an excess of heat). But a few decades later in 1748 John Wesley, the great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement, was arguing for complete abstinence from tea, on the grounds that it gave rise to 'numberless disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind'. He cited the example of himself, claiming that tea drinking had caused in him a 'Paralytick disorder', which had cleared up since he began to abstain from the beverage. Wesley urged that the money previously spent by an individual on tea should instead be given to the poor, and as an alternative hot infusions could be made from English herbs including sage or mint. His argument was certainly thorough (although medically entirely incorrect), and he even touched on how one ought to deal with the awkward situation of having to refuse an offered cup of tea. The tract is shot through with the emphasis on the religious importance of self-denial that was a central tenet of early Methodism, but in fact at later in his life Wesley went back to tea drinking.

published a pamphlet claiming that tea was virtually a cure-all

In the following years the debate about the health-giving properties of tea got under way in earnest. An anonymous 'Gentleman of Cambridge' published a pamphlet claiming (based on the work of a physician who had served no less a figure than the King of Denmark!) that tea was virtually a cure-all. He cited conditions as varied as scurvy, rheumatism, inflammation and poor sight, all of which he said could be cured by the daily drinking of large quantities of tea. He also noted that it was particularly beneficial to the 'fair sex' (meaning women), which was a great contrast to the doctor of Montpelier, who was very concerned that hot liquors could heat the womb and adversely affect a woman's fertility (his evidence for the adverse effect of heat included the Biblical figure Rachel, who had rather a hot temper, and had to wait many years to conceive).

Jonas Hanway thought tea as 'pernicious to health'

In 1757 the philanthropist Jonas Hanway published an essay on the effects of tea drinking, 'considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation'. Published in the form of 25 letters written to two wealthy female friends, Hanway dismissed the claim that tea could cure scurvy, and claimed instead, like Wesley, that it caused 'paralytic and nervous disorders'. He was particularly concerned about its effect on women: 'How many sweet creatures of your sex, languish with weak digestion, low spirits, lassitudes, melancholy, and... nervous complaints? Tell them to change their diet, and among other articles leave off drinking tea, it is more than probable the greatest part of them will be restored to health.' He also appealed to their vanity - insisting that due to women drinking tea 'there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was'. But more than just injurious to women,Hanway believed that tea-drinking risked ruining the nation, because of its increasing prevalence among the working classes, and associated the drinking of tea with the drinking of gin. He argued that the poor could ill-afford to spend their money on tea, claiming that 'those will have tea who have not bread', and that children born to poor mothers were dying because their mothers were spending all their money on tea, and drinking this 'liquid fire' while breast-feeding. This, he claimed, had led to a decline in numbers in the workforce, which he believed was obstructing agriculture and manufacturing, and would leave the country open to attack because there would not be enough fit men for the army. Thus Hanway urged the rich to give up tea drinking, in the hope that their example would be followed by the poor, on whose labour Britain depended. Much of Hanway's essay is then based on the assumption that the injurious habits of the poor must be controlled, not for the sake of poor themselves, but because a decline in their numbers or would ultimately be damaging to the interests of the rich.

Snobbery about tea and social class

In 1758 an anonymous author entered the debate with a pamphlet entitled The Good and Bad Effects of Tea Consider'd, which very much supported Hanway's arguments. The pamphlet argued that while tea-drinking was acceptable for the middle and upper-classes, it should be prevented among 'persons of an inferior rank and mean abilities'. Although his argument started reasonably, pointing out that a cup of tea alone was an inadequate breakfast for those who had to do hard work, it soon descended into a tirade based, like Hanway's original essay, on the belief that the social habits of the poor must be controlled for the sake of the rich. He claimed that the practice of tea-drinking in the afternoon among working class women meant that they were 'neglecting their spinning knitting etc spending what their husbands are labouring hard for, their children are in rags, gnawing a brown crust, while these gossips are canvassing over the affairs of the whole town, making free with the good name and reputation of their superiors.' He believed that it also encouraged these 'artful husseys' to drink spirits and to complain about their husbands, and urged innocent people to hold out against their malign influence. Unsurprisingly, this author was set against the practice of providing servants with an allowance for tea.

Dr Samuel Johnson, a devotee of tea

But not everybody followed Hanway's argument. The eminent intellectual Dr Samuel Johnson, a devotee of tea, so disagreed with Hanway's 1757 essay that he published a hilariously satirical review of it in the Literary Magazine, a monthly journal. Johnson started of by admitting that Hanway should expect little justice, since Johnson himself was 'a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning'. He then poured scorn on Hanway's suggestion that women are less beautiful than they once were, before considering the claim that tea-drinking has led to an increase in nervous disorders. Johnson suggested that rather than blaming tea, one ought to blame the 'general langour [that] is theeffect of general luxury, of general idleness', because those who are idle get no exercise, and are thus susceptible to nervous disorders. He argued that there is only a link with tea-drinking because tea-drinking is common among those who are already 'idle and luxurious'. Johnson was also perceptive enough to note that often tea-drinking was just an excuse for bringing people together: 'a pretence for assembling to prattle, for interrupting business' - but unlike tea's critics, who saw such gatherings as dangerous (particularly among the working classes), Johnson saw no harm in it. Thus he has much in common with many modern tea-drinkers, who delight in getting together with a cuppa for a gossip and a giggle.

Spat between Jonas Hanway and Dr Samuel Johnson

Jonas Hanway was as furious with Johnson's review as Johnson had been scathing about Hanway's original work. He wrote a response to Johnson's review in the Gazateer, and in turn Johnson was moved to respond to this, again in the Literary Magazine, the only occasion on which Johnson was ever moved to reply to an attacker. Hanway would have been wise not to have taken up his pen again, for Johnson's reply to him was so witty and effective that it demolished once again Hanway's arguments. Thus ended the spat between Jonas Hanway and Dr Samuel Johnson, but the arguments about tea raged for years. As late as 1826, a London tea dealer (admittedly biassed by his profession) published a book which included a defence of tea from the claim that it caused 'nervous disorders'. With some insight, he questioned the medical basis of these disorders, and suggested that they might be cured not by giving up tea, but by the sufferers taking up regular exercise, eating healthy food and getting plenty of sleep. He noted that tea 'quenches the most burning thirst, and cheers the spirits without heating the blood... I am inclined to believe that the man who could willingly forgo the pleasures of the tea-table and society around it, wants that kind of congenial spirit without which life would be a burden, and the world a dreary waste...'. In conclusion he pointed out the government provided tea to the Navy, without any concern that 'our future enemies will have to contend with bilious and nervous sailors, instead of hearts of oak, and sinews of iron'. The arguments are now over once and for all, since it has now been shown scientifically that drinking four cups of tea a day can be beneficial to health.

movement that was primarily an attempt by sections of the ruling classes to get the working classes to give up alcohol

Given the insistence of some eighteenth-century authors of a link between tea-drinking and 'dram-drinking', it is somewhat ironic then that tea-drinking was actually being used as a weapon in the armoury of the temperance movement - a movement that was primarily an attempt by sections of the ruling classes to get the working classes to give up alcohol. Virtually since historical records began, alcoholic drinks had been a central part of the diet of men, women and even children in Britain. There was some sense in this: weak alcoholic drinks could quench the drinker's thirst without the risk of contracting disease from contaminated water. But the eighteenth century saw a rise in the popularity of strong wines such as port among the upper classes, and of spirits, particularly gin, among the working classes. In the nineteenth century there was the inevitable backlash, inspired primarily by upper class fears that gin-sodden working class would be difficult to control and unable to work. Thus a movement developed in support of temperance - the drinking of alcohol only in moderation, if at all. Tea was useful to the temperance movement because it offered a refreshing, thirst-quenching alternative to alcohol that was cheap and (made of course from boiled water) safe to drink. Preachers of temperance urged people to sign a pledge to give up drinking alcohol, and millions did so (although merely signing the paper was no guarantee of a future of abstinence). Often this took place at mass meetings, and tea would be served to those who attended. The Methodist church was at the forefront of the temperance movement and often served tea at its meetings, rather ironically since its founder, John Wesley, had been so anti-tea.

Cafes and coffee houses

During the 1830s the movement was so successful that businessmen recognised that there was a gap in the market for catering outlets that sold non-alcoholic refreshments - a temperance alternative to pubs and inns. A great many new cafes and coffee houses opened up. Though in principal similar to the coffee houses of the seventeenth century, they were different in that these new businesses catered to the needs of ordinary people, not just wealthy men. From the 1880s, tea rooms and tea shops became popular and fashionable, particularly among women, for whom they offered a most welcome and respectable environment in which to meet, chat and relax, without the need to be accompanied by a man.


Time for tea

Later in the nineteenth century then, going out to a tea shop became a popular pastime for women. But tea remained a beverage that was mostly drunk at home. Tea was drunk at breakfast by all social classes. Among the rich, it would typically accompany a vast spread of bread or toast, cold meats and pies, eggs and fish. Of course some families favoured a lighter breakfast, and lower down the social scale this was a necessity rather than an option. Poor families usually began the day with a cup of tea, as well as bread and butter, or perhaps porridge or gruel. Tea was then drunk at regular intervals throughout the day.

tea features often in the work of great author and social commentator Charles Dickens

Tea features often in the work of the great nineteenth century author and social commentator Charles Dickens. His books make it clear that tea-drinking was ubiquitous among the working classes, and through the eyes of Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, we can sense Dickens' affection for it: '...we returned into the Castle, where we found Miss Skiffins preparing tea. The responsibility of making toast was delegated to the Aged [an elderly man]... The Aged prepared such a haystack of buttered toast, that I could scarcely see him over it... while Miss Skiffins prepared such a jorum of tea, that the pig in the back premises became strongly excited... We ate the whole of the toast, and drank tea in proportion, and it was delightful to see how warm and greasy we all got after it.' On the other hand, in Oliver Twist, Dickens uses the precise tea-making ceremony of Mrs Corney, the matron of workhouse, to display her self-satisfaction, and she is wooed over a cup of tea by the tyrannical and grasping beadle, Mr Bumble, who, when she has she left the room, inspects her tea-making equipment to check that it is genuine silver.


Afternoon Tea

While tea was part of the staple diet of the poor, among the rich tea-drinking was evolving into an elaborate social occasion. Afternoon teas probably had their roots in the ladies tea-parties of the seventeenth centuries, but evolved during the eighteenth century into something of a national institution. Tradition has it that afternoon tea was 'invented' by Anna Maria, the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, who in 1841 started drinking tea and having a bite to eat in the mid-afternoon, to tide her over during the long gap between lunch (eaten at about 1 o'clock) and dinner (eaten at around 7 o'clock). This swiftly developed into a social occasion, and soon the Duchess was inviting guests to join her for afternoon tea at 5 o'clock. It did not become instantly popular elsewhere though, partly because in fashionable circles dinner was eaten earlier, leaving less of a gap to be filled by afternoon tea. But by the 1860s the fashion for afternoon tea had become widespread. Such teas were elegant affairs, with tea drunk from the best china and small amounts of food presented perfectly on little china plates. On offer might be bread and butter, scones and cakes, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

etiquette and good housekeeping are full of advice on how to conduct a correct afternoon tea

Contemporary manuals on etiquette and good housekeeping are full of advice on how to conduct a correct afternoon tea. The idea of needing an instruction book in order to enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit with some friends seems rather alarming these days, but although nineteenth century afternoon teas were elaborate affairs from our point of view, in those days they were considered relatively informal occasions. Invitations were issued verbally or by note, and rather than attending for the entire duration guests were free to pop in when it suited them and likewise leave when they wanted to. The hostess would pour the tea, but it was the responsibility of the men to hand the cups round. If there were no men present, this job fell to the daughters of the hostess or other young women present (goodness know what happened if there were no men and no daughters available!). There was a fashion for women to wear tea gowns, but these were softer and less restrictive than evening gowns, and it was not always deemed necessary for women to wear gloves. Nonetheless many did, and the author of The Etiquette of Modern Society points out that a thoughtful hostess should always provide biscuits with tea, since these can be eaten more easily than sandwiches without removing one's gloves.


High Tea

Some poorer households also adopted the practice of afternoon tea, and in some areas women pooled their resources and equipment in order to make such occasions affordable. But more common among the working classes was 'high tea'. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when most people worked in agriculture, the working classes tended to have the main meal of their day at midday, with a much lighter supper late in the evening. But after the industrial revolution, more and more people were employed for long shifts in factories or mines, and hot midday meals were thus less convenient. They were also not appropriate for the increasing numbers of children who were at school during the day. The custom developed of having a high tea in the late afternoon, at the end of the working day, consisting of strong tea, and hearty, hot food. Unlike afternoon tea, high tea was the main meal of the day, rather than a stop-gap between lunch and dinner.


Tea in the First and Second World Wars

By the beginning of the twentieth century, there could be no doubt about the importance of tea to the British people. This was acknowledged by the government during the First World War. Tea was not initially rationed, but tea prices began to rise as a result of ships being sunk by German submarines, and so the government took over the importation of tea and controlled prices. During the Second World War, the government took even more drastic action to safeguard this essential morale-booster. Just two days after war broke out, it took control of all tea stocks, and ordered that the vast reserves then stored in London must be dispersed to warehouses outside the capital in case of bombing. When during 1940 enemy blockades prevented ships from getting through, the Ministry of Food introduced a ration of 2oz of tea per person per week for those over the age of five. This was not a lot, enough for two or three cups a day of rather weak tea. But there was extra tea for those in the armed forces, and on the domestic front for those in vital jobs such as firemen and steel workers. Tea was also sent in Red Cross parcels to British prisoners of war abroad.


Post-war rationing of tea until 1952

The end of the war in 1945 did not signal an immediate end to rationing, and tea remained rationed until October 1952. It was shortly after this that the tea bag, an American invention, began to make an impact on British tea-drinking habits. It was to revolutionise the tea industry, and today 96 per cent of all tea sold in Britain is in tea bag form.

George Orwell offered sensible advice to make the 2oz ration go as far as possible

Rationing by no means diminished the British enthusiasm for tea. In January 1946, the author and journalist George Orwell published an essay called 'A Nice Cup of Tea' in the Evening Standard newspaper, calling tea 'one of the main stays of civilisation in this country', and listing his 11 'golden rules' for tea making.He acknowledged the controversial nature of some of them - such as his insistence that the tea should be poured and then the milk added, and that tea should always be drunk without sugar - but he also offered sensible advice to make the 2oz ration go as far as possible, such as using water that is still at the point of boiling, in order to make the strongest brew from the least tea. Orwell also used the ritual of tea-making as a device in his fiction. In his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the main character, Gordon Comstock, makes tea secretly in his rented room as a means to undermine the oppressive authority of his landlady, who does not allow it. But the ritual and secret delight of Comstock's evening cup of tea also reveals something about himself: Comstock, an aspiring poet, has attempted to reject everything that he associates with bourgeois society - but he cannot reject its favourite drink.


'Milk in first or tea in first'

Certainly for much of the twentieth century, methods of preparing tea were still the subject of some snobbery: in a letter to Nancy Mitford (a social commentator and great satirist of upper class behaviour), the author Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression 'rather milk in first' to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Nowadays the 'milk in first or tea in first' debate is altogether more light-hearted, but nonetheless everyone has his or her preferred method of making tea. Tea has for centuries been a beverage at the very heart of social life in Britain - for millions of people today, just for Dr Johnson nearly 250 years ago, tea amuses the evenings, solaces the midnights and welcomes the mornings.


  • Anonymous ('A Gentleman of Cambridge'), A Treatise on the inherent qualities of the tea-herb... (First ed. London, 1750; facsimile reprint, St Peter Port, 1978)
  • Anonymous, The Good and Bad Effects of Tea consider'd... (London, 1758)
  • Andrew Barr, Drink, A Social History (London, 1995).
  • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Everyman edition, London, 1994).
  • Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist (Everyman edition, London, 1994).
  • Dr Duncan, Wholesome advice against the abuse of hot liquors particularly of coffee, chocolate, tea, brandy and strong waters (London, 1706).
  • Donald D. Eddy, Samuel Johnson: Book Reviewer in the Literary Magazine or, Universal Review, 1756-1758 (New York, 1979)
  • The Etiquette of Modern Society (London, 1881).
  • Mary E. Farrell, From Cha to Tea, A Study of the Influence of Tea Drinking on British Culture (Universitat Jaume I, 2002)
  • Denys Forrest, Tea for the British (London, 1973).
  • Jonas Hanway, An Essay on Tea, considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation... appended to A Journal of Eight Days Journey (London, 1757).
  • Samuel Johnson, Review of Jonas Hanway's 'An Essay on Tea...appended to A Journal of Eight Days Journey, in The Literary Magazine, XIII, May 1757 (facsimile reprint of The Literary Magazine, vol. II, with introductory notes by Donald D. Eddy, New York, 1978).
  • Samuel Johnson, 'A Reply to a Paper in the Gazetteer of May 26, 1757,', in Literary Magazine, XIV, June 1757 (facsimile reprint of The Literary Magazine, vol. II, with introductory notes by Donald D. Eddy, New York, 1978).
  • Nancy Mitford, Noblesse Oblige (new ed., Oxford, 2002).
  • Roy Moxham, Tea, Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London, 2003).
  • George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (new ed., London, 1997).
  • George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Ang (London, 1970)
  • John Wesley, A Letter to a Friend concerning Tea (London, 1825; first ed.1748)

Image credits:
Troops drinking tea:
The Hawkhurst Gang: Dorset Life
Jonas Hanway: Wikipedia
Catherine of Braganza: The Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment 
Ration book: Tea Imbiber's Blog
Other images: licenced from and