How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.


After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

114 thoughts on “How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

  1. I love tea, so much more than coffee. I can’t understand why so many people love coffee. In recent years I have had to give up the caffeinated version and I was surprised that I still drink plenty of it, weak and milky (with soya milk).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m doing my bit, I average 9 cups a day just over 3000 a year, and always think of it as medicinal in some way (not sure how but as I’m still alive it’s possibly true). Yorkshire tea is my personal favourite, I find the Earl Greys and Lapsong Doo Dahs a bit weak and pretentious which is possibly why Ms. Fox came to the conclusion the upper echelons favour weakness in their beverage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I recently got converted from PG Tips to Yorkshire. It’s stronger. It’s also, unfortunately, more expensive. But since I’m still awake (and as you point out so wisely, alive) I buy it anyway.

      The nation, I’m sure, appreciates your contribution to its tea-drinking effort. Until all those toddlers learn to drink their tea, the rest of us will just have to fill in for them.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I was exploring Durham last April. I like to see what is on the shelves of markets and found this in a very large Tesco Extra supermarket. Well darn (not the actual word I am thinking at the moment)! WordPress won’t let me copy a photo in here. I’ll describe: a giant bag of Yorkshire tea–1200 tea bags!! I live in California and I’ve never seen anything like this. The biggest we have of any tea is maybe 100 tea bags. I consider this discovery to be almost the equal of anything I saw in Durham’s cathedral, except perhaps the tomb of The Venerable Bede whose writings I read in college way back in the early 1960s. I drink tea but I calculate that it would take me about ten years to get through this bag; however, fragglerock would go through 2.5 bags in one single year. Wow!

      Liked by 2 people

      • This is serious tea drinking country over here. I’ve never calculated my tea intake–and of course I’d have to figure in tea made for friends who drop by–but if I saw a bag that size and if I could figure out where to store it (throw out the vacuum cleaner? get rid of the armchair?) I’d buy it.


        • I really wanted to throw it in my backpack but I would’ve had to leave behind half my clothes. It would have made a great conversation piece here because the only place for it would have been out on a kitchen counter. Crazy how I think about that bag of tea just as much as I think about my walks on Hadrian’s Wall.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You remind me of a story I was told about a Minnesota couple who visited California back when avocados were pretty much unknown in the midwest and were so taken with them that they mailed their clothes back to themselves and packed their suitcases with avocados. I always suspectedd they got home with guacamole, but I didn’t know them so I couldn’t ask.

            The story may well be bullshit, but I like it anyway.


            • I’m sure that’s a true story. When I lived in Santa Barbara (1960s-1974) Delco Electronics moved in 200 families from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to work on the space program. A common sight was seeing these families stopping at orange and lemon orchards to take photos of themselves in t-shirts to send back to Milwaukee, most often as Christmas cards. Such cruelty! They also sent boxes of oranges but avocados were a bit too exotic for most of them. I suppose avos are a bit strange looking. Beyond suspiciously adoring the weather and the citrus, they were very cautious toward us. This was not too long after the riots and bank burning in Isla Vista. You’d catch them looking at you like you might just start singing Blowin’ in the Wind while lighting their home on fire. After a year, two families said they’d had enough of this far too pleasant and therefore corrupting Santa Barbara life. They moved to Boston and Chicago but, too late, they had already grown too soft. Both families were back a year later. About avocados, I grew up on them. My dad planted several in our yard in the 1950s right next to the orange trees. Where I live now is the very best avocado growing area in the world (cool temps, never hot) but the lay of the land means the orchards are small in little canyons running inland from the ocean but the fruit stays on the trees for 13 months so the oils develop wonderful flavor and texture unlike those obscene, cheap ones that flood the supermarkets now that were picked too green and strewn around the world with their terrible texture and stringiness. Here we can seasonally get large avocados of different varieties that do not travel well like that miracle of marketing, the Hass. OK, gabby me is off to attempt to deal with Christmas.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. The tannin in tea prevents iron absorption if it’s drunk with food, and the caffeine in it causes withdrawal headaches. I switched to decaffeinated green tea years ago, which is actually good for you because it contains antioxidants. As you can tell, ordinary tea doesn’t do a lot for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You cheered me up almost as much as a “cuppa” would! I prefer it by the mug, so if a mug is = to two cups I make my way through 6 cups a day. Yorkshire Tea was always a favourite but now that I live in Ireland I’ve discovered some excellent Irish blends. As I’m sure you are aware, there is a history of unpleasantness between the Irish and English but this does not seem to have prevented them taking up the ea drinking habit with equal or greater enthusiasm. Wasn’t there some kind of upset involving tea and affecting the relationship between England and your own native land?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I do seem to remember something about both those upsets. Ours was over the stamp tax, and when we found out that we’d have to pay stamp tax on the house we bought my partner was ready to go toss a teabag in the local harbor.

      Our lawyer wasn’t impressed. In fact, I don’t remember him reacting as if he thought we were funny.

      Back in the U.S., I found an Irish store that carried Lyons tea and I used to make a regular pilgrimage to it and stock up. It’s good, strong tea.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was in the middle of a big cup of PG Tips as when I started reading your post! I alternate between Yorkshire and PG Tips most mornings depending on whether I’m wanting a stronger, more flavourful brew or a slightly more subtle cuppa. Either way, it’s a great way to start the morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmm. I wonder if your tea counters work the same as McDonald’s burger counters. When the burger king (ahem) says “Billions served” they’re counting how many corporate sells to its stores, doesn’t matter if they’re sold to customers or thrown away because they’ve been sitting out too long.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

    Now there is a first.

    The only time I have encountered “couth” has been in the form of “uncouth”. Perhaps it has something to do with who I hang around with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you ask that, I’m going to guess you live in the U.S. So we’ll start from basics: Boil the water and pour it in the cup or teapot asap. Most American tea is made with lukewarm water and you could get as much good out of the teabag by tossing it in the bathtub. It really does need to be boiling. I tried a few fancy teas–Twinings et al–when I lived in the U.S. and didn’t think they had much to them, although they had enough packaging to ship a computer in. I lived near enough an Irish store that I could buy Lyons tea there, but I’ll admit it was expensive. In a choice between Lipton’s and Twinings, I’d go for Lipton’s.

      There’s a cult over here about warming the teapot (if you use one) before brewing the tea. It makes sense if the house is cold. If it isn’t–and most American houses aren’t–it’s not worth the bother.

      Is that any help?


      • Yes, it is. Based on your description it may the brands I purchase that are holding me back from a good cup. I live in the U.S. Bible Belt and iced tea is popular here. But you have to ask for it unsweetened because the default has tons of sugar.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been waiting for mention of Twinings here. That’s what I’ve been buying in the last few years. I get the loose tea in a tin. I think I have been getting the dregs they sweep off the floor because the tea leaves are crumbled into the tiniest pieces. Since we have to save water here, I bought fillable tea bags so I don’t have to rinse the pot with lots of water. After reading here, I’m going to explore some Irish tea. Speaking of lukewarm, several years ago my English friend and I stopped in a Mexican restaurant here on the central coast of California and decided we were desperate for tea. When our cups of Lipton arrived, the bags were sitting in water that was even less than lukewarm. This struck us as funny, mostly because we were so foolish as to order tea in a Mexican restaurant. Every time we looked at those cups, we broke out in gales of laughter again which led to a teachable moment when the waiter came to see what was so hilarious. He learned to use boiling water and promptly brought us two cups of steaming hot tea. One last thing before I wander off electronically to pay bills which is way less fun than reading here: thanks for the story of milk in tea which I always use. Makes great sense. I bought a Herdy bone china cup last April in Keswick–no microwave, no dishwasher for my little sheep cup. A little milk in first, then the brewed tea. Perfect, especially when I am pretending the sea outside my window is the North Sea.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I was, naturally, drinking tea while I read this. I usually drink 6 mugs a day of the stuff, so I’m doing my bit, and I make it with loose leaf tea rather than with teabags. I’m not too fussed about how it’s made, although I do prefer the leaf and the water to be fairly well-acquainted.

    I thought the early tea drinkers in England drank it from small, shallow bowls, not cups.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for the history lesson, on tea and also on English history in general.
    I drink hot tea in the afternoon and sometimes with lunch and dinner. When growing up in North Georgia those meals were called dinner and supper. Now I get in trouble if I refer to dinner as supper do I have adjusted to the rest of the US although I am not happy about it. A super huge meal in the middle of the day should not be called s lunch. But where was I,

    I drink coffee in the morning. I like the extra caffeine.

    I am the only person I know that orders hot tea with meals. I like a hot drink especially in the winter.
    Green tea is my choice or English breakfast tea.
    When I was still working I would drink green tea all day. A chain green tea drinker. The caffeine helped my stay alert. In between naps.

    It is cold and damp here, to rain all day. Looking out the window drinking coffee in the warm room

    Have a good week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Before I forget: Either an apology or an explanation. A comment of yours got lost in my spam folder. I thought I’d rescued it but it’s disappeared somewhere. So whatever you said, I’m not ignoring you, I’m just–well, ignoring you.

      I keep thinking I should drink more green tea. It’s great stuff. And then I don’t. I don’t know what it is about me and green tea. We could have such a nice relationship but we never do seem do get together.


  10. So, as I’m reading this, I get a sudden urge for tea and feel woe is me that I don’t have this Yorkshire tea you and your peeps speak of. I’ll have to make do with English Breakfast – after all, Yorkshire is British, right?

    I’m a coffee drinker myself nowadays but it never fails to bring me right back to my best and now departed friend Roxanne, and the pots and pots of tea we drank while playing Rummy 500.

    I love the history (including all the snark) lessons you impart, Ellen. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My family is from the UK and I had my first taste of tea at around age 4. My nana would put some into a tea saucer for me and let me drink from it. She was so sweet and started my lifelong love of a good cuppa:-)


  12. Whatever medicinal benefits there are bypass me because I’m prone to forming kidney stones, and apparently tea — what my strict wife calls “real” tea — assists in producing them. My own enjoyment of herbal teas, she reminds me on a regular basis, is not a proper substitute for her brewed (i.e. “real”) teas. When she’s not looking, however, I do sneak sips of hers. Revenge is sweet.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I left a comment earlier, but WordPress and my Internet provider ganged up on me and sent it elsewhere. I had already deleted your email. Do you know that when you search on “notes from the UK” you get a bunch of banking sites?

    Anyway, I mentioned that I like tea but that I’m told I don’t brew it strong enough or drink it hot enough. I’m going to follow-up on that thought (also after Christmas) and I’ll mention you as inspiration – as if anything I write would pass as inspired.

    As always, I enjoyed your post, the history lessons and the levity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s because Lord Google knows you to be a high-ranking financier. When I type in notes from the uk, I get my own site, because Lord G. knows me to be interested in nothing but my own self.

      Over here, a five-pound bill is a five-pound note. It’s another one of those things that leaves me stranded between languages and more or less speechless for a moment or three.

      Sorry about the lost comment. I need to dig through my spam folders more often.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. In the good ol’ US of A southerners are particularly fond of tea, however that would be Iced Tea. (I feel your shuddering.)
    My wife has a particular kind of iced tea that she purchases from a very lower class local hamburger joint called Rush’s. And when I say purchases, I mean she buys a large unsweetened iced tea from them as soon as they open at 10 a.m. and returns to buy at least 2 more large unsweetened iced teas before she calls it a night. Large = very big one. Price per visit $2.15 including tax. She swears their tea is sublime. They brew their own.
    Hm. From your article, I can blame the British for introducing us to tea – and taxes – which the Boston Tea Party people took great exception to.
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The stamp tax is still in operation over here. It applies to house sales and when we bought our house and heard about it my partner offered to throw a teabag into the local harbor. I don’t remember the lawyer thinking we were funny. Or at least not as funny as we thought we were.

      I never did get a liking for iced tea, at least not unless you add enough sugar and lemon that it’s basically caffeinated lemonade. But then I’m very much a northerner. I’ve learned a few southern ways (my partner’s from Amarillo) and I bake a mean baking powder biscuit, but I draw the line at iced tea.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the throwing the teabag in the harbor is hilarious!! Some people have no sense of humor, and many of them are lawyers.
        Amarillo, you say? Oh, my. Then she’s a Texan like me, although west Texas folk consider us over in east Texas as not real Texans, and vice versa, so there’s that.
        Don’t worry about the iced tea as long as you bake that biscuit – that biscuit will make you want to smack your granny.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure about smacking my granny. Not only are both of them dead, I kind of liked them. But yeah, I do make a mean biscuit.

          Ida’s not one to worry about who’s really a Texan and who isn’t. She lost her accent and got out the first chance she found.

          Liked by 2 people

  15. I have three or four cups of tea a day….and it’s real tea, none of that tea bag rubbish. My partner has two or three pots of tea a day! When I was in the Brownies (many, many years ago!) we had to learn how to make the proper cuppa. There were a couple of sayings:
    “Take the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot”
    and to work out how much tea “One for each person and one for the pot”. Can’t argue with Brown Owl!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What a great history. I never knew when the English started drinking tea. I do know that coffee was controversial and that Bach wrote a cantata about it. But back to tea. I like it strong myself, but have run into the weak tea contingent several times. They’re the same people who think eggplants are bitter (they aren’t; they’re just tired of people saying stupid things about them). Anyway, I have read that green teas are good for your immune system. Hard to say if it’s true, though. My grandmother drank a lot of the stuff brewed in little ceramic pots with flowers painted on them. My brother and I were fascinated by how she made it.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. And then there is trawler tea…. as you cast off start with the loose tea in the kettle, fill said with water, boil and drink. Then put in more loose tea and water and continue until you fill the kettle with leaves, or leave the fishing grounds. The addition of condensed milk marks those who served alongside the Ghurkas.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. A displacement activity – perfect term. Of course it played a large part of our independence, that nasty tea party in Boston you know. Must have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans, as we prefer coffee. Great post, Ellen.


  19. Ellen, I love reading about tea, especially whilst I’m drinking it, which I always am. Been drinking it since about the age of two. Very particular about it, must be loose leaf, properly brewed. I probably go through about 3,000 cups a year, so I’m making up for the slackers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went caffeine free for a while but couldn’t sustain it. I don’t eat meat, wasn’t eating sugar at the time, and had to swear a lot just to maintain my membership in the human race. I’ve gone back to sugar and caffeine (and for safety’s sake don’t plan to give up swearing). Have a good holiday.

      Liked by 1 person

        • My partner went off sugar a couple of months ago, on a one a one-day-at-a-time basis. So far, so good. It hasn’t been easy. It means I’ve cut way back on it, but as I get older I seem to care less about it than I used to. Who’d have thought that would happen?


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