Tea History in the United Kingdom

Tea was not always a part of English history. However, it was destined to become a part once a small ad ran in 1658 in one of London’s weekly newspapers called the Mercurius Politicus. The newspaper announced the sell of the “China Drink called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee … [at a] Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exchange.”[1] At the time, the English were fascinated with everything foreign from fabrics to foods, and when a Portuguese princess, Catharine of Braganza and bride to Charles II of England, arrived in London in 1662, besides her finery and thick accent, she also brought a casket of tea and quickly made tea drinking fashionable among the wealthy.

Tea History: Catharine of Braganza

Catharine of Braganza. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In England, coffee arrived before tea, and, initially, there were complaints by locals against the coffee houses because coffee smelled bad and coffeehouses drew “undesirables.” There were also complaints by brewers and vintners who worried about coffee’s competition, particularly after some people urged a reduction in alcoholic beverages. Moreover, women were not permitted in coffeehouses as they were ruled by men.

Fresh coffee did not seem to exist and despite the cry of “fresh coffee,” you could not get a “fresh” cup because barrels of coffee and tea were prepared well in advance of customer demands. The barrels were then kept warm next to roaring fires until a cup was ordered. Although this practice boded better for a cup of tea than coffee, coffee was more popular at the time. According to Isaac D’Israeli, the father of the future British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, “the use of coffee, indeed seems to have excited more notice … to have been more universally used … and to have had a greater influence on the manners of the people, than that of tea.”[2]

Tea history also shows that the drink had its critics. “Tea-drinking was opposed on the grounds that it took men away from the pipe and the bottle, and brought together men and women, and afforded them an opportunity for vice and evil doing.”[3] There was also a belief tea was “justly thought to be … detrimental to men’s strength and women’s beauty. A learned physician in fact, writing at the close of the century, declared that tea and coffee ‘are permitted by God’s Providence for lessening the number of mankind by shortening life, as a kind of silent plague.'”[4] Jonas Hanway, the first man in London brave enough to carry an umbrella, “laid to the charge of tea all the evils and disenchantments that oppressed his spirits.”[5] Therefore, before the 1700s, “tea showed few, if any, signs of becoming the Englishman’s national drink,”[6] and what finally pushed tea over the edge was Britain’s involvement with India and the East India Company, a company that Warren Hastings, godfather to Eliza de Feuillide, was employed working. The Company created a skyrocketing interest in British tea production.

Tea history - East India House circa 1800

East India House circa 1800. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite some people, claiming tea was “detrimental” and a “plague,” its medicinal qualities were noted from ancient times. A celebrated Chinese scholar and philosopher, who supposedly existed long before Confucius, declared:

“Tea is better than wine, for it leadeth not to intoxication, it is better than water, for it doth not carry disease, neither doth it act as poison when the wells contain foul and rotten matter.”[7]

Several Chinese scholars, including one from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), claimed “tea tempers the spirits, harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude, relieves fatigue, awakens thought, prevents drowsiness, refreshes the body and clears the perceptive faculties.”[8] Samuel Pepys also announced tea’s benefits in his diary entry of June 28, 1667:

“There [I] find my wife making of tea, a drink which Mr. Pelling, the Potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions.”[9]

In the early 1600s, most meals were drenched alcoholic affairs as the purity of water could not be trusted. Unless wine or other spirits could be purchased, this meant either beer or ale was consumed. Because of alcohol, men would regularly drink themselves into hazy stupors, and, if they did not, they would light up cigars or pipes soon after dinner. “Not wishing to sit amongst tobacco smoke and loud drunken masculine conversation, … ladies would withdraw to a closet or withdrawing room.”[10] But once coffee shops appeared, these women began asking husbands to bring home tea leaves, thereby allowing woman to indulge in it and enjoy their own female banter far away from the smoking or drunken men.

William Hogarth's Painting with Tea Service in the 1740s, Courtesy of Wikipedia

William Hogarth’s “Painting with Tea Service” in the 1740s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the time George I ascended the throne in 1714, tea had become popular enough that Thomas Twining, owner of the Twinings coffeehouse on London’s Strand, decided to expand his business. As there were no other coffeehouses on the outskirts of London, this attracted nearby high-class residents and numerous well-known barristers and attorneys. Before Twining knew it, he had a thriving and quick growing business. However, more importantly, Twining was one of the first coffee establishments to allow women to enter and this permitted them to buy tea from a chest or oversee Twining as he mixed their custom-ordered blend.

Prices remained high for tea until the 1730s, which was why it was primarily the wealthy drinking it. However, two tax reductions, one in 1723 and another in 1745, had a glorious effect. Almost overnight “home consumption rose rapidly from 800,000lb weight in the five-year period from 1741 to 1745 to more than 2,500,000lb … [by] 1750.”[11] With the demand for tea growing by leaps and bounds, a burgeoning tea trade resulted by the 1800s. Moreover, with each tax reduction, tea became more affordable for the lower classes, and, in fact, servants were sometimes permitted a “tea allowance” or even given free tea.

Tea had infused its mark on the British by the 1800s. Perhaps, the best quote that sums up Britain’s acceptance of this aromatic beverage is one attributed to Isaac D’Israeli, but he gives credit for the quote to “an ingenious writer,” who wrote about Duncan Forbes in 1816 in The Edinburgh Review.

“The progress of the famous plant … has been something like the progress of truth; suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity seemed to spread; and established in its triumph at last, in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by the slow and restless efforts of time and its own virtues.”[12]

Issac D'Israeli, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Issac D’Israeli. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Pepys, Samuel, Friday, June 26, 1667, on The Diary of Samuel Pepy
  • [2] Knight, Charles, Half-hours with the Best Authors, 1856, p. 493.
  • [3] Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, 1920, Vol. 91, p. 58.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Walsh, Joseph M., “A Cup of Tea”: Containing a History of the Tea Plant from Its Discovery to the Present Time, 1884, p. 84.
  • [6] Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, p. 58-59.
  • [7] Walsh, Joseph M., Tea, Its History and Mystery, 1892, p. 215.
  • [8] Reade, Arthur, Tea and Tea Drinking, 1884, p. 2.
  • [9] Pepys, Samuel.
  • [10] Pettigrew, Jane, A Social History of Tea, London, 2001, p. 28.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 40.
  • [12] The Edinburgh Review, Volume 26, 1816, p.117.

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