Tea Rituals and a Short History of Tea in England

Tea and tea rituals were not always a part of English history. In fact, the first tea drinking royal, was not even English but rather Portuguese. She was Catherine of Braganza, bride to Charles II of England, who, when she arrived on English soil, also carried a tea-chest filled with her treasured teas. Catherine soon invited female friends to her bedchambers to share this tasty tea. As tea drinking became more popular, high-born women, such as Madame Récamier‘s friend, Madame de Staël, sometimes drank their morning tea with their friends abed and bare-breasted.

Tea Rituals: Catharine of Braganza, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Catharine of Braganza. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tea drinking was an expensive luxury. Tea rituals, tea, and the drinking of it, involved servants bringing to the bedchamber of the lady of the house the necessary equipage and boiling water so that she could brew or infuse the tea. By the 1670s, London’s fashionable and aristocratic accomplished their tea brewing with a tea kettle, better known as furnace. Tea furnaces could be deadly as was pointed out by Isaac Disraeli. Apparently, an alchemist was encouraged to leave his furnace one night to attend his wife at her tea-table. While “attending the ladies his furnace blew up! In consequence of this event, he conceived such an antipathy against his wife, that he could not endure the idea of living with her again.”[1]

Before tea leaves made it to the furnace, they were stored in fancy porcelain jars. When it was to be made it was measured into dainty, unglazed Chinese teapots created in Jiangsu Province. These tea pots ranged in color from purples to browns to greens, reds, and umber colors. After the tea steeped for a few minutes, it was “poured into small handleless Chinese porcelain bowls that held anything from two or three elegantly sipped mouthfuls to two or three tablespoons.”[2] To make tea palatable, it was customary in England to add sugar to it, but adding milk or cream did not occur until the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and then it was added only by the well-to-do.

Originally, tea drinkers didn’t have matching tea sets for their tea rituals associated with drinking tea. Rather people owed a mishmash of individual pieces. This was noted by Jane Pettigrew in her book, A Social History of Tea, who stated:

“The cargoes of tea wares and other porcelain being shipped out of China and Japan came in mixed batches, with bowls and saucers of different designs and sizes, and few people had matching sets but rather random selections of individual pieces. They were distributed in Britain by merchants who also traded tea and coffee, glassware and pottery.”[3]

tea rituals

Five déjeûner pieces. Jasper and basalt. (Centre: a large teapot, 5-1/2 in. diameter, probable date, 1790; left, at bottom : basalt sucrier and cream ewer. Probable date, 1792; left, at top: cream ewer and cover. Probable date, 1792; right, at bottom: teapot. Probable date, 1789.) Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Although people were initially happy with their assorted tea sets, over time the wealthy and fashionable found that they could order complete sets, even personalized sets, from China and Japan. These buyers also began to request that their sets have special designs, such as a family’s coat of arms or family initials. In addition, sometimes masonic groups, religious organizations, or political affiliations commissioned tea sets with specific designs or certain slogans.

As tea became more popular, critics became louder against tea and tea rituals. For instance, Duncan Forbes, a Scottish politician and judge of the early 1700s, believed tea harmed agriculture financially because people substituted their morning ale for tea:

“‘The cause … of mischief we complain of is, evidently the excessive use of tea; which is now become so common, that the meanest familys [sic], even of labouring people … make their morning’s meal of it, and thereby wholly disuse the ale, which heretofore was their accustomed drink;’ … The remedy for this, is, to impose a prohibitory duty on tea, and a penalty on those who shall use this seducing poison.”[4]

Duncan Forbes, Public Domain

Duncan Forbes. Public domain.

John C. Lettsome, an English physician and philanthropist of the late 1700s, had his own complaints against tea. He believed tea drinking caused alcoholism:

“The growth of this pernicious customer (drunkenness) is often owing to a weakness and debility of the system brought on by the daily habit of drinking tea … [for] the trembling hand seeks relief in some cordial in order to refresh and excite again the enfeebled system, whereby such persons fall into the habit of intemperance.”[5]

Despite tea being called “poison” and creating “intemperance,” by the mid-1700s even the poorest households embraced tea rituals, such as serving tea for breakfast. By the 1760s, tea supplanted beer or ale as the morning beverage. One description of a typical English breakfast occurs in 1834:

“A breakfast-table … clean and white with its able-cloth, coloured with the cups and saucers, and glittering with the tea-pot, … we have been invigorated by sleep; the sound of the shaken canister prepares us for the fragrant beverage that is coming; in a few minutes it is poured out; we quaff the odorous refreshments, perhaps chatting with dear kindred, or loving and laughing with the ‘morning faces’ of children … and taking tea.”[6]

Morning was not the only time for embracing tea rituals and drinking tea. Legend has it that afternoon tea was the brain child of Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. Although dinner began in the 1700s sometime between 2 and 4 pm, by the early 1800s it was as late as 9 pm. This left a wide gap between lunch and dinner and a ravenous and hungry duchess. To stave off her hunger and survive until dinner, the duchess began ordering tea and food (probably cakes or bread and butter). The idea caught on and before long everyone was busily enjoying these five o’clock social gatherings or “Little Teas,” so named because of the tiny portions of food served.

Duchess of Bedford, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Duchess of Bedford. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the upper-class did not drink tea just in the morning and afternoon, they also sipped it after dinner, and it lasted about 30 minutes. It was sometimes accompanied by music. To accomplish it, the servant brought all the necessary tea equipage into the drawing-room. The host or hostess brewed and served it, unless it was a formal occasion, which in those instances, a servant performed the role of brewing, dispensing, and serving.

Tea etiquette also became a big part of tea drinking. This was indicated by the Prince de Broglie who learned the complexities of tea etiquette when visiting England in 1782 and how a spoon signaled that he wanted no more. He noted:

“I partook of most excellent tea and I should be even now still drinking it, I believe, if the Ambassador had not charitably notified me at the twelfth cup that I must put my spoon across it when I wished to finish with this sort of warm water. He said to me: it is almost as ill-bred to refuse a cup of tea when it is offered to you, as it would [be] indiscreet for the mistress of the house to propose a fresh one, when the ceremony of the spoon has notified her that we no longer wish to partake of it.” [7]

The “elegantly sipped” mouthfuls of tea drank by women in the 1600s, had, by the 1700s, turned into large sips enjoyed by the greatest of men. Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer and, perhaps, the “prince of tea-drinkers.” He enjoyed a steaming cup so frequently he once extemporaneous spouted the following rhyme to the British diarist, Hester Thrale:

“And now, I pray thee, Hetty dear,

That thou wilt give to me,

With cream and sugar softened well,

Another dish of tea.

But hear, alas! this mournful truth,

Nor hear it with a frown,

Thou canst not make the tea so fast,

As I can gulp it down.”[8]

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] D’Israeli, Issac, Curiosities of Literature, 1835, p. 76.
  • [2] Pettigrew, Jane, A Society History of Tea, London, 2001, p. 31.
  • [3] Ibid. p. 34.
  • [4] “Duncan Forbes,” The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, Volume 26, 1816, p. 116.
  • [5] Walsh, John M., Tea, Its History and Mystery, 1892, p. 217.
  • [6] Hunt, Leigh, Leigh Hunt’s London Journal, Volumes 1-2, 1834, p. 113.
  • [7] Pettigrew, Jane, p. 85.
  • [8] Hunt, Leigh, p. 113-114.

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