The English Taste for Tea

The English Taste for Tea

A national drink discovered

Where does the passion of the English for tea come from? The answer to this question has many facets. The mid-16th century saw the first contacts between West and East. Early travellers and missionaries mentioned in their diaries a drink highly valued in the Orient, and considered a great remedy.

But these early observations aroused little interest. It was only at the beginning of the 17th century that small quantities of tea were imported, first into Holland in 1610, then into England about 1650. The English already had a taste for sweet drinks, with their traditional possets, and sweetened wines. It was not long before tea with sugar, first reserved for the upper classes, was being consumed for pleasure at all levels in society. However, it was only starting in the 18th century that the demand for tea and tea accessories (cups, teapots, milk jugs, sugar bowls, etc.) began to grow at a phenomenal rate.

During this period, a pound of tea sold for the equivalent of a third of the weekly salary of a specialized employee. In spite of this, tea consumption grew quickly. In fact, the English were drinking fifteen times as much tea at the end of the century as at the beginning! During a trip over the channel in 1784, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld noted: "L'usage du thé est général dans toute l'Angleterre. On le prend deux fois par jour et quoique ce soit encore une dépense assez considérable, il n'y a pas de plus petit paysan qui ne le prenne les deux fois comme le plus riche."

Sixteenth century Europe began to speak of a drink called chai, said to be highly valued in the Orient for its medicinal properties. Indeed, the comments of scholars and doctors were first responsible for the spread of tea. Other men of science were skeptical, and accused tea of being a passing fad. The debate was passionate. In 1635, one physician published an alarmist tract in which he denounced tea as having hastened the death of patients over 40 years of age. In 1678 Dr. Bontekoe, in his Treatise on the Excellent Beverage of Tea, the most widely known work of the period on the subject, recommends the drinking of from 8 to 10 cups a day, and finds no harm in drinking 50, 100, or even 200 cups a day, given that he himself consumed such quantities!

The first London coffee houses made their appearance in 1652. These houses became the center of social life, and served coffee, tea, brandy, bread, and cakes. In 1706, Thomas Twining opening Tom's Coffee House, the most famous establishment of its kind at the time, and the first to specialize in tea. In 1717, Twining added a store, the Golden Lyon, that sold dry tea. Here, unlike in the regular coffee houses, ladies were admitted.

The 18th century would also see the birth of the Gardens, the most celebrated of which were Vauxhall and Ranelagh (where Mozart, aged 8, played his compositions). For a modest fee all Londoners could come with their families and have tea and a snack, while listening to music or watching entertainments.

Another indicator of the omnipresence of tea in England during this era was the famous "tea for two", actually the London street vendors' cry, offering a pot of tea for tuppence.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: The Romance of Tea, 1936