Tea’s affect on British society (History of Tea Pt 6)

Tea went from being an entertainment accessory of aristocrats to the universal substance of social relation. (I have an earlier blog post about tea culture, which touches on gender and consumption of tea).  By the end of this process tea became synonymous with Britishness.

Anthropologist, Sidney Mintz says luxury items like tea represent the growing freedom of ordinary people and the elevation of their own living standards. The tea culture that developed was used to display good-breeding & etiquette.  On the other end of the scale, it provided relief from daily stresses and the illusion of a hot meal. Workers spent 10% of their food budget on tea and sugar.

Some of the earliest members of the working class to adopt tea drinking were farmers. They would have it with a lump of hard bread, dunking it, to soften it. In northern England and southern Scotland the mining communities created a meal known as tea or high tea which consisted of a mug of tea, bread and a small portion of vegetables, cheese and occasionally meat. This became a lifesaver for many low-income families by saving the bread-winner from exhaustion. It made life bearable for the poorest and hardest working citizens.

Tea helped factory workers and miners alike by maintaining their stamina. It also increased their alertness in dealing with fast-moving machinery. Factory owners initiated tea breaks when they realized that workers could continue working without a meal by letting them stop for 5-10 minutes to have hot tea with milk and sugar. During WWI it became official with the introduction of the tea factory trolley.

Tea’s popularity was helped along when the BEIC realized they had too much so to move the backlog they convinced people that tea goes off quickly. What they didn’t know is it took 3-9 months for the tea to get to London.

Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2852923/Tips-make-tea-fry-bacon-Cookbook-WWI-soldiers-trenches-republished-time-100-years-shows-Tommies-cooked-frontline.html
Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2852923/Tips-make-tea-fry-bacon-Cookbook-WWI-soldiers-trenches-republished-time-100-years-shows-Tommies-cooked-frontline.html

By the 18th century tea consumption had become so wide spread that it was importing one-fifth of tea sent to Europe. It became a necessity and tea allowances were added to many household servants’ wages. In the 18th century, it also became the “cheers without inebriation” and its popularity outstripped alcohol. By the mid-19th century tea stalls were common-place at train stations and on cruise ship decks. Tea was such a part of the British way of life that during WWI, it was demanded for the men in the trenches, regardless of  quality.


Small shops, known as tea grocers began to pop-up and they specialized in selling prepackaged tea. Marketing of tea became more sophisticated, using celebrity endorsement and newspaper advertisement. There are still store that specialize in selling tea, including T2, David’s Tea, Tea Centre and Bluebird Tea Co. Retailers

Source: http://bluebirdteaco.com
Source: http://bluebirdteaco.com

The tea-bonanza has birthed some of the most recognizable bands. Tesco evolved from a tea grocer.  The Twining’s logo is the world’s oldest in continuous use. Mr Twinings set a teahouse next door to his male-orientated coffee. He created unique blends for wealthy, female customers. They would take it home in a caddie, as well as have a cup of it enjoy immediately at the teahouse. Teahouses, like Twinings, were frequented by both sexes and were a place for families to entertain out, as pubs were not acceptable.

Source: http://www.twinings.com.au/campaigns/gift-shop/
Source: http://www.twinings.com.au/campaigns/gift-shop/

As the British Empire grew, so did the consumption of tea and many of its former colonies are heavy tea drinkers.

The history of tea is aptly summed up by Isaac D’Isreal

The progress of this famous plant has been something very 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 spread;               and established its triumph at last, in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by slow and                       resistless efforts of time and its own virtue”.

Next week will be the last post on tea and it will be covering the medicinal uses of tea.

NB:  The books listed before have been used as research for this piece

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Green Gold: The Empire of Tea by Alan and Iris Macfarlane

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz


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