The Wicked History of Tea

Our speaker in September was Sheelagh James, a former Mayor of Lichfield.

Sheelagh introduced her talk by saying that there is a mystery about the origin of tea. The story is that a Chinese Emperor was sitting under a tree with a cup of boiling water and some leaves fell into it. He enjoyed the first cup of tea!

The tea plant Camellia Sinensis comes from China and India and was carried to Japan by Chinese monks. The rituals of tea drinking as we know it date back over 1,000 years. Merchants brought samples back from the Far East - these would have been powdered leaves. Tea was originally not green but black, a change which happens when tea leaves are left to oxidise. Both types are harvested in different regions but all come from the same plant.

Tea was introduced into Europe, initially by the Dutch, and the future King Charles II drank it whilst he was in exile. At that time it was known as 'Ta', 'Tea' or Char. Tea was introduced into London Coffee Houses in 1658. There is a record in the newsbook "Mercurius Politicus" which was published between June 1650 and the Restoration in 1660 - a precursor of today's newspapers. The first Coffee Houses were known as 'Penny Universities'; pay a penny for entry, read bulletins and newspapers for the latest news and drink tea or coffee.

When Charles returned from exile his Portugese wife, Catherine of Braganza, drank tea every day. She arrived in a storm, wanting a cup of tea! But was only offered a cold drink; i.e. Beer, as Tea was not yet available in England. But drinking tea did soon become popular.

Sheelagh said that there are two predictable things in life - death and taxes - and our first 'wicked' example was the tax imposed on tea. Between 1660 and 1689 tea sold in Coffee Houses was taxed in liquid form. The day's tea was brewed in the morning, taxed by a visiting excise officer, then kept in barrels to be re-heated during the day as required - but this was not a deterrent. Vicars would order tea in preference to Gin. Ladies were not allowed in Coffee Houses but could purchase tea there. They would entertain friends in their boudoirs, where they were frequently scantily dressed; how 'wicked and cool'. However, in 1689 the Government imposed a tax of 25p in the pound on tea, which killed its purchase; so consumption was reduced.

Tax evasion became common, particularly by smugglers. Rudyard Kipling's poem "A Smuggler's Song", published in 1906, includes the line "Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by". This was a late reflection on the practice of smuggling.

The horrors of smuggling

Sheelagh continued her story, saying that the equivalent of today's 'County Lines' developed, especially in coastal area. It was very well organised and very blatant. The romantic image of the smuggler belies the brutality of many, as seen in the exploits of the Hawkhurst Gang. In 1747 two tons of tea was seized by Customs and Excise and stored in Poole Customs House. Sixty members of the Hawkhurst Gang retrieved it and rode north through Fordingbridge. They made no attempt to disguise their identity. Villagers came out to watch. John Diamond, a smuggler, was recognised by Daniel Carter, a villager, who was pressurised into giving evidence against him. In 1748, Carter and William Galley, a customs officer, riding to see the Chichester Magistrates stopped at a public house, not knowing that the landlady had two smuggling sons! She alerted the gang and their decision, after some discussion, was to horsewhip the two. They were tied to horses and taken to a village 15 miles away, hanging beneath the horse's bellies. Here they were subjected to a further beating; Carter was chained up and the, apparently dead, Galley buried. Carter was then savagely attacked, stoned and slung down a well. Sheelagh said that, whilst smuggling was frequently taken for granted, this barbarity was finally stopped; the silence was broken by the large rewards offered and attitudes to the smugglers changed.

Some other facts about tea

Tea was addictive; and taxes went up and down. Tea was rationed during the second Word War and the tax was last applied in 1964!

Sugar, the natural accompaniment to tea, was also subject to tax. This created a problem as the sugar production in the Azores, the Canary Isles and Brazil was insufficient. More 'wickedness' occurred with the development of slavery in the new sugar producing areas of the Carribean. The anti-slavery movement followed; they were sometimes known as the 'Anti-Saccarites' and included members of the Lunar Society.

Sheelagh said that the Chinese did not at first add sugar or milk to their tea; but customs change and milk was soon added, usually hot. Other types of 'tea' were also available; sloe, hawthorn, elder and ash leaves. Such was the expense of tea in the 18th century that additives were used; chemicals such as Copper - which gave a Blue/Green tinge; Sheep dung, known as 'smooch', twigs and even dust were added by the smugglers.

In the 1660s some doctors were concerned that tea would cause women's wombs to shrink! Others thought it made one active and lively, clearing the system of wind and pain. It was also recommended for gallstones and dropsy. Samuel Johnson had no problem with tea. John Wesley was initially anti-tea but would later advocate it - to reduce the consumption of gin. Smuggling continued unabated but was finally destroyed by William Pitt the Younger when the Commutation Act of 1784 reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%. He acted on the advice given by the tea merchant Richard Twining (1749-1824), a director of the East India Company and head of Twinings. The Act was introduced to stimulate trade with China for the debt-ridden East India Company.

The well known 'Boston Tea Party' was organised by a group known as "The Sons of Liberty", made up of men from all walks of life. This protest was tax related - the British 'Tea Act' of 1773. Disguised as Mohawk Indians they boarded three British tea ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbour. The cargo floated and would not sink! Floating there for weeks it became a trigger for the American War of Independence. Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote a poem for children called 'A Ballad of Boston Tea Party' in 1874 which tells the story.

Tea featured not only in Coffee Houses but also in the Pleasure Gardens of London where all classes, including prostitutes, gathered. Covent Garden even had a list of 'Available Ladies' in the 18th century. More 'wickedness'.

An even greater 'wickedness' was the Opium War with China which was rooted in the tea trade because all of our tea originated in China. Only later did supplies come from India. China exported vast quantities of tea through the East India Company to Britain. Trade in Chinese goods - tea, silks and porcelain - was very lucrative but was paid for in silver, creating a deficit in this currency. The East India Company began to smuggle Indian opium into China which was then paid for in silver. In 1839 opium sales to China paid for the entire tea trade. It was disputes over opium that led to the Opium Wars.

Sheelagh concluded her talk by suggesting that, whilst there may be both larger and smaller wickednesses associated with tea, the British will always drink tea - undeterred.

Following this fascinating presentation many more facts were revealed to the audience during the closing question time.

Lorna Bushell
September 2022