Put the kettle on – it’s tea time for some history

Tea isn’t just a beverage in Britain, it’s a social institution, part of the very fabric of life. Tea time (and afternoon tea) may now seem quaint. But we still use it as a panacea for all ills, a social ice-breaker, and our low-level pick-me-up of choice.

Anthropologist Kate Fox writes in her brilliant book Watching the English  that:

“Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.”

What do we do first when we get home after, well, doing anything? Put the kettle on. What do we do when someone has bad news? Or a visitor arrives? Put the kettle on. Any time is teatime!

And how do other nations see us? Well, in Asterix in Britain the Roman invasion succeeds because the British leave the battlefield every afternoon for their afternoon cup of hot water (with a drop of milk).

And despite our high streets now having a range of coffee shops, offering skinny-organic-soya-mocha-frappucino , collectively, we still drink gallons of the stuff.

A nation of tea drinkers

The UK Tea & Infusions Association has a web counter showing the number of cups drunk each day!!

Q: How many of cups of tea do the British drink each day?

A: 165 million cups daily or 60.2 billion per year.

Tea used to be an expensive commodity: in the 18th century, the tea caddy had a lock on it and it was kept safely away from servants. Meanwhile, with the tax on tea hitting 119 per cent, smugglers were as happy to profit from bringing in tea as contraband as they were brandy.

The Commutation Act of 1784, enacted by Parliament, reduced the tax to 12.5%, effectively ending the smuggling trade. But tea was still relatively expensive.

Tea time – a Cumbrian connection

In 1853, ‘chemist, druggist, grocer and tea dealer’ Jefferay Carruthers had premises at 56 and 57 Scotch Street, Carlisle.

He took out a newspaper advert for fine tea at 4 shillings per pound, and coffee at 1 shilling and 4 pence per pound, and British Port and other wines at 1 shilling a bottle.

If the average farm worker’s wage in 1853 was 9s 11d, then a pound of tea was the equivalent of several days’ wages! Tea time was luxury for ordinary folk.

It’s not surprising, then, that unscruplous vendors adulterated it with already-brewed leaves, or with leaves from other plants – and even dyes to make it the ‘right’ shade of green, and (it was at least alleged) ground-up sheep dung.

In 1867, a group got together to set up The Licensed Victuallers’ Tea Association. This curious body was a response to an Act of Parliament in 1860 allowing grocers to sell wines. This rankled with the publicans, who decided to get their own back by competing with the grocers in the sale of tea. They had their own trademark and packaging, and woe betide anyone who tried to fake either.

An advert in the Carlisle Patriot, in 1869, assures: ‘Teas are strong and wholesome, are guaranteed pure and of uniform quality, and are used and approved by all classes.’

Taepang… Finest Black Tea … 2s 6d ••• Finest Mixed Tea ••• 3s Od _ Finest Green Tea ••• 3s 6d Caravan ••• An Exquisite Tea ••• 3s 6d.

The stockists in Cumberland were listed as: B. Clark, Sportsman’s Arms, John Street. Carlisle; G. Dixon, West Strand, Whitehaven; J. Fisher, Wine Merchant, Carlisle; D. Hall, Crown Hotel, Botchergate, Carlisle; J. Hewetson, Bell and Bullock, Penrith; T. Hudson, Three Crowns, English Street, Carlisle; J. Marshall, Wheat Sheaf Inn, Rickergate, Carlisle; J, Race, 50, New Lowther Street, Whitehaven; James Richardson, General Wolfe Inn, Penrith; J. Turnbull, 4 and 5, Scotch Street, Carlisle.