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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

Tea in 18th Century Britain

Beneficial, injurious or innocent?

Speaker: Emily Webb

Monday, 14 November 2022

The statistics are astonishing: the British people consume 36 billion cups of tea every year. It is beyond doubt Britain's favourite drink, and yet its origins lie in a plant that was only grown in southern China. Emily Webb is a lecturer at the University of Leeds who has been researching the role of commodities such as tea in shaping the history of colonial Britain, and she traced the fascinating history of tea in the culture of Britain when she talked to Hebden Bridge Local History Society.

The origins of tea drinking are part of Chinese legend, but it is known that the plant grew in southern China and was probably first used as a herbal drink 4000 years ago. Its use in Europe is noted at the end of 16th century, and one of the first adverts for tea in England boasted of the health benefits of this novel drink. For Samuel Pepys it was special enough to be recorded in his diaries, and indeed at that time it was a rare and expensive luxury. Just as now the influencers of the time, the royal court, made it fashionable.

While wars raged in Europe, Britain's trade routes through the Levant (the way coffee was imported) were often blockaded, while tea arrived by a route that could be kept open – one explanation for the singular identification of Britain as a tea drinking nation while the rest of Europe stuck with coffee. The most aggressively ambitious trading company was the East India Company which had a monopoly of trade with China, India and South East Asia, and seeing the profit to be made from tea they began to promote it. The British Treasury was quick to see the potential too, and collected a massive tax on the product, which raised 6% of the total government revenue.

The association of tea with luxurious life-styles made it a target for some of the Radical ideas of the 18th century, and the political pamphlets of the time reflect this hostility. There was also a keen debate about its potential health benefits or threats, including a rumour that it had been designed by the Chinese as a slow poison. With the dominant medical model of health being the theory of the four humours which needed to be kept in balance, tea could easily be identified as either the bringer of calm or the disrupter of well-being. States of mind such as melancholy or hysteria were also of concern, and tea was promoted as a corrective for 'nerves'.

The fashion for tea grew as people turned tea drinking into a social occasion – in public gardens such as those at Vauxhall and Chelsea, and also in the rituals of tea drinking at home, with the lady of the house presiding over the silver or china tea pot. The idea of women gathering in groups to talk was alarming to some: could they be plotting insurrection or wasting time in scandalous gossip? The attack on women daring to have political ideas was often through cartoons – where tea drinking was seen as a way to emasculate men, allowing powerful women to exercise undue influence on their political lap dogs. And once the fashion spread to the working classes, it was seen as corrupting, wasting their time, leading to neglect of their work and contributing to their poverty.

The poor of course were not drinking the best tea, but smuggled tea of lower quality and cheaper price. The government used the taxation on the import of tea as a revenue to fund expensive and increasingly unpopular wars. Inevitably entrepreneurs found ways of by-passing the massive taxes, first on a small scale but eventually through well organised professional smuggling. The perceived unfairness of such high taxes meant that the general population were largely co-conspirators. A political battle began as the Treasury sought to make smuggling less profitable by reducing the tax, and replaced that revenue with the window tax. Despite the debates and battles, tea was irreplaceably established as part of British society for all classes, and keeps its triumphant place even now.

The next meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society will hear about the Yorkshire Coiners, in a talk by Professor John Styles. In the light of the current interest in Benjamin Myers' gothic novel The Gallows Pole, how have historians developed their opinions about the 'yellow trade'?
Wednesday 23rd November at Hebden Royd Methodist Church. Starts at 7.30. Visitors £4.

Details of the History Society talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow History Society Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

See also: the HebWeb History section