The History of Tea in Britain


The History of Tea in Britain

Each day in Britain approximately 165 million cups of tea are drunk but how many people know the origins of the tea in their teabag?

How tea was discovered

So where did tea actually come from? Well despite our fondness for tea today, the British were actually one of the last countries in Europe to try tea. It probably comes as no surprise that the origins can be found in ancient China.

According to legend tea was discovered quite by accident over 5000 years ago, when the evil and despotic Emperor Shen Nung was overthrown and banished to a remote corner of Southern China. Driven by poverty to drinking only hot water, one day he was pleasantly surprised when a gust of wind blew some leaves from a nearby tree into his pot of boiling water.

The resulting infusion was so relaxing that, according to legend, he sat under the tree for the next 7 years drinking nothing but tea and naming it "Tai' (peace)… and the rest, as they say, is history! Whatever the real truth about the discovery of tea, it remained the Orient's best kept secret for centuries.


Tea was transported in wooden'tea chests' like these photographed in the hold of the tea clipper, Cutty Sark

How tea travelled the world

By AD800, when Lu Yu wrote his book of tea, its use had spread to Japan. Soon
afterwards small quantities were taken west on Persian caravan routes and the Venetians knew about tea by the middle of the 16th Century, but only as a medicine for stomach troubles. It was their trade rivals, the Dutch who were the first to introduce tea to Europe.

In 1606, the first shipment of Chinese tea reached Amsterdam. It was an expensive novelty at first, but it soon became the most popular beverage in the country. In France the craze for tea was early but short-lived, yet in England we accepted tea slowly at first but it became a lasting relationship.

In 1658 the first advertisement for tea appeared in an English paper and only six years later the East India Company gave Charles II a present of tea. And a year later, the company began to import tea directly from China. It was in the early eighteenth century that the East India Company was given a monopoly on the British Tea Trade.
It was the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) that became a truly spectacular entrant into the tea trade. Ceylon substituted all of its, blighted coffee plantations with tea in the 1870's.

The British had found the stronger teas from India much more to their liking and by 1900 only 5% of imports where from China.


How tea came to Britain

Despite the fact that tea drinking is considered quintessentially English, coffee drinking was originally much more popular. Tea first arrived in Britain in 1662 when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Catherine brought tea chests to England as part of her wedding dowry and soon popularised the custom of taking tea at court. And 50 years later tea drinking became still more popular, once again, thanks to the Royal Family, when Queen Anne started drinking tea with her breakfast rather than the customary beer.

When tea first arrived in Britain it was brought from China in huge, tall ships called Tea Clippers. It would take the ships over a year to make the long crossing from China to England. Indeed the pressure to get tea to Britain that led to the glorious age of sail and Clipper ships were some of the most beautiful and fastest sailing ships ever built. They had wonderful names like 'Ariel', "The Flying Dutchman', "The Fiery Cross' and
"The Stornoway', and used to race against each other to see who would get home and unload first. These great epic voyages ended with the invention of steam-powered boats at the end of the 19th century and with the opening of the Suez Canal.

Taking tea was considered a very special affair. The water for the tea would be boiled at the table by the mistress of the house using a large silver water kettle or urn. The tea would be kept under lock and key in a wooden tea caddy and was carefully measured into a teapot when needed.


We would like to thank our favorite tearooms – Bettys and Taylors out. of Harrogate for this feature.

This sarcophagus shaped rosewood tea caddy, c1820 is typical of the Regency style with its ormolu handle mounts and lion paw feet. The caddy has two removable tea canisters, used for green and black teas. In the centre is a glass mixing bowl. The caddy is lined with red paper and has a brass lock.

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