Tea was introduced into Europe from China by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was a different drink to the one we normally think of today. It was green tea, drunk without milk or sugar. It was called cha, and it was a rare, exotic and expensive luxury. The first reference we have to tea being imported into England dates from the early 17th century. It was served in coffee shops of London, and by 1660 Samuel Pepys records tasting tea in his diary.
It became a popular drink with the aristocracy and members of the upper classes, through being served by Charles II’s Queen, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza. She popularised the habit among her friends and their equals. The drinking of tea slowly trickled down the classes, and by the 18th century black tea was becoming popular with the middle classes. The English were beginning to add milk and sugar to the beverage by then. Tea drinking was a social occasion, and a tea party was where men and women met. The companionable drinking of alcohol was much more a male prerogative. Dr Johnson had been a regular toper as a young man, but he gave up alcohol in favour of tea. Tea drinking had spread to the British Empire, as the Boston Tea Party shows. Tea did not become the drink of the lower classes in England until the 19th century, with the introduction of Indian tea .
A certain amount of etiquette still attached itself to tea drinking; the teapot had to be warmed before the tea was added and it had to brew for three minutes before being served. It was stirred and poured through a tea strainer. ‘Shall I be mother?’ enquired the one who took the teapot. The milk jug was passed round, and next came the sugar bowl. At home the milk went in the cup first, but at school it was the tea, so there were two opinions about this. Your teaspoon was taken from the saucer to stir the teacup, and then gently replaced. This was the elegant way to drink tea, but it was the universal drink and not all tea was taken in such refined surroundings. The ploughman would take his bottle of cold tea (with sugar but no milk) off to work with him in the morning. He would swig it straight out of the bottle during a break from his work. This was quite a come-down from a tea party, and even more from the oriental tea ceremony. Now any hint of this rigmarole has been banished from the serving of tea by the ubiquitous use of the tea bag, and the equally ubiquitous mug.
The kettle singing on the hob was there principally to make the tea, and this drink brought with it health benefits. This was not from any medicinal qualities that tea itself might possess (though these were repeatedly touted), but because it was made from boiling water. In the days before piped and treated water it came from a well, and this could harbour all sorts of diseases. Before tea became the national drink ‘small ale’ took this position, and this too had most of the bugs and viruses killed by the brewing process. Boiling water had the same effect; but a glass of cold water, unless it came from a spa spring deep underground, was far from a health drink.
The teapot is a subject all of its own. There is a major collection of teapots in the Norwich Castle Museum, and novelty teapots were still being produced in Mrs Thatcher”s time. Maybe they still are. There is pot depicting her very distinctive face in the collection. Teapots have long been the vehicle for flights of fancy, as anyone familiar with the collection will know.
The tea clipper was a late flowering of the sailing ship. They raced from China to England to be the first with the new season’s crop. We all know the Cutty Sark, but her great rival, the Thermopylae, made the fastest ever journey by sailing ship to the Far East. The great era of tea clippers was already over when the Cutty Sark was built in 1869. This was the year that the Suez Canal was opened, and thereafter steam ships made the journey, carrying much larger cargoes much faster. Sailing ships could not use the canal, and the clippers shifted to the Australian wool trade. Indian tea was becoming more and more popular, and this never used the tea clippers.