How tea became infused with British society

Writer:  Kareem Wright


Tea is so intrinsically intertwined with Britishness that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the roots of this modest evergreen reach deep into British history. And yet, like most quintessentially ‘British’ things, it was actually ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere. The story of tea in the UK is as epic as it is seedy, and tea stains much of British colonial history. From wars to revolutions, religious controversy toclass snobbery, this humble beverage has made quite a splash in the British Isles over the last 300 odd years…


The history of tea in Britain is said to have begun during the Reign of Charles II in the 17th century, when his Portuguese queen, Catherine De Braganza, introduced it to the British court. From there, tea dripped its way into Coffee houses, essentially taverns where rich townsmen would convene. The drink took the nation by storm, but it was soon subjected to incredibly high taxes. These taxes were so damaging, that many turned to more illicit methods to acquire their tea, and eventually more tea was being smuggled into Britain than was being imported legally. Since most smuggled tea was brought in via rural routes, tea was allowed to flourish in the British countryside. It’s comparatively cheap price also made it accessible to the poorer working classes. The ‘people’s beverage’ was born.


Aside from the smuggling controversy, tea in Britain has found itself steeped in other murky waters during the course of its history. Britain’s preference for black tea over green actually began when shady merchants began using poisonous dyes such as copperto dye leaves and sell fake tea. This process was called ‘adulteration’ and also led to the popularity of adding milk and sugar to tea in the UK. Another famous tea controversy was the great tea debate, which began when a French doctor used a religious basis to claim tea and other ‘hot liquors’ were bad for one’s health. The controversy reached something of a boiling point when aphilanthropist by the name of Jonas Hanway became embroiled in a fierce public debate over tea with the famous Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson mocked Jonas publically for attacking tea, and the debate raged on. In fact, it is only recently that the positive health benefits of tea have been scientifically proven.


Tea became an even more integral to British culture during the ‘Temperance movement’ of the 1800’s. The beverage of choice before Tea arrived in Britain was actually alcohol. However, during the 1800’s sections of the upper class elite became worried that a constantly inebriated working class would be too slovenly and unruly. So tea was ultimately proposed as an alternative. The increase in demand for tea also led to the opening of tea houses, and cafes, a scene which filled the social void previously occupied by pubs.


By the 1800’s tea had established itself firmly into the daily routines of the British masses. And in 1840, the Duchess of Bedford Anna Marie is credited with creating the concept of ‘Afternoon Tea’, to fill the long gap between lunch and Dinner. The trend eventually stuck and by the 1860’s, it had become an immensely popular tradition.


The extent to which tea had become a part of British culture is well exemplified by the World Wars.  During the wars tea was heavily rationed, but specific stocks were actually set aside for the troops to boost morale. Then in the 1950’s came the introduction of the tea bag, which would completely change the way tea was prepared in the UK. An accidental American invention, the teabag was initially viewed with suspicion in Britain. However it began to make waves in the gadget mad 1950’s when it was promoted with the claim it would reduce cleaning time.


And so tea continues to be drunk in Britain, in fact, over 165 million cups of the stuff are consumed daily. Tea is a part of British life, one so integral to British culture, that many visitors and newcomers to the country soon find themselves taking up the habit.