Who doesn’t love a cup of tea? First thing in the morning, or that homecoming one, when it just seems to warmly wash away all those little niggles of the day, and welcome you in with a hug. Tea has become our familiar comfort blanket, offered to sufferers of shock, heartbreak and loneliness. It’s even entered mystical folklore, as the liquid-leaved equivalent of Nostradamus. So this week is National Afternoon Tea Week, and although tea is part of our everyday world, and feels as though it’s always been that way, but it’s not necessarily so!
Tea has a dark secret. It was first introduced to the UK by Mary Modena, the Duchess of York in the 1600s. She came from Amsterdam where it was already popular but expensive, so only some could afford it. Fashionable wealthy households had hand painted China tea sets and lockable silver tea caddies, partly to demonstrate their fabulousness, and partly to ensure their servants couldn’t steal the precious leaves. Afternoon Tea became a symbol of opulence and lavish lifestyles.
Initially, all tea was produced in China. China wasn’t interested in trading for British goods, but it did have a huge demand for opium, which was smoked by many Chinese. Britain saw an opportunity to supply this demand in return for a supply of tea, and mass-produced opium in colonial India. Opium smoking was outlawed by the Chinese Emperor in 1796, meaning that the supply of tea to Britain was jeopardised, but opium continued to be smuggled into China illegally for many more years to come. In 1839 however, many tons of the drug were seized, and most of the trade was eventually snuffed out. The supply of tea to Britain was in danger of drying up.
In 1848, A Scottish Botanist called Robert Fortune was sent to China by the East India Company. He was able to smuggle out 20,000 tea plants and eight Chinese Tea Masters, and get them to India. Some went on to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and the tea plantations were established from there.
A Scottish grocer Thomas Lipton, set up his first shop in Glasgow in 1871, and was so successful he grew his business to over 300 shops across Scotland. He sold tea of course, but its quality was variable and his supply was not consistent. He became one of the first merchants to buy his tea directly from the plantations in India and Ceylon, ensuring a consistent quality and taste for his customers. In time he would also buy his own tea estate in Ceylon, which allowed him to reduce the price of tea for his customers. This may have been when Afternoon Tea first became available to ordinary folk.
Queen Victoria loved all things Scottish, and was introduced to a new blend for her Afternoon Tea, by a Scottish Tea Master during one of her visits. She enjoyed it so much she took the same blend back to London, and it became known as English Breakfast Tea, although originally created in Scotland.
Will your morning cuppa ever taste the same again? It was traded for drugs, smuggled and stolen, and then invented in Scotland, but falsely called ‘English’. What a history. What a drink!
Enjoy yours at Brewhemia’s Afternoon Tea in Edinburgh, the Red Bus Bistro Tours in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and The Secret Garden G & Tea events on Sundays, also in Edinburgh. Or sample The Teasmith Gin, or Ginti, for their unique take on Scottish Gin & tea.
Follow us on our Socials