Tea – A Brief History of the Nation’s – Part 2

Another great impetus to tea drinking resulted from the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China, in 1834. Before that date, China was the country of origin of the vast majority of the tea imported to Britain, but the end of the its monopoly stimulated the East India Company to consider growing tea in China. India had always been the centre of the Company’s operations, where it also played a leading role in the government. This led to the increased cultivation of tea in India, beginning in Assam. There were a few false starts, including the destruction by cattle of one of the earliest tea nurseries, but by 1839 there was sufficient cultivation of tea of ‘marketable quality’ for the first auction of Assam tea in Britain. In 1858 the British government took over direct control of India from the East India Company, but the new administration was equally keen to promote the tea industry and cultivation increased and spread to regions beyond Assam. It was a great success, production was expanded, and by 1888 British tea imports from India were for the first time greater than those from China.

The end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China also had another result, which was more dramatic though less important in the long term: it ushered in the era of the tea clippers. While the Company had had the monopoly on trade, there was no rush to bring the tea from China to Britain, but after 1834 the tea trade became a virtual free for all. Individual merchants and sea captains with their own ships raced to bring home the tea and make the most money, using fast new clippers which had sleek lines, tall masts and huge sails. In particular there was competition between British and American merchants, leading to the famous clipper races of the 1860s. The race began in China where the clippers would leave the Canton River, race down the China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the Atlantic, past the Azores and into the English Channel. The clippers would then be towed up the River Thames by tugs and the race would be won by the first ship to hurl ashore its cargo at the docks.

But these races soon came to an end with the opening of the Suez Canal, which made the trade routes to China viable for steamships for the first time.

In 1851, when virtually all tea in Britain had come from China, annual consumption per head was less than 2lbs. Bt 1901, fuelled by cheaper imports from India and Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), another British colony, this had rocketed to over 6lbs per head. Tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life. This was officially recognised during the First World War, when the government took over the importation of tea to Britain in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage continued to be available at an affordable price. The government took control again during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952. 1952 also saw the reestablishment of the London Tea Auction, a regular auction that had been taking place since 1706. The auction was at the centre of the world’s tea industry, but improved worldwide communications and the growth of auctions in tea producing nations meant that it gradually declined in importance during the latter half of the twentieth century. The final London Tea Auction was held on 29 June 1998.

But as the tea auction declined, an essential element of modern tea-drinking took off – the tea bag. Tea bags were invented in America in the early twentieth century, but sales only really took off in Britain in the 1970s. Nowadays it would be hard for many tea-drinkers to imagine life without them. Such is the British enthusiasm for tea that even after the dismantling of the Empire, British companies continue to play a leading role in the world’s tea trade and British brands dominate the world market. With recent scientific research indicating that tea drinking may have direct health benefits, it is assured that for centuries to come there will be a place at the centre of British life for a nice cup of tea.

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