Keep Calm and Drink Tea’ could probably rival ‘God Save the Queen’ as the unofficial slogan for British-ness. No other country’s national consciousness is so saturated by a single drink. Tea in Britain is not just a beverage—it’s a social experience. Our rich have tea parties, our poor have tea time and our middle-classes have tea anxiety over whether the milk goes in first or last. But when tea first arrived on these shores in 1657, you wouldn’t have guessed anything significant was brewing.
In fact in the seventeenth century, it looked like coffee was set to become the brew of choice among fashionable British elites (eventually it would filter down to all classes). All-male coffeehouses became important meeting places where all classes could enjoy a cuppa – of coffee. In fact, for much of the century it looked like tea would never bag the hot beverage market.
This is possibly because it wasn’t seen as a beverage so much as a medical panacea. Today, all good Brits know about the magical physical and emotional healing properties of a mug of hot tea, but seventeenth century Europeans really drank in this idea. At first, tea was sold almost exclusively at apothecaries. It did briefly catch on in Holland and fashionable Parisian districts but, by 1647, a fall in demand meant Dutch tea drinking had pretty much popped its clogs. In France, tea’s decline may have been encouraged by the revolutionary spirit which denounced anything even vaguely associated with the aristocracy. It seems Earl Grey didn’t quite make the transition to Citoyen Grey.
Tea-drinking in Britain was also encouraged by two trendy ladies. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of spaniel-haired party animal King Charles II, introduced tea to the royal court in 1662 and Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford, took the trend further. Between lunch at 12pm and dinner at around 8pm, she began to get a little bit peckish. Without the modern-day go to – a pot noodle – she settled for cakes or sandwiches with tea instead. This 5pm ‘tea time’ proved so good that Stanhope soon began inviting her friends round for ‘tea parties’. The most stylish aristocrats attended, and this was quickly copied by the lower classes.
The British Empire also played a part in tea’s rise to prominence. In the bad old days of imperialism, the cartoonishly evil British East India Company had monopolised trade with Asia, where tea came from. The government’s eventual support for such an important source of tax money meant they kept prices fairly low.
In comparison, by 1734 coffee had run out of steam. Coffee merchant, Thomas Twining, decided it was a mug’s business and closed his coffeehouse to focus on his teahouse. These allowed women in too and meant their husbands or servants no longer had to be sent to fetch them a brew.
While coffee’s appeal wasn’t completely ground down, nowadays there are few things more spiffingly British than the beloved cuppa.