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A new luxury (part two)
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It took a long time for tea to reach Europe, but thanks to the maritime explorations of the Age of Discovery a new global trade gradually emerged, involving the exchange of goods, such as silk, gold, silver, pepper, porcelain and tea. The Dutch and Portuguese started importing tea into Europe from about 1610 and in 1657 the first shipment of tea arrived on English shores. In the late 1660s the British started importing tea themselves through the English East India Company, on ships that took twelve to sixteen months to reach England. At first, tiny amounts were ordered: 143lb in 1669, rising to 5 000lbs in 1678. This was the beginning of Britain’s long and unbroken history of tea drinking.

Many believe that a Mr Wickham, an employee of the English East India Company based on the Japanese island of Hirado, was the first Englishman ever to mention tea in writing. Preserved in the India Office Records at the British Library in London is Wickham’s letter, sent on 27 June 1615. In it Wickham asks a colleague in Macao (also known as Macau) to send him a pot of ‘the best sort of chaw’. The first Englishman to write about tea whilst also residing in England was the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. He wrote of trying it for the first time on 25 September 1660: ‘I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before’. And, on 28 June 1667, he noted that, on coming home one evening, he found his wife making tea, ‘which Mr Pelling the potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions’.

A new luxury (part two)

Famous for recording the minutiae of his Diary, Samuel Pepys was the first British person ever to write about drinking tea



Then as now, tea was seen as being both palatable and bestowed with special medicinal qualities. The very first tea advertisement published in Britain actually mentions its endorsement by doctors: ‘That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house in Sweeting’s Rents by the Royal Exchange, London’. Published in the 23-30 September 1658 edition of the weekly periodical Mercurius Politicus, this was the first advertisement for a commodity ever to appear in a London paper. Also in the late 1650s, Thomas Garway (or Garraway), one of England’s first tea and coffee retailers, published a document entitled An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality and Vertues of the LeafTEA. In it, he stated that tea could help ‘treat Headache, Stone, Dropsy, Scurvy, Sleepiness, Loss of Memory, Collick…’ Anyone reading the document might have thought that tea was a cure-all. There is, however, an element of truth in this promotional pamphlet: as recent research had determined, tea does indeed have many health benefits, from helping to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure and reducing the incidence of certain cancers to preventing tooth decay and stimulating the immune system. And as all tea drinkers know, tea also helps with concentration.

Strange as it may seem, tea was first available to drink in coffee houses. This can be explained in part by the fact that coffee was imported into England before tea. The earliest coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650, and it didn’t take long before coffee houses appeared in London and throughout the country, offering men an ideal venue in which to drink and converse. While refreshing themselves with coffee, tea, chocolate, ale, wine or brandy, they could discuss affairs and catch up on news. By 1675, there were over 3 000 coffee houses in Britain. As the eminent social historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote: ‘Every respectable Londoner had his favourite [coffee]house, where his friends or clients could seek him at known hours… In days before effective journalism, news could be most easily obtained at the Coffee House’. Soon, each coffee house developed its own specific clientele, ranging from businessmen and politicians to scholars, poets and clergymen – much like later gentlemen’s clubs. Some of these establishments witnessed the start of successful and long-lived institutions. Most famously, Edward Lloyd’s coffee house was the birthplace of Lloyd’s of London, still today the world’s leading insurance market.


A new luxury (part two)

This seventeenth-century watercolour shows the interior of a London coffee house. It offers a
reliable record of how tea was served in conical pots and drunk from shallow, handle-less cups.



Initially, the tea in these coffee houses must have been so unsavoury that one wonders why anyone actually drank it. Because it was taxed it its liquid form, and only once a day by a visiting excise officer, the tea had to be brewed early in the morning and reheated as and when required. Thankfully after 1689 tea began to be taxed in leaf form, which immediately stopped the habit of brewing all the day’s tea in the morning.

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