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Tea in enghteenth centry (part one)
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In about 1700, one pound of good-quality tea cost a skilled craftsman approximately three weeks’ wages. Fuelled by heavy taxes, the price of tea remained high throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. It was only in 1745, thanks to a reduction in duty from 4s to 1s, that tea drinking started to become more widespread. Even more significant was the Commutation Act of 1784, introduced by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, which reduced the tax on tea from an astounding 119 per cent to ‘just’ 12,5 per cent. Nothing highlights the increase in Britain’s tea drinking more clearly than the rise in tea imports from the English East India Company – from £14 000 of tea in 1700 to £969 000 in 1760, and £1 777 000 by 1790 (a far steeper growth than the rise in the rate of inflation). Some historians claim that it was because the English East India Company imported such vast quantities into England that we became a nation of tea, rather than coffee, drinkers. Certainly, while demand for tea augmented imports, rising imports also created more demand.

Tea in enghteenth centry (part one)

Notice the fashionable blue-and-white porcelain and the tiny tea cups in this lively eighteenth-century scene.

Even before tea became more affordable later in the century, the British – already hooked on the beverage – found ways to get hold of it more cheaply. The quantities of tea smuggled into the country, before taxes were significantly reduced in 1784, were vast. Experts estimate that during the course of the eighteenth century over 7 million lb of tea were smuggled into England each year, compared to just 5 million lb of legal tea. Even more surprising is the fact that so many people bought smuggled tea fully aware of its illicit nature. Some respectable members of society, including clergymen, went as far as collaborating with smugglers.

That the British went to such great lengths to be able to enjoy their favourite new beverage is also brought to light by the ‘popularity’ of adulterated tea. Used black tea leaves were mixed with some bizarre adulterants, including ash, sloe or hawthorn leaves, and then pressed, dried and roasted to create an ersatz tea. Although less palatable than real tea, it filled a gap in a newly tea-craving market. It also went some way to helping rid the nation of its gin craze, the cause of so many ills – from crime, promiscuity and poverty to illness and death – during the first half of the eighteenth century.

Tea in enghteenth centry (part one)

The elaborate tea alcove in the Chinese Room at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. Dating from the 1760s, this was one of the first rooms designed for the consumption of tea in a British country house.

For the most part, however, tea drinking in the early to mid-eighteenth century was still very much a wealthy pastime, its practice a symbol of affluence, status and good manners. For the mistress of the house, the ritual gave her an element of power and independence: keeping the key to the caddy safely around her waist (away from snatching servants’ hands), it was she who brewed and served the beverage, taking centre stage in an important social custom.

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