Tea-That Very British of Drinks
The British simply adore tea. But how did tea become such a British beverage? Why is tea so much the quintessential of British drinks? Tea has become a great British tradition, even though it is a relatively newcomer to the British Isles..
Tea’s true origins lie in China and the eastern hemisphere.
Tea’s origins and early days in Britain
Tea dates back over four and a half thousand years ago to 2737 BC, where mythology states that the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree, while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to give it a try. The tree was a wild tea tree.
It was the health giving reputation of tea that made it popular with the Chinese and turned it into a national drink. Tea spread across the east with the help of Buddhist priests, who popularized it to create the Japanese tea ceremony.
Around the year of 1515 the Portuguese opened up sea routes to China, and Jesuit priests traveling on ships introduced the tea drinking habit to the western world. The Dutch brought the first tea to Europe around 1610. About 1658 the very first advertisement for tea appeared in a London newspaper. By 1750, tea had become the principal drink of all the social classes in Britain, although at that time a pound of the cheapest tea cost about one-third of a skilled worker’s weekly wage.
The banning of tea breaks
Tea breaks became and still remain a tradition in Great Britain. This began over 200 years ago when workers began their day at around five or six am. Employers allowed for a break in the morning when food and tea were served. Some employers repeated the break in the afternoon as well.
However, between 1741 and 1820, industrialists, landowners and clerics attempted to put a stop to the tea break maintaining that tea drinking and rest made working people slothful. Modern thinking couldn’t be further from this—regular tea breaks are a vital part of the day and help maintain a positive balance and health.
Tea becomes the “British Way”
It wasn’t until around 1840 that tea became a British ritual. According to legend Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford would experience hunger pangs at around four o’clock, several hours too early for her eight o’clock dinner. So she devised afternoon tea time at four or five in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner. She combined her tea with the earlier invention belonging to the Earl of Sandwich—two slices of bread with filling.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastry served with clotted cream and preserves. Tea is brewed and poured from silver teapots into delicate porcelain bone china.
Soon, as the Duchess began to invite more and more friends over for this occasion, the habit grew into larger affair. Fashionable social gatherings arose. By 1880 tea was a huge event. Long gowns, with gloves and hats were worn for afternoon tea.
As the popularity of tea spread, it became an essential part of people’s entertainment outside the home. Dance was incorporated along with fireworks in elegant gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, rounded off by serving tea as the high point of the afternoon. The tea dance remained fashionable in Britain until World War II, when these events lost much of their popularity. As growth proliferated throughout Britain, the many gardens shut their doors. Inns, taverns and hostelries remained to carry on the tradition.
In following days, tea began to play an important role in the temperance movement’s battle against the very high levels of alcohol consumption, predominately gin. Tea meetings were held throughout Britain in an attempt to convert drinkers and raise money for the cause. Thus, began the origin of the phrase “teetotal”.
For the working and farming communities, afternoon tea became high tea. As the main meal of the day, high tea was a cross between the delicate afternoon meal enjoyed in the ladies’ drawing rooms and the dinner enjoyed in the houses of the gentry at seven or eight in the evening.
Tea shops lead to women’s movement
In 1864, the manager of a bread company shop persuaded her directors to allow her to serve food and tea as refreshment in the shop. She offered tea to her more favored customers and soon attracted many clients clamoring for the same service.
Not only did she start the fashion for tea shops, but also unwittingly laid one of the foundations for women’s emancipation, since an unchaperoned lady could meet friends in a tea shop without detrimenting her reputation.
Tea shops spread, briskly throughout Great Britain, becoming as much a tradition as tea itself. Today, despite the abundance of fast food outlets, this tradition remains, attracting enormous numbers or UK residents and foreign tourists.