The origin of tea in British culture

The British are notorious tea lovers, with surveys suggesting three cups per day are consumed on average. It’s such a staple part of our culture that it appears in everything from TV shows and books to children’s tiger theatre plays, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea. But how did tea first arrive in the UK, and when did it become so popular? Here, we delve into the history of tea in British culture.

A luxury for the upper classes

While tea has been enjoyed for centuries in other countries, it arrived in the UK fairly late. The first dated reference to tea in Britain is from 1658, when an advert published in a London newspaper announced that a coffee house in the city was serving a “China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, but other Nations Tay alias Tee”.

At the time tea was expensive, partly due to a high taxation (25p in the pound) imposed on tea in the leaf. This punitive rate almost halted sales altogether, but was reduced to 5p in the pound in 1692 making it more accessible to the upper and middle classes.

Tea smuggling

The fashion for tea drinking grew and by the 18th century, many people wanted to indulge in this luxury but couldn’t afford the high prices. This led to a burgeoning tea smuggling trade, with as much as 3.2 million kg of tea imported illegally each year, compared to 2.3 million kg  of legal imports. Unfortunately, however, smuggled tea was not quality controlled, meaning leaves from other plants could be added. Sometimes even sheep’s dung was added to make the colour more convincing!

By 1784, the government had realised that heavy taxation on tea wasn’t worth the problems it was causing. Tax was slashed from 119% to 12.5%, ending smuggling almost overnight.

Tea for everyone

In the 1830s, the East India Company, which had primarily been trading with China for tea, began cultivating tea in India. This led to competition between merchants to bring back tea quickly and cheaply, making it more accessible than ever. By the turn of the 20th century it had become an established part of British life. The government even took over tea importation during the Great War to ensure it remained affordable.

The invention of the tea bag

Invented in America, the tea bag took off in Britain in the 1970s, making brewing the perfect cuppa at home even easier. That said, there’s still a certain element of comfort and ritual in making a pot of tea with loose leaves - and afternoon tea should always be served with loose-leaf tea!

One creature that knows all about tea is the tiger in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. This classic children’s picture book has been adapted for the stage and offers a fantastic family day out. If your kids love

tiger plays, don’s miss the chance to see it at a theatre near you. Tiger shows have never been such fun, with sing-along songs, magic and clumsy chaos to delight children of all ages.