Tea - A Mistress' Take on the History of Tea

Tea - A Mistress' Take on the History of Tea

Before delving into the history of High & Afternoon Tea we need to know a little about one of its key components, tea.

So what is the history of Tea?

Tea was first introduced to Europe through Portuguese traders who had reached China by sea in 1557.  They established trade agreements to import tea and other goods to Europe.  The Dutch soon followed suit.  By the early 17th century both nations were bringing tea to Europe, the Portuguese from Maco and the Dutch from Bantam (Java).  By 1611 the Dutch also started importing tea from Japan.

From 1613 to 1623 the British East India Company operated a trading post out of Hirado (Japan).  As the English had not yet developed a taste for tea it was not imported to England at this stage.  The Japanese fearing that European influence would dominate their culture sealed their borders in 1633 to outsiders.

The Dutch began bringing small shipment of tea to London in the late 1650’s.  It was the preferred drink of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II and became the queen of England.

By 1700 English markets had access to more than a dozen types of tea, each with its own name.

Tea was 18 to 24 months old by the time it was consumed in England.  It was kept in locked caddies in which servants had no access.  It was dispensed by the lady of the house before being quickly put away again.


Both black and green tea were imported from the beginning of the tea trade in Europe.  Black tea was called Bohea, and was named after an English approximation of the name for the Wuyi Mountains where black tea is grown.  Eventually Bohea became the term for lower-grade black teas whereas Tea or T E E referred to the higher grade black tea.

Whilst tea in China is taken without milk putting milk and cream in tea spoke to European tastes for rich foods.  It also had the additional benefit of covering the flavour of low-quality or adulterated teas.  

The quality of tea itself (even the higher grade) was often questionable.  Sometimes the tea being sold was made from reused leaves or mixed with non-tea plant leaves.  Leaves like licorice, ash or black thorn were a common substitute.  These fake teas were referred to as smouch.  To help these fake teas take on the desired colour and flavours they were dyed, cooked and dehydrated or mixed with colorants that would coat the surface of the leaves.  One such infamous colorant and flavouring being sheep poo.  Yes, sheep poo.

Due to this adulterating of tea both in China and England the English public felt that it was easier to adulterate green tea and so began avoiding it, further solidifying the English preference for black tea.  The passing of the 1875 of the Sale of Food and Drugs act also stopped the adulterating of tea.


Thomas Garraway’s London coffee house was the first place in England to sell tea.  The tea was offered for between 16 and sixty shillings per pound.  Roughly in today’s money for a pound (less than 500grams) it was $355 – $1065, which in those days was out of reach for most except nobility.

Tea drinking took about a century to catch on, but once it did it was an unstoppable force.  In 1711 tea consumption in Britain totalled about 142,000 pounds, by 1791 it had reached 15 million pounds and was increasing and was the most valuable commodity four fold.

By the middle of the 18th century tea import duties accounted for 6% of the British national budget.

Tea was marketed in a similar fashion to modern day superfoods and was said to be a cure for the plague, and other diseases.

Early tea shops catered to a male clientele but in 1717 Twining opened his first Tea Shop for ladies (11 years after opening his first Coffee House).  Tea gardens also became popular in this time, the first opening in the old Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens on the south bank of the Thames in the 1720’s, the trend quickly spread.

A number of authors point to the central role women played in popularising tea in England after its introduction in the 1650’s as they sought to emulate the Queen of England.

Tea was associated with women and entertaining, unlike coffee which was rarely associated with female drinkers.  

And that my lovelies is how tea came to England, and as history continues (in our next post) came to be an important stepping stone in the history of High Tea, and a key element in the art of High Teaing.