The history of tea

The history of tea is a fascinating one: first discovered by a Chinese Emperor 5,000 years ago.

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys

A scholar and herbalist Emperor Shen Nung was resting under a tree and whilst boiling his drinking water a tea leaf drifted down into it. The Emperor found the brew deliciously refreshing and revitalising – the rest is history!

Tea had reached China, possibly from its indigenous India, by 200 AD. The earliest record of its cultivation was the fourth century AD. It had travelled to Japan by the eighth century. The infusion method of preparing tea had become accepted practise during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). During this time it was discovered by Venetian spice traders. It was then brought from Java to Europe by the Dutch in 1610.

‘I sent for a cup of tea (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before.’  Samuel Pepys, diaries 25th Sept. 1661.

In the early twelfth century the Japanese monk Eisai brought back from China tea seeds and an understanding of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect. In time, a complicated and unique ceremony emerged – Cha-no-yu. It is a precise pattern of behaviour designed to create quiet after the arrival of guests, to engender spiritual refreshment. The Japanese Tea Ceremony captures four basic principles: harmony with people and nature, respect for others, purity of heart and mind and finally, tranquillity. It can be practiced at home in a special room set aside for the purpose and can take up to four hours. Matcha, a special type of green tea is traditionally used.

The first tea to Russia arrived in 1618 as a gift to Tsar Alexis. After a trade agreement in 1689 caravans of 200-300 camels were bringing tea in exchange for furs. The caravans continued until the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903. Tea reached England in 1644 where it became socially important when it was adopted by the court of Charles II.

Regular trade by sea soon became established, traders sprinting across the seas by the famously fast tea clippers such as the Sutty Sark (see right) , launched in 1869, and the Thermopylae. Racing against the clock, the latter made the voyage with the new season’s teas from Shanghai to London in a record 105 days.

In 1700 around 20,000 lbs of tea was imported into England. By 1750 tea had become the most popular drink in England and by 1800 this had risen a thousand-fold to the point where tea had replaced ale as the favoured drink at English breakfast tables. English afternoon tea was introduced by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford as a reviver in the long gap between lunch and dinner. It soon became a great social tradition.

Tea was first grown in India, in upper Assam, in 1823 from native tea bushes by Robert Bruce of the East India Company. The first shipment of Indian teas was to London in 1838. In the nineteenth century the Dutch went on to establish plantations in Indonesia and by the 1870s the English had established tea cultivation in Ceylon.

Black tea was first produced in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for trading with the West as it is less perishable than green tea, i.e. it has a longer shelf-life. It was not made for domestic consumption and indeed today black tea is rarely drunk in China. Since the days of Empire black teas have been produced in many countries of the world.

Black tea was initially imported by the Dutch and it was briefly fashionable in Holland and France before being imported into England where it developed from fashion to popular appeal. By the eighteenth century tea had replaced beer in England as the nation’s most popular drink. Now black tea is the staple drink for Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Ireland are especially large consumers and make up the world’s largest export market for tea from the tea producing countries.

For 319 years until 29th June 1998 the City of London was a major trading market for tea. Sir John Lyon House, and prior to 1990, Plantation House was the centre of this activity but now most buying is done in the country of origin. Kenya and India now have large trading markets.

See our page dedicated to Black Tea.

Historic Tea Facts

1. The Cutty Sark is the world’s last surviving tea clipper. A cutty sark is a short Scottish chemise or shirt. It was worn by a comely witch in pursuit of Tam O’Shanter on horse-back in Robert Burn’s poem of that name. It is depicted in Hercules Linton’s original design for the Cutty Sark’s figurehead (right).

2. The Boston Tea Party! of 1773 sparked American Independence as the colony rebelled at paying taxes to the British Government.

3. The first teapot in England is reputed to be a Chinese example from Zhangzhou, China. It was given by Catherine de Braganza wife of King Charles II (1662-85) to friend Elizabeth, the Duchess of Lauderdale. It is now at Ham House, Kew Gardens, Surrey.

4. As long ago as 1667 tea was considered to be beneficial to health: ‘I went away and by coach home, and there find my wife making of tea, a drink which Mr. Pelling, the Potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions.’ Samuel Pepys

5. Tea gave rise to tea dances, a popular society pass-time.

6. Until the British colonial tea planters cultivated teas in far flung corners of their empire, especially in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), all tea was grown in China.

7. The United Kingdom is the largest market for exported tea in the world.

8. Ireland has the western world’s largest per-capita tea consumption.

9. Tea seed was first imported to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from China in 1824 and from Assam in 1839 to be grown on an experimental basis.

10. The tea clipper ‘Champion of the Seas’ was the fastest sailing ship ever. In the 1850s 150 miles marked a good day’s sailing and 250 miles was typical for a clipper ship. In 1854 ‘Champion of the Seas’ sailed 465 miles in one day.

11. Earl Grey was supposed to have been presented with his blend when he saved the life of a man in China. However, what Is known is that the Earl never visited China!

12. Preston, Lancashire in 1833 was the centre of the tea-temperance movement. At Christmas 1,200 people were served tea from a 200 gallon boiler by forty reformed alcoholics.

13. Uji, south of the city of Kyoto, is the oldest tea growing area of Japan famous for its top quality teas.

14. In 1698 Lady Rachel Russell in a letter to her daughter said green tea was good with milk. No one since seems to agree with her!

15. In the 1770s more than 7m lbs tea was smuggled into England annually compared with 5m lbs declared!

See our page giving the Time-line for Tea.