For The World's Greatest Teas

The History of Tea

The history of tea is a long one, it being discovered over 5,000 years ago.

History of tea
Samuel Pepys

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.

London Tea Auctions were conducted at East India House from 1679, located on Leadenhall Street. They moved to the London Commercial Sale Rooms in 1837 on Mincing Lane, known as ‘the street of tea’. In 1937 they again moved to Plantation House which was distinguished by a 21 ft high auction room surrounded by colourful shields representing tea producing countries. Sir John Lyon House became the location of the London Tea auctions from 1971 and, finally, in 1990 they moved to London Chamber of Commerce. They closed on 29th June 1998 to be replaced by telephone and internet bidding. 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

See the following tea history facts that have been assembled over time in the course of our research into the history of tea and in writing our blog articles. These include the history of Darjeeling tea, the origins of Russian Caravan tea, Earl Grey tea and the tea clippers.

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.

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.

12. 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!

13. 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.

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

15. 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!

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

17. The statue on Grey’s Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne was designed by the same sculptor as that of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, London.

18. Queen Victoria’s Governess, the Duchess of Northumberland disapproved of the fashionable activities of drinking tea and reading the Times newspaper. Once the new queen had been crowned she straight away did both – and brought about tea time at Buckingham Palace.

19. In continental Europe tea drinkers generally have their tea without milk. This explains why they prefer lighter bodied teas such as China and green teas.

20. In 1968 loose leaf tea accounted for 97% of the UK tea market. By the 2010s it accounted for less than 10%. Perhaps you are one of these discerning tea drinkers!

For more on the history of tea see our page giving the Time-line for Tea.