The Brutal History of the Great British Cuppa; Drug-Smuggling, Slavery, Even War - They've All Played Their Part in the Struggle to Satisfy Our 400-Year Craving for Tea. A New Radio 4 Show Gives a Potted History
Byline: Charlotte Kemp
There's at least one in most British households, even if it's rarely used. The humble teapot has a fascinating story to tell about our country's complex past. Did you know that the early tea trade was bankrolled by drug trafficking and sparked wars? Or that afternoon tea and high tea began as two distinct traditions that polarised the class divide in Britain? This week, the fascinating Radio 4 series, A History Of The World In 100 Objects, tells the story behind an earthenware tea set - produced in the 1840s at Wedgwood's Etruria factory in Stoke-on-Trent - and, in so doing, lifts the lid on a tale of high politics, greed, social engineering and an empire built on tea leaves. Tea first arrived here in the early 1600s, and it was so expensive it was served in tiny cups. Then, along came a tea-loving royal, Charles II's queen-consort Catherine of Braganza, who made it the fashionable drink of the wealthy classes. It remained a luxury until the end of the 18th century - hardly surprising given that a pound of tea would have cost a British labourer the equivalent of nine months' wages.
The ritual of afternoon tea was a Victorian invention and is credited to the Duchess of Bedford.
Finding she was in need of an afternoon pick-me-up between luncheon and dinner, the Duchess took to enjoying a cake or crustless sandwich with her afternoon cup of Darjeeling. Soon, it was de rigueur for society hostesses to serve tea at 4pm, and before long every fashionable household boasted a china tea set as cheaper versions spread through society.
While the upper echelons enjoyed their tea in genteel surroundings, the drink started to be promoted among the urban population as an alternative to alcohol. By the 19th century, beer, port and gin had become central to the diet of men, women and even children, since alcohol - with its mild antiseptic properties - was much safer to drink than unpurified city water, and alcohol consumption had become a real social problem. So religious leaders and temperance movements joined together to proclaim the merits of tea as an alternative, promoting it as 'cheap, refreshing and tasting good'.
At the same time, tea became a symbol of the re-branded British character - polite and respectable, with none of the old rowdy conviviality.
And along with this came a distinctly working-class, tea-drinking ritual - the high tea - served at the dinner or 'high' table. This was a hearty meal dished up at 6pm after a hard day's work. There on the table would be a feast of bread and butter, cheese, meat, fish or eggs and cake. All washed down with a mug of tea. …