Tea was originally served as a medicinal drink in Britain. The 17th-century Brits preferred coffee to tea. Photo by Acik | IST.



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August 2005
Updated January 2010

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Beverages

The History of Tea

Page 4: Tea & The Brits

This is Part 4 of an 8-page article. Click on the black links below to view the other pages.



Tea And The Brits

While tea was popular on the Continent, today’s most famous tea drinkers, the British, did not immediately embrace it. Coffee remained the hot drink of choice, enjoyed in coffee houses frequented by men.

Tea was introduced to Britain by the Dutch. In 1657, the first shop to sell tea in England opened, run by Thomas Garraway. He advertised it as a medicinal drink, capable of curing almost anything, and charged £6 to £10 for a pound. His coffee house was a center for mercantile transactions, and he sold tea both by the pound, and prepared tea.

  Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

First sold in apothecaries and a few coffeehouses, the acceptance of tea into British culture was relatively slow. Tea got an important boost when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, daughter of King John IV of Portugal (and for whom the borough of Queens in New York City is named). She practiced temperance; tea was her drink of choice, and it gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she replaced wine, ale and spirits with tea as the court drink.

In an attempt to please Charles II, the English East India Company brought small gifts of tea from the Continent for Catherine in 1664 and 1666. Other than these gifts, the English East India company did not consider tea to be worth importing from China until 1668, and it was not considered a serious trading commodity for at least another nine years. In 1669, all imports from Holland were prohibited, including tea, granting the English East India Company a monopoly over this commodity. Soon thereafter, the British East India Trade Company (also known as the John Company), which was competing with the Dutch for tea trade, established its first foothold in the East by securing a tea factory in Macao. Tea’s popularity was on the rise in London’s cafes and coffee houses.

Catherine of Braganza’s choice of tea was instrumental in the popularization of tea in Britain. Because tea was introduced primarily through male-frequented coffee houses, there would have been far less social acceptability for women to drink this beverage had it not been for her example. Catherine of Braganza’s use of tea as a court beverage, rather than a medicinal drink, influenced its popularity in literary circles around 1685. By 1686, tea was selling in markets, and the English East India Company considered it to be a part of their regular trade. It was no longer only a specialty item brought back by a ship’s captain for personal use.

Women were first introduced to tea on a wide scale when Lyon’s tea house opened. This provided a place for women, accompanied by a male escort, to go and visit with one another in an acceptable atmosphere. Women were also served tea in the London tea gardens of the early 1730s. Tea gardens were outdoor gardens with flowered walks and music for dancing. They opened in April or May and remained open until August or September, serving tea and other beverages. One had to pay to get in, and the working class was not admitted.


Continue To Page 5: The British East India Company & Tea Plantations In India

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