Tag Archives: Chinese tea influence

Commemorating London’s Tea History

london-tea-history-men-in-front-of-plaque

Board members of The London Tea History Association, 22nd November 2016, at Commodity Quay, St. Katherine Dock, London.

Last November, I was invited by The London Tea History Association to the unveiling of their first  commemorative plaque on Commodity Quay, St. Katherine Docks.  to mark an important location in the history of the London tea trade.  The London Tea History Association was formed in 2014 with the purpose of marking important locations of the London tea trade  before they should disappear in the rapidly changing City landscape. The St. Katherine Dock warehouses  were completed in 1826, providing storage for many of the luxury commodities flooding into London such as tea, sugar, spices etc.

Imported by the East India Company, the China teas were offloaded further downstream at the East India Docks and then transported in wagons along the newly built Commercial Road to bonded near East India House, on the site of the present Lloyd’s building.  The tea was then sold in twice yearly auctions. Once purchased by London wholesalers and dealers, tea and other precious commodities would have been stored in warehouses such as those at Commodity Quay ready for distribution up and down the river and the rest of the UK.

The East offering its riches to Britannia, Roma Spiradone, 1778. This allegorical painting, now perceived as a typical eulogy of that era to British imperial domination, was commissioned by the East India Company for the Revenue Committee Room in the East India House in Leadenhall Street. Note the Chinese case of tea and porcelain jar in the right forefront of the painting.

During the 18th and early 19th Centuries,  the popularity of tea drinking owes much to its role  in the social arena of the domestic home. An excellent example of this can be found in Cranford, Elizabeth Gaitskell, 1853. Set around 1830, tea parties play a key role in the social interactions of the respectable ladies in this small country town and exemplify the codes of genteel behaviour employed in polite society. The description of Miss Betty Barker’s tea party in Chapter 7 is a joy.

By this time the drinking of tea had become a habit of the British.  I would suggest however it is not this tea that is regarded as “British or English tea” in the present day. We have the continued desire to make money and role of Empire to thank for that.

After the East India company lost its monopoly of the ‘East India trade’ in 1833, direct Chinese trade was open to all. Demand for tea in Great Britain continued to grow, proportionate to an increasing population, with an annual consumption per capita of 1lb/450gms around 1850. Trading relations with the Chinese, never easy, became increasingly difficult. Tea  plants (categorised as Camellia Sinensis, Sinensis meaning Chinese)  were brought out of China with reluctant teams of Chinese tea growers to grow in the areas of Assam and Darjeeling in northern India,  and under East India Company rule.  Those transplanted to the Darjeeling region were cultivated successfully, the topography being similar to the tea growing provinces in China. Darjeeling teas have their own distinctive muscatel character, and have become known as the Champagne of teas. Today you can expect to pay around £50 per ib/450g for a highly prized early-season picked darjeeling that is worthy of this title.

In Assam the cultivation of the imported tea plants was less successful. However a similar indigenous plant (Camellia Sinensis Var. Assamica)  was discovered growing wild and also put under cultivation. Indian teas started to appear in very small quantities on the London tea market in the 1830s, as much a novelty as anything else. In December 1838,  Queen Victoria recorded in her diary “ ….Talked of this Assam Tea which I had tasted and thought good; …..”.

Chart demonstrating the breakdown of teas imported from China, India and Ceylon from the mid 17th Century to the end of the 19th Century. Information taken from East India Company import ledger (Tsiology: A Discourse On Tea. Being An Account of that Exotic: etc, BY A TEA DEALER, 1824, The Making of theModern British Diet, Derek J Oddy and Derek S Miller, 1976

Chart demonstrating the breakdown of teas imported from China, India and Ceylon from the mid 17th Century to the end of the 19th Century. Information taken from Tsiology: A Discourse On Tea. Being An Account of that Exotic: etc, BY A TEA DEALER, 1824,  and The Making of the Modern British Diet, Derek J Oddy and Derek S Miller, 1976.

From 1865 to 1890 imports of Empire or “British” grown teas exploded onto the London tea market. By the end of the 19th century, annual consumption per capita increased to approx 6ib/ 3kg in the UK (4 cups per day). This demand was fulfilled by the teas put under cultivation in Assam, and other parts of mainland India and Ceylon. Despite the exhortations by William Corbett in his 1822 treatise Cottage Economy, decrying the evils of tea and applauding the benefits of home brewed ale, tea supplanted beer as the staple beverage of every British home, whether the grandest palace or the meanest hovel. In addition, the resiliant Assamica tea plants were robust enough to be planted for mass production in other countries under British rule such as present-day Kenya and Malawi. Each country lends its own regional character to the tea plant, however the general character is that of the Assam plant with its tannic aftertaste. These teas poured into London to be auctioned, purchased by the British companies and frequently repackaged for export.  A British tea was born.

Lipton's Tea; advertisement 1894

Lipton’s Tea; advertisement 1894

The 20th Century saw major upheavals throughout the world. Between the two wars, from 1926 to 1933, The Empire Marketing Board pursued a large scale aggressive advertisement campaign to increase consumer purchasing of Empire produced goods.  The messaging on the posters was tailored to men and women separately in order to support the old styled imagery connected to the Empire, often with men depicted as ‘Empire Builders’ and showing women buying empire products, especially food. The advertisements attempted to stir patriotic feelings amongst citizens of the Empire.

Empire Board Advertisement, borrowed from an excellent article about Empire Board Advertisements. Click on the picture to take you through to the blog.

Empire Board Advertisement, borrowed from an excellent article about Empire Board Advertisements. Click on the picture to take you through to the blog.

British colonial life is no more.  Ownership of the ‘British’ tea trade has been taken back by the countries in which tea is produced. Whilst there was a boom in demand for tea after the second world war, by the latter part of the 20th Century the tea broking industry no longer congregated on London as the main purchasing and trading point. Newer and more modern trading techniques have taken over. Glass and steel temples to mammon have been erected as the buildings that had stored and traded tea,  plus other ‘Colonial’ commodities, have been demolished or remodelled, frequently becoming luxury apartments overlooking the River Thames.

The London Tea History Association has identified at least three other suitable locations for further plaques: The Tea Building in Shoreditch that once housed the Liptons Tea Factory in the early 20th century, the newly built Plantation Place, located on the site of Plantation House where tea auctions took place from 1952 to 1971, and at Sir John Lyon House (on Upper Thames Street), heart of the London tea trade from 1971 to 2000.

If you would like to support the work of the London Tea History Association, you can do so here. I am sure  you will agree London’s tea history is worth preserving. Please do let me know of any places you think are worthy of consideration for a plaque.

Masterpiece London 2014 | Art, Antiques, Design – My Review

Masterpiece London

My lovely friend, Charlotte Howard, invited me to join her to see Masterpiece 2014, a rather amazing and professionally presented exhibition of Art, Antiques and Design that took place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It had that quiet opulence of soft beige carpets; our feet sank into it as we walked around.

There were some really stunning pieces on display and I felt a surge of thrilled excitement on seeing some fabulous chinoiserie pieces, just because it is so much in my mind with my newly devised History of Tea Tour at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (Find out more about the personalised tours here.)

I was really taken with some mirrors (or girandoles) and two delicate chinoiserie cabinets on thePagoda Girandoles Apter Fredericks stand and so enjoy seeing this influence from China – the mysterious and exotic country from which tea originated. It was not just tea that captured the imagination of the rich Europeans in the 17th and 18th century that resulted in this delicate liquor becoming Great Britain’s national drink. It was the overall sheer exoticism of items arriving from the land known as Cathay that really intrigued and stuck in our imagination.

Why should this be? I feel it is partly down to ‘less is more.’

During the 14th and 15th centuries, China had closed its borders to the barbarians of Europe with only a few travellers such as Marco Polo returning with information. No-one could check if these returning stories were true; so those about the great beauty and infinite luxuries of this far off land were greatly embellished and even fabricated. Perhaps this excerpt from Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, by Hugh Honour aptly describes it?

“Cathay is, or rather was, a continent of immeasurable extent lying just beyond the eastern confines of the known world. Of this mysterious and charming land, poets are the only historians and porcelain painters the most reliable topographers. They alone can give an adequate impression of the beauty of the landscape with its craggy snow-capped mountain ranges and its verdant plains sprinkled with cities of dreaming pagodas and intersected by meandering rivers whose limpid waters bear whole fleets of delicately wrought junks, all-a flutter with bedraggoned pennants and laden with precious cargoes of jade, porcelain, samite, silk, green ginger, and delicately scented teas.”

“Besides their banks the palm and weeping willow flourish amidst phoenix-tail bamboos and a proliferation of exotic flora. Giant flowers abound here: chrysanthemums which tower above the men who tend them, paeonies which dwarf the birds nesting in their branches, and convolvulus whose blossoms serve as hats, as parasols, and even, on occasion, as the roofs of huts. Indeed the natural landscape is so beautiful that when laying out their gardens, the cathaians could desire no more than to reproduce it on a miniature scale, with paths serpenting round hillocks of artificial rock-work, sinuous rills, and forests of tiny gnarled trees.”

“The fauna is no less extraordinary. Huge and fiery dragons lurk in every mountain cave; gaudy birds with rainbow-hued plumage swoop over the plains; butterflies the size of puffins hover round the pendant blooms of Wisteria sinensis; and diaphanous-tailed goldfish play amidst the water-lilies and chrysolite rocks of stream and pond.”

Can you imagine the excitement as more and more items flowed from this continent ‘lying just beyond the confines of the known world’?

Nothing previously known could compare with the exoticism of hand painted wallpapers, lacquered and gilded furniture, woven silks, carpets, chintzes, delicate porcelain and of course the highly prized tea.

In time many of these luxury goods were to be manufactured throughout Europe as our native Painted Jug Vasecraftsmen emulated the skills and styles of the Orient, creating the mythological and idealised vision of this remote culture. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which pieces were originally Chinese or European.

It gives me a little thrill each time I see any oblique references to tea drinking. From visiting a modern day art and antiques exhibition such as Masterpiece, walking past the stunning de Gournay showroom in Old Church Street, Chelsea and then burrowing around in the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, everywhere there are strands of information interwoven with tea.

I would love to welcome you on one of my personally guided “History of Tea Tours” of the V & A. This tour is perfect for those who want to explore the history of tea drinking from its origins in China and East India to the height of its popularity in Georgian Britain, where it touched the English interior and forever shaped British culture.

The Tour includes not only the guided tour hosted by myself, but also a donation to the museum; printed tour notes; and of course tea and cake when we finish. Prepare to share two and a half hours with me on this tour. Reserve a place for yourself at only £42 per person >> click here.