Tag Archives: Indian tea

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.

The Bodum Assam Tea Press

Bodum Tea Press

A few years ago, when I was a mature student studying for my B A Illustration Degree, I wrote the following essay in 2011. Our brief was to describe a designed object in a museum collection. I chose the Bodum Assam Tea Press and I feel many of the observations still stand. I would really appreciate any comments and comparisons you may have about tea brewing implements of the past and present day.

fig-2The Bodum Assam Tea Press (fig.1) is located in the ‘Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999’ cabinet (fig. 2), Gallery 5 at the Science Museum. I find it is interesting that a teapot, which has a history going back well over a thousand years, is displayed as an innovative product of the final years of the 20th century in a museum of Science.

Is it regarded as an innovative product because of how it looks? Also, although displayed in a cabinet featuring products made in the past 25 years, does it maintain a respect for the rituals and traditions of our British tea drinking culture? And, is it an effective functional object that is relevant to life today?

fig-3The physical structure of the Tea Press
The outer body of the Bodum Assam Tea Press retains the familiar fat-belly shape of a traditional tea pot (fig 3) that has long since been regarded as essential for allowing space for the leaves to brew.

It is madfig-4e of borosilicate glass, a thermal shock resistant glass consisting of silica, alumina, calcium sodium oxide and boric oxide, which was invented primarily for industrial use. In addition to the glass pot there is a removable central plastic column punctured with holes except for the bottom three centimetres, and a vacuum plunger (fig 4). When this is depressed, the contents of the sealed-off base section of central column become isolated from the liquid in the pot. It was designed Carsten Jorgensen for Bodum, the Swiss glass manufacturing company.

fig-5Because it is made of glass, the Bodum Assam Tea Press “has its own inherent ‘decoration’ – the beautiful colour of the tea seen through the glass”(a). The audience can participate in the thrill of watching the dry leaves unfurl and the colour of the liquor intensifying as it brews (fig 5).

How its design was influenced by earlier makers
It is worth noting the similarity and influence of the teapot (fig. 6), designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in fig-61932 for Jenaer Glaswork Schott and Gen, a revival of which was also marketed by Bodum in the early 1990s. Likewise it can be seen that Jorgensen’s Teaball teapot (fig. 7), described as being of ‘beautiful simplicity and excellent materials for everyday life’(b), is highly evocative of Marianne Brandt’s silver tea infuser (fig 8). fig-7Both endorse the influence of Modernism on Jorgensen’s work.  In addition, the clean, almost perfect spherical tea pot shape with the pared back spout reflect ‘the smooth surfaces and pfig-8recise geometric shapes associated with the International Style that continued to surface in new examples of aesthetic purity in design’(c) of the late twentieth century.

The beauty and ceremony of the Bodum Tea Press
Being made of glass, The Bodum Assam Tea Press fulfils our fascination with the visual aspects of tea brewing whilst the ‘engineered’ look of the central perforated brewing chamber intimates a forthcoming sense of theatre and the ceremony of brewing tea.

Picture 643

This sense of ceremony was highly important when tea was first arrived in Europe and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was a highly expensive and sought-after luxury enjoyed only by the fashionable rich elite strata of society. You can still see contemporary portraits (fig 9, right) of families drinking tea.

These paintings were an important indicator of status and high fashion. The expensive tea paraphernalia: tea pot, sugar bowl, kettle, slop bowl, and delicate tiny tea cups, often made of silver, delicate porcelain and later bone china, were equally important for the sense of occasion, the tea often only being drunk perhaps once or twice a week.

fig-10-11-in-one-image-for-blog-postSocial status or intellectual prowess?
Today the emphasis of the ceremony has shifted from the social status of the hostess pouring the tea, to the intellectual status of the teapot owner. His ownership signifies his superior knowledge of high quality (and no doubt expensive) tea leaves. The contents of the pot are on display, indicating a high quality leaf and quite unlike the opaque bag containing an unknown, invisible tea dust (figs 10 & 11) that is consumed by more than 90% of the UK’s black tea drinking population.

We then come to the functionality…
The Bodum Assam Tea Press’s most prominent feature is the central filter system. In a comparison about tea pots, Robin Harrison, the then chairman of the Tea Brokers’ Association and director of Thompson, Lloyd & Ewart tea brokers, said: “The ability to isolate the tea leaves from the liquor easily was a serious advantage over the others (teapots). It prevented the tea stewing”(d).

Another benefit of this teapot is its lightness and its strength, both features being due to being made of glass. With its 1.5 litre capacity it is possible to make a large quantity of tea that can sit until required without stewing. The full pot can also be lifted with ease using one hand by the person pouring the tea. With the transition of the twentieth century we no longer embrace the ‘Victorian values of display’ and when ‘the availability of cheap servants enabled formal rituals of eating and organised leisure to develop in the home’(e). The pot is designed to hold a high volume of tea thus eliminating the need to go back and forth to the kettle to make a new brew.

The one area of functionality that Jorgensen did not improve in terms of efficiency was the cleaning after use. We no longer have the cheap servants and ‘someone’ has to empty the leaves out of the narrow chamber, a fiddly exercise that uses copious amounts of water to rinse them out and clog up the sink drain because , after use the leaves are no longer controlled, the brewing function being over. I find this too onerous for everyday use. Perhaps here we have a case of style over function.

In conclusion, Jorgensen has created a product that has strong visual intrigue and also respects the importance of brewing techniques. I feel it has been designed by a man for men and certainly to this end you can find it in John Lewis and Selfridges department stores costing between thirty to fifty pounds (depending on the materials used for the internal filter column). It is one of those household products that are ‘not only functional but pieces of sculpture – true objects of desire’(f). It will probably sit alongside a Philippe Stark orange squeezer and Nespresso coffee maker.

Sadly I fear the desire of a cup of delicious tea is limited. Society is now driven by the need for instant gratification, which a tea bag provides; instant colour in the cup and the flavour is almost irrelevant. The art of making good tea is being forgotten and is no reflection on the Bodum Assam Tea Press. It is down to our inability to wait for a mere four minutes to create the perfect brew.

Do you have any questions about the Bodum Assam Tea Press or anything else around the use of tea pots today? Perhaps you have other questions that relate to English tea drinking culture, both past and present? Please let me know. Every question sets me off on another quest!

_____________

Bibliography:

Picture descriptions:
Fig. 1. Bodum Assam Tea Press, courtesy of the Science Museum Picture Library, London.

Fig. 2. Bodum Assam Tea Press in the cabinet entitled Making the modern World 1990 – 1999, Gallery 5, Science Museum, London.
Fig. 3. Brown Betty teapot.
Fig. 4. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Picture courtesy of the Science Museum.
Fig. 5. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Filled with tea to illustrate the colour change as it brews.
Fig. 6. Image of tea pot manufactured by Jenaer Glaswerke Schott & Gen, 1932. Designer: Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Materials: Borosilicate Glass.
Fig. 7. Assam Teaball tea pot by Bodum 1998. Stainless steel, Bronze and Plastic. 1.5 litre capacity tea pot for use with loose tea leaves, made in Germany, designed by Carsten Jorgensen. Image from Power House Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
Fig. 8. Silver and Ebony tea infuser. Designer Marianne Brandt, 1924. British Museum London. Twentieth Century Gallery.
Fig. 9. The Tea Party, early 18th century. This painting attributed to Richard Collins, hangs in the Goldsmiths’ Hall, London.
Fig 10. Dry tea leaves: Loose leaf early season darjeeling leaves on the left. Contents of darjeeling teabag on right.
Fig. 11. Wet tea leaves after brewing: Loose leaf early season darjeeling on the left, the leaf is clear to see having now unfurled. On the right we have the brewed teabag leaves, difficult to identify as being tea leaves.

Primary Sources:
– Science Museum, London. Ground Floor, Gallery 5, cabinet entitled “Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999”

– John Lewis Department Store.
– British Museum.

Secondary Sources and footnotes:
(a) Heath, Adrian, Heath, Ditte, Lund Jensen, Aage, 300 Years of Industrial Design, Function, Form, Technique 1700 – 2000, Herbert Press, London 2000. p261.
(b) Production notes, Teaball teapot, Powerhouse Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
(c) Raizman, David, History of Modern Design, Laurence King, London 2003. Design in Context: An Act of Balance p364.
(d) Metzstein,Ruth, One for the Pot, How do new types of teapot compare with the round-bellied pot our grandmothers used? Our panel finds out. Independent on Sunday, 3rd September 1995.
(e) & (f) McDermott, Catherine, Twentieth Century Design, Design Museum, Carlton, London 1997.

The British Tea Time – A Tradition of Manners, Etiquette and “Polite” Society

Caroline Hope's Tea TimeThere is a strong worldwide perception that tea is an English drink. According to the UK Tea Council – as a nation we drink approximately 165 million cups of tea every day, coming in just behind the Irish Republic. Why has tea become so embedded in British culture when it is really an oriental drink? Have we got so used to it being part of our lives here that we no longer ‘see’ tea for what it is – the growing camellia sinensis plant that has well over a 1,000 different varieties around the world. (Sinensis really means ‘of China or of Chinese origin)

Over 96 % of tea consumed in the UK is sold in tea bags. Supermarket shelves are packed with assorted tea bag brands. The terms to describe them include ‘lively’ and ‘calming’, and our expectation is that they will taste the same every single time we drink them. And yet the flavour and characteristics of origin teas (teas that come from a particular area, eg Assam) are influenced by the soil in which they are grown, the height above sea level and the climatic conditions, very much in the same way as wine. Once you have tried a delicate first or second flush Darjeeling your palate will be longing for more.

Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a resurgence of interest in high quality origin and blended teas. At the same time going out for tea as a special occasion has become increasingly fashionable. Even now both tea drinking and the meal taken in the afternoon, have a whisper of formal manners and good behaviour that has passed down the generations.

In the 18th century tea drinking was a way to demonstrate ‘genteelness’ within the growing urban ‘middling’ classes, whose new wealth was derived from the industrial revolution that changed the face of Great Britain. Your skills in serving and taking tea showed that you knew how to behave in polite society, whilst the quality of your tea paraphernalia demonstrated your wealth. Think of all those family portraits in art galleries of a family drinking tea – an immediate indicator of how fashionable and rich they were.

Make sure when you next go out to tea you have your photograph taken as you preside over a tea table piled high with delicate food and a delicious cup of tea – tell the world you know and participate in  the magic of the English style tea party!

I am running an “Introduction to Popular English Teas” course through CityLit this year. If you would like to find out more have a look at their website, or drop me an email on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk. The CityLIt website will be able to let you know if there is still availability.