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Fortnum & Mason - Piccadilly since 1707

Fortnum & Mason - Piccadilly since 1707

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  • A Short History of Tea at Fortnum's

As one of Britain’s foremost tea merchants, it is not surprising that Fortnum’s own story and the history of tea in Britain are closely entwined.

The story of tea is said to have begun in China in 2737BC, when some leaves from a tea bush blew into a pot of hot water being boiled for the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. The emperor was a scholar and a herbalist and decided to try the brew – and so, according to the legend, tea was born. There are other stories that claim to explain the origins of tea – but as we cannot know for sure, this seems a plausible place to start.

While we think of tea as a very British drink, it was popular for thousands of years before it reached Europe. Revered by the Chinese for its health-giving properties, it became China’s favourite drink, as its function moved from merely medicinal to pleasurable. In the Song dynasty (AD960-1279), the tea-house became an essential part of the social life, as it did much later across Europe, where people gathered to talk, play games, do business – and drink tea.

While we think of tea as a very British drink, it was popular for thousands of years before it reached Europe.

By the 8th century AD, the Chinese were trading their tea across the world, from Tibet to the Silk Road, which stretched from India to Macedonia. It was the difficulties of export that gave rise to the black tea that is more commonly enjoyed in Europe and the West. The delicate green teas tended to deteriorate on the long journeys across the ocean, so the Chinese learned to process the leaves by drying them until they were more robust – and the black tea that resulted was eagerly adopted across the West.

Coming to England

It was the Dutch who first brought tea to Europe and then to England. They established a trading post on Java, and had shipped a consignment of tea from China to Amsterdam as early as 1606. It quickly became popular there, and its popularity spread across the continent and eventually to England. It is not known exactly when the first cup of tea was drunk here, but Thomas Garraway was offering it for sale at his store in the City of London in 1657 and Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diary in September 1660, noting that he had never drunk it before. Various other sources suggest that it had reached England before this time, but was so expensive that it was traded only in small quantities to the very wealthy. Despite the cost, its popularity was assured when in 1662 Catherine of Braganza arrived from her native Portugal to marry King Charles II, bringing with her a casket of her much-loved tea. What was popular at court tended to catch on, and the drinking of tea began to spread through the upper levels of society.

Tea at Fortnum’s

While we can’t be sure when the first pound of tea was sold by Messrs Fortnum & Mason, we do know that on 20 March 1720, the East India Company delivered 301 lbs of Bohea tea (a term used to describe black tea) at 15 shillings a pound to Fortnum’s, which for a small shop, as it then was, was quite a lot of tea. Tea attracted very high taxes, which encouraged a thriving black market – for some time, it was thought that more tea entered England illegally than legally. Poor quality tea was padded out with all kinds of things from dried plants and flour, and was adulterated in many ways, often with poisonous substances such as lead. Since setting up shop in 1707, Fortnum’s had established a good reputation, enough to reassure customers that it sold pure, legal and unadulterated tea and it became an important purveyor of tea to the wealthy and well-to-do.

Tea for the masses

In 1701, nearly 67,000 lbs of tea was consumed in England; by 1784, the British were drinking around 5m lbs a year, much of it smuggled because of the high taxes, which in 1784 stood at 119%. In this same year, the tax was finally cut to 12%, mostly to beat the smugglers, and the difference in price meant that many more people could afford to drink legally traded tea, and consumption shot up to 11m lbs in the year that followed. This was good news for tea dealers such as Fortnum’s and their chief competitors, Jacksons of Piccadilly and Garroways; but it was good for the nation, too, as tea came to replace ale at breakfast and gin at all other times of day, with predictable effects on health and productivity.

Like coffee before it, tea became the catalyst for a new set of social customs. Following the popularity of the coffeehouse as a place for men to meet, drink coffee and do business, open-air tea gardens sprang up around London in the mid 1700s, and elegant ladies and gentlemen would stroll around the beautifully designed gardens and partake of a pot of tea, while enjoying some musical entertainment.

A proper afternoon tea

Sometime in the late 1830s, formal afternoon tea became very popular, partly to fill the gap between lunch and dinner, the times of which seemed to change constantly, depending on the fashion of the time. Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford is said to have been one of the first to make afternoon tea a social occasion. The taking of tea became part of a formal dinner, too: after the meal, the party would move to another room, orangery or even a folly or temple in the gardens in order to drink tea and continue their conversation.


The rise of Indian tea

In the early 19th century, tea buyers began to search for a new source of tea, as relations with China were deteriorating. Fortunately, a new variety of tea bush was found to be growing in northern India, and a small number of tea plantations were established there by the British East India Company. The first import of this new Assam tea arrived just before Britain declared war on China in 1839, which put an end to all exports until the Opium Wars came to an end in 1860. India’s tea industry developed rapidly, and Fortnum’s benefited greatly from this supply of new tea. In the 1870s, Ceylon began to grow very good-quality tea – previously a coffee-growing country – and its tea joined China and Indian teas on Fortnum’s shelves. The popularity of China teas declined, and it gradually came to be thought of as a specialist tea, while India and Ceylon teas were more everyday.

The 19th century also brought with it the clipper ships – the faster way to import one’s tea. Exports of tea from China had been taking at least a year to reach England, but in 1845, the Americans unveiled the clipper ship, a sleek vessel that could sail to China in eight months. The British were quick to catch on, and by the 1860s, clipper ships were covering the distance from China to England in around three or four months. Ships raced across the oceans to be the first to deliver their cargo – the first to arrive won a prize, and could command a higher price for their cargo. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the journey time even further.

The most popular of drinks

Tea-drinking in Britain went from strength to strength; consumption grew from 23.7m lbs in 1801 to more than ten times that amount by 1901. By the 1860s Fortnum’s alone was importing more than 1000lbs of tea every week. The growth of the temperance movement played some part in this, as tea was the perfect alternative to strong liquor; and so did the opening of public tea rooms in the late 19th century, starting in Glasgow and quickly spreading to London and other large towns and cities. Tea rooms and tea shops quickly became a popular place for people to meet, drink and talk and, unusually, were considered a respectable place for women to meet without a chaperone. Many luxury hotels served tea in grand surroundings, sometimes accompanied by music, an event that developed into the enormously popular tea dances that were widespread until WWII. But mostly the rapid growth was because, almost as one, the British had embraced tea as their favourite drink, which seemed to include everyone from the monarch down to the humblest of workers.

Tea rooms and tea shops quickly became a popular place for people to meet, drink and talk and, unusually, were considered a respectable place for women to meet without a chaperone.

Tea became a defining element of Britain, its national drink and an essential part of everyday life. Those who left their home country couldn’t do without it, and Fortnum’s found itself sending consignments of tea across the world to expats scattered throughout the Empire; and it was often called upon to supply provisions for explorers and climbers – including the Everest expedition in 1924 – as well as plant collectors and other intrepid travellers.

Tea and rationing

The First World War changed many things in England, but our love of tea remained. Fortnum’s was kept busy sending parcels of much-needed tea and other luxuries and essentials to officers abroad. When the Second World War began, Fortnum’s once again supplied hampers and groceries to officers overseas, and withstood the Blitz with only minor bomb damage in 1941. Tea was considered so important to public morale, that the government rationed it carefully to make sure it would last. The British were allowed only 2oz a week per person, which made barely two cups a day, so tea was carefully hoarded, kept warm in flasks to take down to the bomb shelter, and even reheated rather than be thrown away.

Tea was considered so important to public morale in WWII, that the government rationed it carefully to make sure it would last.

Tea was rationed until 1952 – in fact, the restrictions were lifted just in time for Elizabeth II’s coronation the following year, which meant that it could be properly celebrated with a very British cup of tea. The tea bag revolution The tea bag arrived in force in the 1950s, having been invented in the USA by Thomas Sullivan just after the turn of the century. Sullivan sent samples of tea to his customers in small silk bags, and some customers dunked the whole thing in the teapot or cup, inadvertently inventing the teabag. It didn’t catch on in Britain for some time, but after the war, the enthusiasm for labour-saving devices and new things in general meant that it quickly became popular. It is an astonishing success story – today, around 97 per cent of tea drunk in Britain is made with teabags; in the 1960s, it was around 4 per cent.

The restrictions of WWII and the rise of the coffee bar and of fast food outlets in the 60s and 70s took the spotlight off tea for a while. But a growing interest in good food and its provenance throughout the 90s and noughties, as well as a massive expansion in overseas travel, has meant that tea is enjoying a resurgence, as Britain’s tea drinkers experiment with green, rooibush, jasmine, chai and many other unfamiliar teas. The internet means that anyone can order almost any kind of tea, from all over the world; and Fortnum’s is joining the party, with an extensive and ever-changing online range of teas in loose leaf and teabag form. For if we have learned anything about tea over the last 300 years, we have learned that the insatiable British appetite for tea must be fed – and preferably with the finest of teas.

To experience the full range of Fortnum's teas, please browse through the Tea section of our website, or visit the Tea Counter at our Piccadilly store, where our tea experts will be happy to guide you through our huge range and help you to find the perfect tea for your needs.