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Everyone likes a cup of tea


Tea has a calming influence and is associated with happy family life, yet this little leaf has been responsible for smuggling, tax fraud and even a revolution. But why?

As you will notice, this tea caddy has a lock on it and would have been guarded by the lady of the house because tea was so expensive.

Japanned Ware Tea Chest

A japanned-ware chest to hold tea. Notice the lock; tea has not always been as cheaply available as it is today.

Tea first came to England in 1664, sent by the East India Company who wanted a return cargo for their ships that traded in the East. China sold tea to the company, but would not allow them to buy directly from the tea-growers, and they were not allowed to travel inland. Tea remained expensive because the company had a monopoly on the trade which produced vast profits for them, and tea was taxed. Smugglers began to bring tea in illegally, and even respectable traders brought tea to England and legally exported it to Europe to claim back the tax, before smuggling it back to England. With smuggling out of control, the tax was slashed in 1784 and tea smuggling collapsed.

Old Lady Pouring Tea OP582

Old Lady Pouring Tea, 19th Century

The East India Company gained the right to sell tea to America, but the British government demanded a duty of 3d a pound. The Americans were furious, seeing this as a final straw in their fight against unjust British taxes-‘no taxation without representation’. In December 1773 a group of Boston townspeople, dressed as Native Americans, boarded a tea-ship in Boston harbour and tipped the tea overboard. This became known as the Boston Tea-Party, and eventually led to the American War of Independence. The East India Company later took tea plant cuttings from China to India, where the large plantations we know of today were begun. The first Assam tea was auctioned in England in 1838.

Today many people are concerned about where their tea (and other produce) comes from, as shown by the rising popularity of Fairtrade, but the next time you sip a warm cuppa, remember tea-time was once the cause of smuggling and rebellion!


John Brewer and John Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods
Boston Tea Party Historical Society, accessed 06//11/2009
UK Tea Council – East India Company, accessed 06/11/2009

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