Tea House Theatre

Winner of Time Out Love London Awards 2014

We are based in an old Victorian public house that opened in 1886 on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens; immortalised as the ‘Vanity Fair’ in Thackeray’s eponymous novel.

We serve some of the best loose leaf teas available, proper sandwiches and homemade cakes; not to mention the best full English breakfast in London. Our teas have individual subtle flavours which would be overpowered by the instant, coarse, hit of coffee, so we do not sell it.

We make our own marmalade and jams, all for sale by the jar and all our teas can be bought by the ounce. Our meat comes from our local butcher and our fruit and vegetables from the local market gardens around us.

We are trying to be different. We will not hurry you. If you visit us on your lunch break, then have one, you will be more productive in the afternoon. If you want to have a meeting, we will not disturb you. If you are ‘working from home’, we have wifi. If you have children, we have highchairs, a chest of toys, and milkshakes. We always have the daily papers, so please, relax, and share in what we are trying to create, take a load off, and have a cuppa.

Save the Vauxhall Dragon!

You may have noticed a new beastie lurking in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.  This magnificent piece of public art is being carved by the artist Morganico, whose previous work includes the Imperial War Museum. It is being carved from the large log that was dumped on the Pleasure Gardens around two years ago. As part of the St George’s Festival it has been worked into a beautiful and fearsome dragon. The final touches are being carved at the moment and we hope that it will be an attractive feature of the Pleasure Gardens for many years to come.  This is where we run into difficulty.  Lambeth Parks, under the guidance of Parks and Development office Theresa Hoare have only given the work a temporary residency until the end of the month. We at Vauxhall Trust, the Friends of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and many people in the local community who we have discussed this with, would love the dragon to become a permanent piece of public art on the Gardens and so we must ask you to help bring this about. Councillor David Amos, one of our wonderful ward councillors was a fantastic host and judge of the dog show on Sunday at St George’s. We have contacted him and his fellow ward councillors for Princes Ward.  We hope that our elected representatives will be able to speak to Parks, on behalf of the people, to ensure that this artwork remains a permanent feature. Evidence of the support of the local, voting, population would, we are sure, aid this process.  So please e-mail DAmos@lambeth.gov.uk with the subject line Save the Vauxhall Dragon or sign our petition here and express your support. We hope you enjoyed St George’s and thank you so much for all your help and support. Harry and Freddie

You may have noticed a new beastie lurking in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.  This magnificent piece of public art is being carved by the artist Morganico, whose previous work includes the Imperial War Museum. It is being carved from the large log that was dumped on the Pleasure Gardens around two years ago. As part of the St George’s Festival it has been worked into a beautiful and fearsome dragon. The final touches are being carved at the moment and we hope that it will be an attractive feature of the Pleasure Gardens for many years to come. 

This is where we run into difficulty.  Lambeth Parks, under the guidance of Parks and Development office Theresa Hoare have only given the work a temporary residency until the end of the month. We at Vauxhall Trust, the Friends of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and many people in the local community who we have discussed this with, would love the dragon to become a permanent piece of public art on the Gardens and so we must ask you to help bring this about.

Councillor David Amos, one of our wonderful ward councillors was a fantastic host and judge of the dog show on Sunday at St George’s. We have contacted him and his fellow ward councillors for Princes Ward.  We hope that our elected representatives will be able to speak to Parks, on behalf of the people, to ensure that this artwork remains a permanent feature. Evidence of the support of the local, voting, population would, we are sure, aid this process.  So please e-mail DAmos@lambeth.gov.uk with the subject line Save the Vauxhall Dragon or sign our petition here and express your support.

We hope you enjoyed St George’s and thank you so much for all your help and support.

Harry and Freddie

Fire Festival 2016 Cancellation Statement

We are deeply saddened to announce that the Fire Festival Vauxhall will no longer be taking place this year. We have been ever so lucky with our funding over the last 3 years. Unfortunately, choices have to be made by Arts Council England and we were unlucky this time.

We are terribly sorry for any inconvenience and disappointment this might cause.

Looking to the future, we would like to put together the ‘Friends of the Vauxhall Trust CIC’ who would be able to help us build a fund for our festivals, so we can plan more strategically and hopefully avoid having to cancel any more in our 10 year plan. If you would like to be involved, please contact us on info@vauxhalltrust.org.

We are very much looking forward to the St George’s Festival, which will be taking place on 22nd and 23rd April next year.

Interview with Resident Poet Alain English

               Alain English, Resident Poet

               Alain English, Resident Poet

We at the Tea House Theatre are incredibly lucky to have Alain English as our Resident Poet. He has been hosting his series 'Paper Tiger Poetry' for the past three years, and it takes place the third Friday of every month at the Tea House. He also performs in numerous events... well, maybe I'll just let him speak for himself.

I sent Alain a few questions, and he was kind enough to humour me by answering them as requested.

You'll see.  


 1) Please  tell us your life story in the form of a limerick.

An actor called Alain liked writing
In between the times when he was acting
He had a great time
Using metre and rhyme
For the words and ideas kept on coming

2) What inspired you to join forces with the Tea House?

It was back in the summer of 2011.  Harry Iggulden (the Tea House director) directed me in a workshop production of "Henry V", for the Lambeth County Fair in South London.  At this point the Tea House had not even opened yet and we rehearsed across the road for our production, using costumes on loan from the National Theatre.

I remember having an almost rapport with Harry upon meeting him and a couple of months after the show, I dropped by the Tea House Theatre just to catch up with him.  I looked round at the place with its location and its ambience and I thought 'this would be a great place for a poetry night'.  Harry agreed with me and that afternoon we worked out the details - he would provide the venue, I would provide the poets.  After some brainstorming we came up with the name 'Paper Tiger Poetry'.  The night has been running for over three years ever since.

I will usually open up the night with a poem of my own or someone else's and then we proceed.  The night is a mix of featured performers, who may be established or up-and-coming on the poetry circuit, and open-mic.  In our open-mic, anyone can come up to the stage and they have five minutes to do whatever poems they like.  Competition is not important here so much as freedom of expression.  Our featured poets in the past include Anthony Anaxagorous, Kat Francois, and Paul Lyalls.

As well as running Paper Tiger Poetry, I also take part in other events at the Tea House Theatre.  I have been doing their Burns and Shakespeare Suppers for a couple of years now, as well as contributing to the Fire Festival and St George's Festival.  Most recently, Harry and myself have been taking part in Holdfast Theatre's series of Staged Readings, where we have done (so far) 'Beowulf' and Dante's 'Divine Comedy'.

3) How would you describe your poetic style?

I have been writing and performing poetry in London for nearly eight years now, and a lot of what I do is influenced by the spoken word scene around me.  I tend to write about Asperger's Syndrome and mental health, and also other topics such as politics, science fiction and snooker.

Performance-wise, I have a theatre background and a pretty well-developed voice so I tend to go without a microphone and move around the stage, performing many of my pieces from memory.  Here is a sample (VIDEO).

4)  Is the pen mightier than the sword? Why?

Yes, the pen is mightier.  The sword can only kill, whereas the pen can communicate, inspire, educate and connect with other people.  The pen can do so much more.  That is why it is mightier.
5) Tell us about your upcoming projects in acrostic form.



Open-mic -

Sonnets, poetry and plays
Happening in April days
All attend our gracious author
Knight of literature and theatre
Entertainment and debating
Singing, dancing, celebrating
Playing all throughout the week
Engaging work that makes you think
Acting out the famous speeches
Reading through the soulful sonnets
Everyone come down and join us!

Flock to see our knights do battle
Exhale in wonder at their mettle
St George will surely win the day
Tea and cakes served every day
Inside the lovely Tea House Theatre
Vauxhall's hub of lore and culture
Accessible to everyone
Link up with us and join the fun!

6) Please tell us your life's motto in haiku form.

Respecting myself
And mindful among others
Living peacefully

Follow Alain English on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website. Come to the Shakespeare Festival 2015 to see more of his work!

London's Daily Secret: Secret #433

Many thanks to London's Daily Secret for this lovely mention that scored us several Valentine's Day bookings. Sign up for their mailing list to receive recommendations of special places to visit across London. 

"The perfect cuppa. Surely a myth, right? Summon the guts to find out: Just go to the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall. Built on the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (which were immortalised in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair), this Victorian public house dating to 1886 boasts some of the best loose-leaf teas you'll find on your quest. Pair your tea with a freshly made sandwich or homemade cake or conserve — or try the self-styled 'best full English breakfast in London'. You might also catch a live act, whether a theatrical performance, jazz concert or reading. It's as close to perfect as we've experienced."

"The Tea House Theatre wins my heart"

"Big breakfasts, fine teas, cakes, board games, friends and a cosy fire – is this London? Since moving back down to London from Cambridge a couple of years ago I’ve missed the small-town, countryside feel. I wonder if this is why my trips to the Tea House Theatre for tea, breakfast or theatre have become a bit of a ritual. In fact, there has seldom been a week in the past couple of months (apart from when I was abroad for two months) when I have not made my regular pilgrimage to this very special venture in the centre of Vauxhall’s Pleasure Gardens" - Eggs Benedict in London

Read the full review here

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2015! We have a number of exciting events this month of January, starting with Debating London and Paper Tiger Poetry next week. Please visit our What's On page for full details. 

As always, we invite you to come for a cuppa during the day and enjoy our beautiful cakes and British fare. Come for a business meeting, a day out with your family, or a peaceful afternoon to yourself. We look forward to seeing you. 

The Humble Tea Bag

Tea Infusers and origins of the Tea Bag

The arrival of tea in Britain in the seventeenth century altered the drinking habits of this nation forever. The late eighteenth century saw black tea overtake green tea in popularity for the first time, which also accelerated the addition of milk. In the nineteenth century widespread cultivation of tea in India began, leading to the imports of Indian tea into Britain overtaking the imports of Chinese tea. And in the twentieth century there was a further development that would radically change our tea-drinking habits - the invention of the tea bag.

The purpose of the tea bag is rooted in the belief that for tea to taste its best, the leaves ought to removed from the hot water at the end of a specific brewing period. Then there is the added benefit of convenience - a removable device means that tea can be made as easily in a mug as in a pot, without the need for a tea strainer, and that tea pots can be kept clean more easily. But the earliest examples of removable infusing devices for holding tea were not bags. Popular infusers included tea eggs and tea balls - perforated metal containers which were filled with loose leaves and immersed in boiling water, and then removed using an attached chain.

Thomas Sullivan and an accidental American invention

Needless to say, it was in America, with its love of labour-saving devices, that tea bags were first developed. In around 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, started to send samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Some assumed that these were supposed to be used in the same way as the metal infusers, by putting the entire bag into the pot, rather than emptying out the contents. It was thus by accident that the tea bag was born!

Responding to the comments from his customers that the mesh on the silk was too fine, Sullivan developed sachets made of gauze - the first purpose-made tea bags. During the 1920s these were developed for commercial production, and the bags grew in popularity in the USA. Made first of all from gauze and later from paper, they came in two sizes, a larger bag for the pot, a smaller one for the cup. The features that we still recognise today were already in place - a string that hung over the side so the bag could be removed easily, with a decorated tag on the end.

Use of Tea Bags in the UK

While the American population took to tea bags with enthusiasm, the British were naturally wary of such a radical change in their tea-making methods. This was not helped by horror stories told by Britons who had visited the USA, who reported being served cups of tepid water with a tea bag on the side waiting to be dunked into it (an experience which is still not as uncommon in the USA as it should be!).

The material shortages of World War Two also stalled the mass adoption of tea bags in Britain, and it was not until the 1950s that they really took off. The 1950s were a time when all manner of household gadgets were being promoted as eliminating tedious household chores, and in keeping with this tea bags gained popularity on the grounds that they removed the need to empty out the used tea leaves from the tea pot. The convenience factor was more important to the British tea-drinker than the desire to control the length of infusion time, hence the appearance of tea bags that did not have strings attached.

It was Tetley in 1953 that drove the introduction of tea bags in Britain, but other companies soon caught up. In the early 1960s, tea bags made up less than 3 per cent of the British market, but this has been growing steadily ever since. By 2007 tea bags made up a phenomenal 96 per cent of the British market, and there can hardly be a home or workplace in Britain that does not have a stash of the humble, but vital, tea bag.


Smuggling Tea

By the eighteenth century, tea was a hugely popular drink in Britain, but, to the ordinary consumer, it was also hugely expensive. The monopoly on imports held by the merchants of the East India Company meant that tea prices were kept artificially high to protect profits, and on top of this government imposed a high level of duty. This created a demand among the British population for cheaper tea, and when that demand could not be met by legal means, a great opportunity was presented to those people who were less than concerned about breaking the law.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the trade in smuggled tea began to flourish. This was tea that was brought in illegally - it was not imported by the East India Company, and it did not pass through customs. Being light and easy to transport, tea was a very  smuggling commodity - even more so than gin and brandy, in which there was also a healthy smuggling trade.

Everybody knew that high taxation encouraged smuggling, and the quantity of tea being smuggled was directly linked to the level of duty levied on legal tea imports. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the government´s need to finance a war in Spain led to an increase in taxation on tea, and the price of leaves rose to 5s per lb in 1711. This was exorbitant, and provided a great impetus to the activities of the tea smugglers. Duty was slashed by Henry Pelham in 1745. This meant that more tea was brought in legally - the quantity passing through customs more than doubled - and the increase of tea imports on which duty was paid actually led to the government´s revenues from tea being increased. But in the 1750s the need to finance another war led to the duty on tea being raised again. This in turn led to a surge in the business of the smugglers, which continued to flourish throughout the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

Though illegal, the smugglers had the support of millions of people who could not otherwise afford to buy tea. In fact, the East India Company had unwittingly facilitated smuggling by allowing officers on their ships to have a certain amount of space on the ship for their private trade. Many of these officers had seized the opportunity to make a substantial profit by taking tea back and selling it on to smugglers who met their ships offshore. Much tea was smuggled in from continental Europe, shipped into Britain via the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Although smuggling was widespread, in the first decades of the eighteenth century many of the smugglers themselves operated on a very small scale. They used small boats - even rowing boats - to bring tea in, rarely carrying more than 60 chests at a time, and frequently a great deal fewer. The tea was then sold on to personal contacts and local shopkeepers.

As time went on some smuggling operations became larger scale and more sophisticated - and more ruthless. This was in part due to the peaceable conditions in Europe from the mid-1760s, which encouraged more European trade with China, which in turn meant more tea imported to the continent that could then be smuggled to Britain. Scottish excise officers called this the 'new mode´ of smuggling: gangs crewed large, heavily armed ships, which carried hundreds of chests of tea and gallons of spirits like rum and brandy. Distribution was through highly organised networks that carried the smuggled tea far inland.

In fact in London, distribution of smuggled tea mirrored distribution of legal tea, and the smugglers´ ships could even be insured against loss or seizure at Lloyd´s of London. But while the London dealers in smuggled tea may have been thoroughly respectable, the smugglers themselves were often hardened criminals who thought nothing of using violence and intimidation to ply their trade.

An early example of the brutality of smugglers is seen in the case of the infamous Hawkhurst gang, who operated on the south coast of England in the mid-eighteenth century. On 22 September 1747, customs officers intercepted a boat off the coast of Dorset that was carrying two tons of illegal tea. This was taken for storage to the customs house at Poole. But the thwarted smugglers, known as the Hawkhurst gang, had no intention of allowing their precious cargo to be taken from them, and 60 members of the gang took part in a raid on the customs house to retrieve their smuggled tea.

They rode north, and through the small Hampshire town of Fordingbridge, where many of the villagers turned out to watch the procession. Such was the confidence of the gang that they made no attempt to disguise themselves or what they had done, and when one of the smugglers, John Diamond, recognised one of the villagers, Daniel Chater, they exchanged greetings and Diamond gave Chater a small bag of tea. The Hawkhurst gang had for some years operated relatively freely in the area - intimidating local people into keeping quiet, and burning down the property of any local magistrates who attempted to interfere with their activities. But the attack on the customs house took their outrages to a new level, and the authorities decided that something must be done.

Unfortunately for the Fordingbridge villager, Daniel Chater, customs officials got wind of the fact that he had seen and recognised the smuggler John Diamond, and he was pressurised into agreeing to give evidence against him. On 14 February 1748, Chater and a customs officer named William Galley set out to ride to Chichester to see a magistrate, but on the way they stopped for a drink at the White Hart pub in Rowlands Castle. Their decision was to prove fatal: the landlady had two sons who were smugglers, and growing suspicious of her guests she sent word to her sons and their smuggling colleagues. Members of the Hawkhurst gang arrived at the White Hart, and proceeded to get Chater and Galley drunk while they decided what do with them. There was a suggestion that they could be taken to France and dumped there, but the wives of two of the smugglers were determined that they should have a more serious punishment. To this end Chater and Galley were horsewhipped and then tied to horses and taken on a 15 mile ride to another village. Weak from the constant whipping, the two men frequently slid upside down, hanging beneath their horses' bellies so that the horses´ hooves struck their heads. Galley begged to be killed quickly, but the smugglers showed no mercy, and continued whipping and beating them. By the time they arrived at their destination, the Red Lion at Rake, Galley appeared to be dead. After burying Galley and chaining up Chater, the smugglers spent the rest of the day drinking in the Red Lion, before returning home to establish alibis. Two days later the smugglers, 14 men in total, met again in order to kill Chater. Having decided that shooting him would too soon put him out of his misery, the gang took Chater to a well. When he knelt to pray, one of the gang took out a knife and sliced his face with such force that his nose was cut off and his eyes almost put out. Chater, wishing to hasten his own death, attempted to jump down the well, but he was prevented from doing so and hung by his neck above it. But after quarter of an hour he was still alive, so the smugglers cut him down and threw him down the well head first. Even this did not kill him, so the gang threw logs and rocks into the well until his groaning ceased. They then became concerned that their possession of Galley and Chater´s horses would be incriminating, so they killed Galley´s horse but could not find Chater´s.

The smugglers assumed that they would be protected by silence, but large rewards were offered, and when one gang member was arrested he agreed to give evidence against his fellows in exchange for leniency. The whereabouts of the bodies of the two men were revealed, but it was only when the authorities went to recover the bodies that they realised the full horror of the crimes of the Hawkhurst gang. When Chater was brought up from the well, one of his legs had been entirely severed by the injuries inflicted upon him. Then when Galley, the customs officer, was dug up some time later, he was found in an upright position, with his hands in front of eyes. Though the smugglers claimed that they had all believed him to be dead, it was clear that Galley had actually been buried alive.

There was an outcry at the brutality of these crimes, and in the end, eight of the ringleaders were tried and sentenced to death. One of them died before he could be executed, but his dead body was still put in chains and hung in the open air as a warning for all.

While the murders of Galley and Chater were especially barbaric, they were not isolated incidents. A few months after these murders, two members of the Hawkhurst gang who had not yet been arrested accused a farm labourer of stealing two small bags of tea from a huge stash of smuggled tea which they had concealed in a barn where he was working. Though the labourer begged them to spare him on account of his wife and children, they whipped him to death and then threw him into a pond, his body weighed down by rocks. Later they returned to the barn, and discovered the missing bags of tea, which they had simply overlooked earlier.

Despite such violence, tea drinking was so popular that many people continued to turn a blind eye to the activities of the smuggling gangs. Because it was an illegal trade, it is impossible to know exactly how much tea was smuggled into Britain during the years of high taxation in the eighteenth century, but it was plain to see that while tea drinking was becoming ever more popular and widespread, the official imports of tea were not increasing. In areas where the smugglers operated most freely - in Scotland and around the south coast of England - it seems  . Overall, it has been estimated that the amount of tea smuggled in yearly at this time was between 4 and 7.5 million lbs, significantly more than was brought in legally.

By the 1780s smuggling was so rife that the anonymous author of a pamphlet on the subject lamented that in the countryside thousands of men had turned away from respectable jobs in order to be employed in the smuggling trade, to the detriment of the whole nation: 'Thousands... who would otherwise be employed in fishing, agriculture etc., to the emolument of this kingdom are now supported in drunkenness, rioting, and debauchery by their iniquitous traffic; - a traffic obviously productive of so numerous a train of evils, that prudence, common honesty, decency, order, and civil government, unitedly cry out for redress.´

Neither was it just a concern for decency and order that made people demand action from the government. The smuggling trade had a massive impact on the profits of the East India Company, which was the only organisation legally allowed to import tea. It was in part the impact of smuggling that led the Company to seek to dump surplus tea on the American market, a decision which would lead to the Boston Tea Party and ultimately to the American War of Independence. It was by now widely acknowledged that the only way to tackle the smuggling problem was to make tea cheaper - in effect, to reduce the duty paid on it. So the East India Company, who had powerful allies in the British Parliament, lobbied for the duty to be lowered.

 It was when William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783, aged only 24, that the work of the anti-tea duty lobby finally achieved its goal. After consulting with the great and good of the tea trade, Pitt decided to slash the tax on tea, and make up for the revenue lost by hugely increasing the window tax. This was a property tax which was much easier to enforce.

The Commutation Act of 1784 at one stroke reduced the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. The smuggling of tea ceased to be profitable, and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight. The consumption of taxed tea rocketed, so much so that even with the reduced rate of tax, the amount of revenue collected from tea was soon restored. Thus, coupled with the increase in window tax, the Exchequer revenues were actually increased overall.

While Pitt´s Act brought an end to smuggling, it did not have such an effect on another widespread problem within the tea trade - adulteration. Like smuggling, this was designed to make tea cheaper. But smuggled tea had often been a high quality product - particularly in the early days of small scale smuggling, it was in the interests of the smugglers to bring in teas than could be sold at a relatively high price (even though still far cheaper than taxed tea) - whereas the East India Company's imports were primarily of a very basic kind of tea. Adulteration was a different matter; it sought to maximise profits by mixing genuine tea with leaves from other plants, or with leaves that had already been brewed.

One product popular in the eighteenth century was 'British tea´, made from tree buds such as elder, hawthorne and ash. This was sometimes sold without any pretence that it was the genuine article, but it was also used to adulterate real tea, and in 1725 an Act of Parliament was passed banning the mixing of tea leaves with any other leaves. This was followed in 1777 with a complete ban on the sale and manufacture of 'British tea´, prompted in part by government concern about the destruction of the trees needed to make adulterated tea.

But these measures were not immediately effective and the public became increasingly concerned about some of the more bizarre ingredients included in the adulterated tea. These included various chemicals used to dye green 'tea' the right colour, such as copper carbonate and lead chromate. Compared to such poisonous ingredients, the frequent inclusion of sheep´s dung in adulterated tea seems relatively harmless! After one adulteration scandal in 1817, a tea dealer wrote that such was the public fear about adulterated tea that a tea dealer was regarded 'almost as a secret assassin, ready to enter every man´s house to poison him and his family. It almost converted the English into a nation of botanists...´.

It was partly to avoid the possibility of drinking these poisonous dyes, that black tea became more popular than green tea by the end of the eighteenth century. Accompanying this the addition of milk to tea became popular. Already smuggling had made tea so much more affordable that tea drinking had become the norm in even the poorest of homes, while its local distribution networks ensured that it became the beverage of choice in the countryside as well as in the towns. So smuggling and adulteration, while both illegal and at times dangerous, had a lasting impact on patterns of tea consumption in Britain.

The Beginnings of Tea

There are various legends surrounding the origins of tea. Perhaps the most famous is the Chinese story of Shen Nung, the emperor and renowned herbalist, who was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron. He tasted the resulting brew, and the beverage of tea was born.

An alternative story claims that links tea drinking to the Indian prince Bodhidharma, who converted to Buddhism and in the sixth century and went to China to spread the word. He believed that it was necessary to stay awake constantly for meditation and prayer, and took to chewing leaves from the tea shrub, which acted as stimulant, helping him stay awake. (An alternative, more macabre version has Bodhidharma accidentally falling asleep, and upon waking cutting off his own eyelids in disgust at himself. He threw the eyelids away, and from them sprouted the first tea shrub).

Part of the problem in pinpointing the origins of tea stems from the fact that the Chinese character t'u is used in early sources to describe infusions made from several different plants, not necessarily just tea. By the third century AD though a new character, ch'a, was developed to refer specifically to tea. Ch'a is very similar in its calligraphy to t'u, and its development suggests that tea had become such a popular drink that it needed its own character. The word ch'a is now sometimes used in English to refer to China tea.

Tea was certainly known as a beverage in the time of Confucius (c.551-479 BC) and grew in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) tea was the national drink of China, spreading from court circles to be popular throughout Chinese society. It was during this time that the practice developed of sending finest teas to the emperor's court as a tribute to him.

At this time, it was manufactured in brick form: the tea leaves were pounded and pressed into a brick-shaped mold, then dried. To prepare the tea, part of the brick was ground down, and the result was boiled in water. Later, powdered tea was developed from green tea leaves. This gained popularity during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Boiled water was poured onto the powder and left to brew, and the resulting liquid was whisked into a frothy tea. It was during this period that tea drinking became popular in Japan, reintroduced there by a Zen Buddhist monk who had been studying in China. So in Japan, it was the Sung method of preparing tea that took hold.

In China, tea fell out of favour as a drink during the years of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), when the Mongol rulers considered the drinking of tea a symbol of decadence. But it returned to popularity under the native Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). After years of foreign rule, this Dynasty saw a revival of all things considered quintessentially Chinese, and tea was certainly one of them. It was in this period that tea began to be brewed by steeping cured loose leaves in boiling water. Because it was at this time that the tea was first tried by Europeans, it was this method of making tea that became popular in the West, and remains so to this day. Also under the Ming Dynasty there was experimentation with different types of teas, fermented black teas, unfermented green teas, and the semi-fermented variety that it is now known as oolong, and within these categories with innumerable different varieties.
But the variation in types of tea in China is not even half the story. The history of tea in China and Japan is bound up with its cultural significance.For tea was a drink that would take on literary, artistic and even religious overtones. This can be traced to the writing of a fascinating treatise on tea by a Chinese scholar called Lu Yu.By the time Lu Yu wrote the Ch'a Ching, The Classic of Tea, in the eighth century, tea was already a fairly common drink in China. 

But Lu Yu's work was the single most influential aspect in developing the cultural significance of tea. Little is known about the man himself, except that he was probably born in the second of the eighth century and died early in the ninth century. He was a scholar from Hupei Province in Ching Ling, an area of Southern China where the cultivation of tea was most widespread, and lived for a time in seclusion in Chekiang Province. It was during this time that one story claims he came to write the Ch'a Ching. According to this, he had been walking in the wilderness, chanting poetry until he was moved to tears. Returning home for some tea he was inspired to write the Ch'a Ching. A more prosaic version of events suggests that the Ch'a Ching was in fact commissioned by a group of tea merchants, wanting to popularise the drink that was the basis of their livelihood. If this is the case, then it was a remarkably early - and remarkably successful - work of PR!

The Ch'a Ching itself elevates the preparation and drinking of tea to near-religious status. Like a religious ceremony, there is a set ritual, using particular implements which are endowed with individual significance, and there are guidelines on the appropriate state of mind for the tea drinker, and the atmosphere in which tea should be drunk. This similarity to religious ritual is no coincidence; the Taoist faith was central to culture in eighth century China, and with it the belief that every detail of life was an act of living that was worthy of celebration, and that one should attempt to find beauty everywhere in the world. Thus the emphasis on tranquility and harmony in the preparation and drinking of tea was recognition of its part in the masterpiece of life.
The Ch'a Ching begins with an explanation of the tea shrub and how it grows, and on the proper manufacture of tea, right down to the weather conditions when it should be picked (only ever on a clear day). Lu Yu next describes the implements needed for the preparation of tea - 24 in all, a number which would put even the most elaborate modern western tea service to shame! These range from the brazier and the cauldron for heating the water, to the roller needed to grind the solid bricks of tea, to the bowls from which the tea was drunk, to the container for carrying it all. Lu Yu gives advice on every aspect of these implements, and indeed the right equipment was so important to him that he states that if even one implement is missing, it is usually best to dispense with the tea altogether.Lu Yu then gives advice on the best sources of water for tea (mountain water from slow-flowing streams is best), the stages of boiling, and the correct method of drinking the finished beverage.After all the rigours of its preparation, it is no surprise that Lu Yu believes that tea must be sipped slowly in order to savour the flavour. He also states that to enjoy the tea at its best, the drinker should have no more that three cups, and five at the most.

 He also laments the practice of adulterating tea and lists some of the things added to it by his contemporaries. Some of these - ginger, orange peel and peppermint - are familiar to tea drinkers now, but Lu Yu also mentions the custom of adding onion to the boiling tea! In fact, the only adulterant of which Lu Yu approves would also now be considered very strange by western tea lovers - salt.

The stringent rules of Lu Yu's tea making seem at odds with the modern western notion of a quick cuppa, but in some ways they are not so different. Lu Yu was concerned that tea should be made in an atmosphere of tranquility and the drinking of it should create still greater tranquility. Most modern British tea drinkers would agree that the familiar act of making tea can be calming at times of stress - and that the drink itself can enhance that feeling of tranquility. We may not need 24 implements, nor have to draw our water from mountain streams, but a nice cup of tea is still a good way to enjoy a moment's peace.

Lu Yu's book was certainly influential in his homeland, China, but it was most avidly read in Japan.There it helped form the basis for the development of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Cha-no-yu), a ritual that has raised the preparation and drinking of tea to an art form that still flourishes today. Tea was probably introduced to Japan in the eighth century by a Chinese priest, and for some years the practice of tea drinking remained the preserve of Buddhist priests. In 1191 a Zen Buddhist monk named Eisai arrived from studying in China bringing new seeds, and introduced the tea ceremony. The ceremony was based on the tea-drinking rituals of Zen Buddhist monks in China, who believed tea's properties as a stimulant were an aid to meditation. This started a revival in tea drinking, and Eisai went on to write the first Japanese book on tea, the Kitcha-Yojoki, or Book of Tea Sanitation.

Gradually tea drinking became popular outside religious circles, and the Tea Ceremony came to be regarded as the quintessential expression of social sophistication and elegance.As with the tea preparation and drinking described by Lu Yu, the Ceremony is about much more than just making a hot beverage. The Taoist idea of trying to find beauty in the world was combined with the Zen Buddhist belief that the mundane and particular were of equal importance with the spiritual and universal. Thus the ritual of tea making expressed the quest of greatness in the smallest details of life, and the formalised acts of graciousness and politeness that are integral to the Ceremony are an outward form of an inner belief in the importance of peace and harmony.

This did not happen overnight though, and early tea ceremonies in Japan were often quite boisterous affairs that could include gambling and the consumption of alcohol. But the ceremonies gradually became more and more refined, in large part due to the personalities and influences and three Tea Masters. The last of these, Sen No Rikyu (1522 - 1591), lived for much of his life in Kyoto, where he studied Zen. It was Rikyu who incorporated the essence of Zen into the Tea Ceremony, and it is in the form he developed the Way of Tea (chado) that is practised through the Tea Ceremony to this day. Rikyu himself became the personal Tea Master of the powerful political leader Hideyoshi and was his chief aide, but the close relationship between the two men broke down, perhaps because other men jealous of Rikyu conspired to turn Hideyoshi against him. Eventually Rikyu was obliged by Hideyoshi to commit ritual suicide (seppuku), a more honourable death than being executed. Despite this sad end, Rikyu's sons and grandsons continued to practice the Way of Tea. Today the Urasenke Tea tradition (the largest of the various different Ways of Tea) is headed by grandmaster Zabosai Sen Soshitsu XVI, the sixteenth generation of direct descendants of Riyku to hold this position.

A very formal Ceremony, based on Rikyu's teachings, would take place in a specially built tea room (Sukiya) - usually a small wooden structure with a sloping roof, built with immense care. There is also an anteroom (midsuya) where the tea utensils and washed and arranged, a portico (machiai) where guests wait untilsummoned to the tea room, and a path through the garden (roji) which connects the two. Inside, the tea room is simple and spare in design, in emulation of a Zen Buddhist monastery.

The walk through the garden to the tea room is the first stage of meditation and breaks the connection with the outside world. Guests are expected to approach silently in order of precedence - samurai warriors were obliged to leave their swords on a rack outside - before bending to enter the tea room through a low door, an act intended to imbue the guests with a sense of humility. The guests then look at the ornaments and the flower arrangement and the tea caddy and kettle before taking their seats. The host then enters from the anteroom, makes a formal greeting, which is returned by the head guest, and proceeds to make the tea. The preparation and receiving of the tea is subject to numerous rituals and uses various different implements, and would doubtless meet with Lu Yu's approval!

But not all ceremonies are so rigid. Tea is practised throughout Japan by people from all walks of life, who have usually learnt it a their local tea club. It is thus a very social activity, and one in which participation by the guests is crucial.Although some Ceremonies are held on special occasion and are very formal and private, others are open to anyone who would like to buy and ticket, and so they are often held as fund-raising or charity events. Nonetheless, there is still an emphasis on harmony, respect, purity and calm. Within its formality is the belief that rigidity and structure can in some senses be liberating and meditative - that freedom and beauty can be found within a strict form - which is at odds with the contemporary western notion that formalism can only restrict art.

It should be remembered that the Tea Ceremony is as far removed from everyday methods of tea making in Japan as afternoon tea at the Ritz is from a cuppa from a flask on a construction site in England. It is more like the old-fashioned English tea party, with the hostess using the best china and serving the best snacks, and polite chit-chat being made. Even now though most tea lovers in Britain have their own rituals - the first cup of the day, the favourite mug, the method of stirring, tea first or milk first - which still illustrate the comfort and peace that can be found in the familiar act of making the perfect cup of tea.

The East India Company

The East India Company was perhaps the most powerful commercial organisation that the world has ever seen. In its heyday it not only had a monopoly on British trade with India and the Far East, but it was also responsible for the government of much of the vast Indian sub-continent. Both of these factors mean that the East India Company (or, to call it by its proper name, the British East India Company) was crucial to the history of the tea trade.

Before 1600, Portugal controlled most European trade with India and the Far East (an area known then as the Indies). But in 1600 Queen Elizabeth I gave a royal charter to a new trading company, the East India Company, by which it was given a monopoly over all British trade with the Indies. The Company soon began competing with the Portuguese, as did later East India Companies, set up in the Netherlands, Denmark and France (though for ease, the term East India Company shall here be used to describe the British East India Company). The East India Company's first major base was in western India, where it found a rich source of exotic textiles and other produce, which could be exported back to Britain or taken further east to exchange for spices.

The Company successfully weathered the various political storms going on in Britain in the seventeenth century. Oliver Cromwell provided the merchants with a new charter after Charles I was deposed and the Commonwealth established in 1649. Then when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Company ingratiated itself with him in order to protect its interests. In fact, Charles II actually extended its privileges to allow the Company to take military action to establish itself in places where it wished to trade.

But where does tea fit into all this? Charles II's Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was a Portuguese princess who had grown up with a taste for tea. When she married Charles and came to England, tea gradually became a fashionable drink in courtly and aristocratic circles.This was made possible by the East India Company, which in 1664 placed its first order for tea - for 100lbs of China tea to be shipped from Java for import into Britain. This steady supply continued until 1678, when an import of 4,713lbs swamped the market until 1685, when 12,070lbs was imported, swamping the market again. This pattern continued until the end of the century. But the eighteenth century was very different. Tea drinking really took hold as an activity for the whole population, and the East India Company's imports rocketed. By 1750, annual imports had reached 4,727,992lbs.

In fact though, tea was still very expensive, partly because of the Company's monopoly on the trade and partly because of high taxes imposed upon it. To satisfy the demand of the less wealthy, an enormous amount of tea was smuggled in and sold illicitly - some was even brought in on the East Company's own ships, by crew members who then sold it on to smugglers. This situation continued for years, until the William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783. With the Commutation Act of 1784, he slashed the tax on tea so dramatically that smuggling became pointless. Thereafter virtually all tea was imported legally by the East India Company.


In the decades leading up to Pitt the Younger's Commutation Act, tea smuggling had really hit the profits of the East India Company. Needing to increase profits and offload the surplus tea that the Company had accumulated during the worst years of the smuggling, it asked the British government for permission to export direct to America, which at this time was still a British colony. Permission was granted, and it was decided that the tea would carry a tax of 3d per lb. The Americans were outraged, many considered such British-imposed taxes illegal. They were doubly angered by the decision that the Company should also have a monopoly on distribution, another move that was intended to help it out of financial trouble. When the Company's ships arrived in Boston in late 1773, the townspeople resolved that the tea should not be brought ashore nor the duty on it on paid. But the colonial administration would not allow the ships to leave port. The deadlock eventually resulted in the Boston Tea Party, when a mass of townspeople, dressed as Native Americans, boarded the ships and threw all the cargo of tea overboard. This was one of the key events that sparked off the American War of Independence.

When America eventually won its independence from British rule in 1783, it began its own and independent tea trade with China. The success of this trade made some people in Britain  the wisdom of the East India Company's ongoing monopoly on British trade with the East. In 1813, the Company lost its monopoly on trade with India, but still had a complete monopoly on trade with China, which meant it was heavily dependent on the tea trade. The Company's charter was due for renewal in 1834, and in the decades before that there was a growing call for the abolition of the monopoly and the instigation of free trade with China as well. Supporters of free trade argued strongly that the Company kept tea prices artificially high in order to maximise its profits, using tactics which included restricting the supply of tea. One anonymous pamphleteer writing in 1824 stated that 'the lordly grocers of Leadenhall Street [where the Company was based] have most scandalously abused the monopoly of which they are now in possession'. Comparing the prices of tea sold at auction in London with the prices at auction in Hamburg and New York, he thundered that 'the monopoly of the tea trade enjoyed by the East India Company costs the people of this country, on average, not less than TWO MILLIONS TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND pounds sterling a year!'

The movement gathered pace, and committees were set up by  trade organisations to examine the evidence. The report of one such committee in 1828 claimed that the restriction of supply by the East India Company, and the artificially high prices, had actually driven down the annual consumption of duty-paid tea per person in Britain, from almost 28oz in 1800 to just 20oz in 1828. This was particularly objectionable because (in the words of another contemporary pamphleteer) tea was one 'of the principal necessaries of life'. The report noted with abject horror that tea consumption among the 'poor convict population' of New South Wales in Australia, which enjoyed direct trade with China, was over three times higher than among the 'free and wealthy people of Great Britain'. It concluded that 'in the United Kingdom, where the Company have a complete monopoly, they fleece their countrymen of the last penny they can give'.

 An added complication was that at the same time, the East India Company's sphere of activity was fundamentally changing.Charles II's charter to the Company had allowed it to use military force where necessary to establish trading stations, and in the seventeenth and eigthteenth centuries it established many well-fortified trading posts in India. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the control of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi was in decline, with independent regional princes taking power instead. But unhappy with this turn of events, the Company increasingly used its private{C}{C}{C} army to establish governmental control over large territories of India. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, with help from the British army, the Company had conquered about half of India.

Thus India was being ruled by twenty-four merchants from the East India Company boardroom in Leadenhall St, London, the same merchants who controlled British trade with the east. This caused great uneasiness to many in Britain, who considered the dual roles of merchant and ruler to be completely incompatible. This view was eloquently summed up by a writer in 1831, who argued that as well as losing its trade monopoly, the Company must have nothing to do with commercial affairs as long as it had anything to do with the government of India. He wrote, 'we object to their (the Company) being allowed to combine in their own persons the seperate and irreconcilable functions of tea-dealers and rulers of a mighty empire. Let them make their election; let them choose as to whether they will be grocers or emperors; but do not allow them to attempt both... To be a good grocer or a cheesemonger, a man must be nothing else. If the Company prefer these useful functions to those of a loftier character, we shall not blame them for their choice. But we protest against their being allowed to carry a sword in one hand and a ledger in the other - to act at once as sovereigns and tea dealers.'

 These arguments were too powerful for the British government to ignore. In 1834, Parliament's new charter for the Company abolished its trading functions altogether. Instead, the Company became an agent of the British government, administering British India on behalf of the Crown. India was still to be ruled from the boardroom of the East India Company, but its rulers would no longer also be tea dealers. China was still the major source of tea, and since the Company had now been relieved of any trading rights with China, its thoughts turned to the possibility of growing tea in India. Previously, when the Company had had a monopoly on the Chinese trade, it had not been in its interests to encourage cultivation of tea elsewhere.

A Tea Committee was established to investigate where in India might be most suitable for the cultivation of tea plants and seed imported from China, and to oversee that cultivation. One obvious area was Assam, where indigenous tea plants had already been found growing. Seeds from China were germinated in Calcutta and then sent on to Assam and other areas to conduct trials. C.A. Bruce, an agent of the East India Company in Assam, was appointed Superintendent of Tea Forests and set about cultivating plantations of both China tea and indigenous tea. In 1838 12 chests of Assam tea were sent to the East India Company in London. Some was used for public relations purposes - sending out samples to stimulate interest - and the rest went to the regular London Tea Auction. This was the first auction of Assam tea in London, and the novelty of the product ensured that it got a very good price. Bruce's experiment had been a resounding success. A new organisation, the Assam Company, was formed to exploit the potential of Assam tea. This new company faced many problems - not least the need to capture and train wild elephants which were necessary to transport tea through the dense jungles - but by 1855 tea cultivation in Assam amounted to over half a million lbs.

Soon though events in India were to take a dramatic turn. The East India Company had lost its trading rights, but it had not lost its desire to make money. The cost of the Company's of India administration was met through heavy taxation and charges on the Indian people - they even had to pay for medals to be struck to commemorate their own conquest. There were localised rebellions and the Company used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to control the Indian population. In May 1857 three regiments of Indian soldiers serving in the Company's army at Meerut near Delhi rebelled. The revolt spread, and led to a vicious conflict as the British forces tried to put it down. The rebellion lasted over a year, during which time both sides committed acts of terrible cruelty. Even after peace was established, the trust between the Indians and the East India Company administration was destroyed. The British government decided that enough was enough, and directly assumed all the Company's powers and possessions in India. The first viceroy, Lord Canning, was appointed to govern British India.

The heyday of the East India Company was well and truly over, but the heyday of Indian tea production was just beginning. With the exception of Darjeeling, which was producing high-quality but low-yielding tea crops, there was little tea cultivation outside Assam. The new British administration in India saw the potential for more widespread cultivation and offered generous land leases to would-be tea planters. By 1888 Indian tea production had reached 86 million lbs - and for the first time British tea imports from India exceeded those from China.


The Tea Clippers

The age of the tea clippers lasted only two decades, but this brief reign was marked by such excitement and enthusiasm for the ships and their cargo that it has gone down in history, famed for its glamour and romance.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the East India Company had the monopoly on British trade with China and India.Because no other company could legally import goods from these countries, the Company was rarely in a hurry to transport its merchandise. Rather, its priority was to minimise costs by carrying as much as possible on each ship. This meant that its ships - known as East Indiamen - were enormous, strong and very slow. By 1800, the average East Indiaman could carry 1,200 tons of cargo. The trading pattern for China tea usually meant the East Indiamen set sail from Britain in January, sailed round the Cape of Good Hope at the southern-most tip of Africa and arrived in China in September.

They would load up that year's tea harvest and set off again, and depending on the wind and weather, aim to arrive back in Britain by the following September. So even with favourable sailing conditions, the round trip took almost two years, and if anything went wrong it could take a lot longer.

But by 1834 the Company had lost its trading monopolies, and tea and had become a freely traded item. The Company, having no more use for its great ships, sold them off, and many were bought by merchants or their captains, who continued to plough the seas between Britain and China plying the tea trade. But now that tea could be traded freely, a few canny sailors began to realise that whoever brought the tea from each new harvest to Britain first stood to make the most money.

This was partly because of practicalities - if you were home first, you could sell your shipment of tea before your competitors even arrived - and partly because consumers in the nineteenth century believed that the fresher and earlier-picked the tea, the better the resulting drink. The lumbering East Indiamen seemed less appealing, and tea traders wanted faster, sleeker ships to bring their precious cargo back. Nonetheless, this idea only caught on in Britain slowly, and while the 1840s saw a few faster ships launched, for the time being many merchants remained satisfied with the slow but reliable East Indiamen.

In fact it was the Americans who pioneered the first clipper ships. Based on an earlier type of ship called the Baltimore clipper, they were fast and slender, with a narrow hull that was deeper at the back than at the front, and acres of sails on tall masts. Some had as many as six tiers of sails to a mast, and a total of 35 sails. They earned their name from the way that they 'clipped off' the miles.

The first true tea clipper wasRainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days - taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip. Their development was given another boost by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1851 - people rushing to seek their fortunes wanted ships that would transport them as fast as possible.


Up until 1849 the use of clippers in the tea trade was largely confined to America. But in 1849 the British Navigation Laws were repealed, meaning that American ships were allowed to carry tea from China to Britain for the first time. The first clipper to take advantage of this was Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 - just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified - this was three times as fast as the East Indiamen. They resolved to build their own clippers to rival the Americans, and the first British tea clipper, Stornaway, was built in Aberdeen in 1850.

After this, tea clippers were designed and built in Britain throughout the 1850s and 1860s; they had a narrower beam than their American equivalents, making them less powerful in heavy weather, but faster in lighter winds. There was a great spirit of competition between the British and American ships plying the tea trade, but to begin with the Americans had the edge. Then in 1851 the British ship owner Richard Green announced that he was fed up with hearing about the dismal prospects for British shipping since the repeal of the Navigation Laws, and built the aptly named clipperChallenger, with the stated intention of beating the American ships. Leaving Canton for London in 1852 loaded with tea, she fell in with the American clipper Challenge, a much larger, older ship, already greatly admired for her speed. Large sums were bet on which would make it to London first, and in the

event the British Challenger beat Challenge to the docks by two days, amid much jubilation about the British success.


The time of the international races was relatively short lived though, because after 1855 the American ships gradually ceased to participate in the English tea trade. But even without the Anglo-American rivalry, the competitive spirit continued. It was really ignited in 1853, when new ports in China were opened up for trade. These included Fouchow, which was much closer to the tea producing areas than Canton, the port used previously. As a result the tea could be loaded onboard earlier and fresher, and the clippers could set off in late May or early June - sometimes not even taking time to complete the official paperwork - racing back to Britain come hell or high water.

They thundered down through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean, then raced to round the southern-most tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Then it was north across the vast Atlantic, past the Azores, through the English Channel and into the Thames estuary, from where they would be towed down the Thames by tugs.

The cargo of the winning ship could earn a premium of up to sixpence per lb - and so the captain and crew were rewarded by the owners of the cargo.But the races were about more than just financial gain: the crews, about 40 men on each clipper, were expert sailors, proud of their ships, who delighted in competing against each other. Without their enthusiasm the races would never have happened, since getting the ship home as fast as possible required complete dedication from the crew, who sacrificed rest for the excitement of the race. The lively rivalry between crews is exemplified in the story of a gilded model cockerel which was exhibited on the clipper Thermopylae. Other clipper crews took this as an affront, because at the time Thermopylae had yet to win a clipper race. One night at the harbour in Fouchow, when her officers and crew were below, a sailor from the rival clipper Taiping jumped overboard, swam across to Thermopylae, climbed aboard and stole the cockerel. Discovering their loss, the crew of the Thermopylae was furious, and there were a number of angry (and even violent) incidents between them and rival crews.

The clipper races quickly caught the public's imagination - the speed and rivalry were thrilling while the ships themselves were as beautiful as they were fast. The ships would sail past certain marker points, and then telegrams would be despatched to Britain with news of their progress. When the time for the arrival of the first clippers grew near, the race would be a central topic of conversation, and crowds gathered at the docks to watch the arrival of the ships (the masts and bulwarks of which were all painted differently, to make the ships distinguishable from each other), greeting the winner with great cheers. Such was the public enthusiasm for the clipper races that large amounts of money were bet on which ship would be home first.

The greatest and most famous clipper race took pace in 1866. 10 clippers bound for London set out from Fouchow on 28 May. Fastest away were Taeping, Fiery Cross and Serica, but Ariel swiftly gained on them. So evenly matched were these four ships and their crews that the clippers were frequently within sight of each other as they raced across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope and north across the great Atlantic.

On 29 August the four were dead level at the Azores, but as they entered the Channel Ariel and the Taeping pulled away, the ships magnificent in full sail.


Practically the entire population of London was electrified by the news of the race - huge sums had been bet on the ships, while the crews of Fiery Cross and Serica had wagered a month's pay against each other - and the merchants and dealers on Mincing Lane, the centre of the London tea trade, were beside themselves with excitement. At the Thames estuary the two ships were still neck and neck, but tugs were needed to tow the ships down the river to dock, and Taeping was fortunate enough to pick a faster tug. With this slender advantage Taeping reached her berth just 20 minutes ahead of Ariel - an amazingly small gap considering the journey had taken 99 days. (Almost as amazing - Serica docked just a few hours after the winning pair, on the same tide, and Fiery Cross less than 48 hours later.) Despite Taeping's tiny lead, in the spirit of sportsmanship the race was declared a dead-heat, and the ships' owners agreed to divide the winner's premium, while the two crews shared their bonus.


Of course, life on the tea clippers was not just about the excitement of racing and the glamour of being the first ship home. There was serious work to be done onboard, and loading the tea was an art form in itself. The cargo needed to be packed incredibly tightly, not just to carry as much tea as possible, but also to prevent the potential hazard of the cargo shifting as the ship sailed, which could have thrown the ship off balance and caused disaster. The Chinese dockers packed the chests in tiers, sometimes hammering them into place with great wooden mallets. It was skilled work carried out at great speed, and equally skilled were the English dockers whose job it was to unload the cargo at the other end of the journey.

The reign of the tea clippers was to prove as brief as it was glorious. In November 1869 the Suez Canal opened, creating a navigable passage between the Far East and the Mediterranean. Overnight, it became economically viable for steamships to ply the China tea trade. Previously, the amount of coal the steamers needed to carry to complete the journey to and from China round the Cape of Good Hope left little space for a bulky cargo like tea. But sailing via the Suez Canal, the journey length was cut dramatically and the steamships became a more efficient option than the clippers, which could not use the Canal. The plodding steamships had none of the glamour of the clippers and their brave and skilled crews, and while there was rivalry between the steamers, it never caught gripped the public imagination like the clipper races.


Happily, one great tea clipper has survived and is now in dry dock at Greenwich in London. Cutty Sark, launched from the Clyde on 22 November 1869, was one of the last tea clippers to be constructed. Built for John 'White Hat' Willis, she was intended to win the annual clipper race, although in fact she never beat her biggest rival, Thermopylae. The decline of the clipper tea trade meant that Cutty Sark only carried tea until 1877, but she survived many later incarnations, and is now the only remaining tea clipper in the world. Small to modern eyes, Cutty Sark is nonetheless breathtakingly beautiful, and a visit offers a fascinating insight into the life of a tea clipper.




Boston Tea Party

Nowadays tea is thoroughly associated with the British, and taking time for a cup of tea is considered by millions to be a moment of calm and enjoyment in our hectic lives. It seems a little incongruous to remember that a little over 250 years ago, tea was such a hot political issue in America that it led to event that changed history forever. This was the infamous Boston Tea Party, a protest against tea duties in December 1773 that sparked off the American War of Independence and so eventually led to the United States of America becoming an independent nation instead of a group of British colonies.

During the eighteenth century, tea drinking was as popular in Britain’s American colonies as it was in Britain itself. Legally, all tea imported into America had to be shipped from Britain, and all tea imported into Britain had to be shipped in by the East India Company. However, for most of the eighteenth century, theEast India Company was not allowed to export directly to America. But during the 1770s the East India Company ran into financial problems: illegal tea smuggling into Britain was vastly reducing the amount of tea being bought from the Company. This led to a downturn in its profits, as well as an increase in its stockpile of unsold tea. In an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes and avoid bankruptcy, the Company asked the British government for permission to export tea direct to America, a move that would enable it to get rid of its surplus stock of tea. The Company actually owed the government £1 million, so the government had no desire to let the Company go bankrupt. Thus in 1773 the Tea Act was passed, granting the Company’s wish, and allowing a duty of 3d per lb to be levied on the exports to America.

The British government did not anticipate this being a problem: by being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, and 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by their British colonial masters. The issue of the taxation in America had been hotly debated for some years. Many Americans objected on principle to being taxed by a Parliament which did not represent them. Instead, they wanted to raise taxes themselves to fund their own administration. But successive British governments reserved the right to tax the colonies, and various bungled attempts to impose taxation had hardened American opposition. In the later 1760s, opposition took the form of boycotts of taxed goods. As a replacement for them, the Americans either bought smuggled goods or attempted to find substitutes made from native products.

These included ‘Labrador tea’, which was made from the leaves of a plant that flourished in the colonies, and ‘Balsamic hyperion’, made from dried raspberry leaves. The successful boycott of such a popular domestic product as tea was largely made possible by the active support of American women, who were on the whole responsible for household purchases. An anonymous American commentator writing some decades later noted that by abandoning the use of imported tea, ‘American ladies exhibited a spirit of patriotism and self-devotedness highly honourable to their sex’.

In 1770, the British government repealed most of the import duties - with the exception of the duty on tea, which remained at 3d per lb. For a time this calmed down the situation in the colonies, although taxed tea continued to be boycotted. But the maintenance of duty in the Tea Act of 1773 reawakened the anger of the Americans. They were further incensed by the decision of Parliament that the East India Company would have a monopoly on the distribution of tea in America, using its own agents instead of established American tea merchants. This seemed like an attempt to put patriotic Americans out of business.

The colonists were united in their decision to resist the new arrangements, and decided to refuse to pay the tax on tea. Regardless of the opposition, the East India Company pressed ahead with its plans, and in autumn 1773 four ships, Dartmouth, Eleanor, Beaver and William, set sail for Boston with their precious cargo of tea. In the weeks that these ships were sailing, the American opposition stepped up a gear.

The Massachusetts Gazette reported a meeting in early November when the people of Boston resolved that no one would import any tea that was liable for duty, and that anyone who aided or abetted the East India Company would be considered an ‘enemy of America’. Tempers were clearly running high, and there were further riotous public meetings against the tax, and even attacks on the warehouses for which the tea was destined.

When Dartmouth reached America on 28 November 1773, it was faced with the resolve of the townspeople that the tea must not be brought ashore or the duty paid. But the customs officers completed the necessary paperwork for the import of the tea, after which the ship could not legally set sail for England with the tea still on board. A few days later Eleanor arrived, followed by Beaver, which had been delayed by an outbreak of smallpox onboard. William had run aground and was stranded near Cape Cod. So it was that these three ships languished in the harbour at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, waiting for the situation to be resolved. 

But there was deadlock. The townspeople would not allow the tea to be brought ashore without an agreement that no duty would be paid on it. The Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (whose sons were to have been agents of the East India Company for the distribution of the tea), refused to let the ships leave port without paying duty on the tea. An armed guard of patriots was posted at the wharf to prevent the tea coming ashore, while a naval blockade of the harbour prevented the ships from leaving. Mass meetings were held by the resistance leaders, Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy, and the Bostonians were further buoyed up by messages of support which they received from all over New England.

On 16 December, perhaps as many as 7,000 local people met at the Old South Meeting House. Francis Rotch, the American owner of two of the ships, attended the meeting. He was in an unfortunate position: unwilling to risk the wrath of his countrymen by bringing the tea ashore, but yet knowing that if he ordered the ships to set sail illegally he risked them being confiscated by the navy or even sunk. In an attempt to resolve the situation, Rotch was sent in person to see Governor Hutchinson, to demand from him a pass for the ships to leave port, with the tea still onboard. The Governor, who was at his country house seven miles from Boston, refused, and Rotch returned to the meeting with this news. George Hewes, who took part in the Tea Party, remembered that Rotch’s announcement created a great patriotic stir at the meeting; men cried out '"Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country”; and there was a general huzza for Griffin’s Wharf’. The townspeople were faced with a stalemate, and so decided upon drastic action.

In the early evening of 16 December, a band of men, some disguised as Mohawk American Indians (Hewes recorded that he darkened his face with soot), assembled on a hill near the wharf. Whooping Indian-style war cries, they marched to the wharf, where they boarded the ships one after another, hoisted the tea on board deck, split open the chests - 342 in total - and threw all the tea into the sea. The whole affair took about three hours, and it was not a violent protest - the ships’ crews attested that nothing had been damaged or destroyed except the tea - and the protesters swept the decks clean afterwards. The Massachusetts Gazette even reported that when it was realised that a padlock that had been broken was the personal property of one of the ships’ captains, a replacement was procured and sent to him. Hewes also recorded that any man caught attempting to steal any of the tea for personal consumption was punished by the Bostonians. The following morning large quantities of tea were still floating in the harbour waters, so to prevent any being salvaged, men went out in rowing boats and beat the tea beneath the surface of the water with their oars. A joke went round for months afterwards that fish taken from American waters tasted strongly of tea.

This Tea Party sparked off other protests: tea being shipped to New York and Philadelphia was sent back to London, while tea off-loaded at Charleston was left to rot in the warehouses. In retaliation, the British government passed five laws in early 1774 that became known as the Intolerable Acts. Although intended primarily to punish the people of Massachusetts (the Acts included closing the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, restricting town meetings and giving the British-appointed governor more power), in the event the Acts played a key role in uniting the 13 American colonies against British rule. In September 1774, representatives of the colonies, including Samuel Adams, one of the Bostonian resistance leaders, met at the First Continental Congress to plan common measures of resistance against the Acts. The united resistance of the colonies would lead to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, which was signed in July 1776, just three years after the Boston Tea Party.

One anonymous balladeer wrote a song to commemorate the historic events in Boston, ending in the verses:

Quick as thought the ships were boarded
Hatches bust and chests displayed;
Axe and hammers help afforded,
What a glorious crash they made.

Quick into the deep descended,
Cursed weed of China’s coast;
Thus at once our fears were ended
Freemen’s rights shall ne’er be lost.