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.