The history of tea at our places

With millions of cups of tea drunk in Britain every day, it’s no secret that we’re a nation of tea lovers. But where did this love affair begin?

The Duchess’s teapot

When tea first arrived from China in the mid-17th century, it was so expensive that only the royal family and wealthy aristocrats could afford to buy it. As a new luxury from East Asia, the ceremony of brewing and serving was copied from the Chinese. The lady of the house took charge of the kettle and teapot and served the tea in tiny porcelain bowls. 

In her Private Closet at Ham House, Surrey, the Duchess of Lauderdale (1626–1698) kept a Chinese white porcelain tea pot with a distinctive crackled glaze. Made at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian province, this exceedingly rare teapot was later fitted in England with silver-gilt mounts. The pink tinge now visible on the teapot was probably caused by years of hot tea seeping through the glaze.

Chinese white porcelain teapot, c.1650-70, and lacquer furniture belonging to the Duchess of Lauderdale. Ham House, Surrey
Chinese white porcelain teapot, c.1650-70
Chinese white porcelain teapot, c.1650-70, and lacquer furniture belonging to the Duchess of Lauderdale. Ham House, Surrey
Tea caddy A la Ronde

Tea caddy

In the 18th century, lockable tea caddies made an appearance in the homes of the wealthy. Not only were they a means of safely storing expensive tea, but they were ostentatious displays of wealth. They were often made of expensive wood and elaborately decorated, such as this mahogany example from A La Ronde, Devon.

Teapoy, Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk


Ornate teapoys, like this rosewood example at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, were also made for storing tea. They were often richly carved or decorated with elaborate inlay. Like tea caddies, they were usually divided into compartments for storing different types of tea.

The original tea break

During the 18th century, more teas of different grades were imported. The middle and lower classes began to drink tea in pleasure gardens, spa towns and at home. 

Employers started to provide teapots and tea so that staff could stop and enjoy a ‘tea break’. At Saltram, Devon, records show that servants’ pay in the 18th century included an allowance of tea and at Quarry Bank, Cheshire, tea was provided for the mill workers. 

The dangers of tea

Not everyone was swept along by the new tea-drinking craze. Some were suspicious of the exotic new beverage. John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol was convinced excessive tea drinking was bad for the health of his sons, even potentially fatal. In a letter of 27 December 1735, he wrote:

‘Your constitution would never have deserved half the hard words you have given it, had not you ruind it by forceing on it so many tuns of that detestable infusion of tea, by the constant use wherof, tho’ not for near so long a time nor to so strong a degree as you have done, your brother Felton hath already destroyd the strongest stamina that ever any man was blessd …’

He nonetheless paid a hefty sum for this tea-kettle and lamp, now in the collection at Ickworth, Suffolk. By this time, tea-drinking was an expected part of aristocratic social life.

Tea pots in our collections

Tea for everyone

In the 19th century, the arrival of cheaper quantities of Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon black teas meant that everyone could afford to drink more.

Public tea-rooms started to open around the country, serving pots of tea at very low prices. In the countryside, industrious owners of cottage gardens served home-baked cakes and tea to weary cyclists and tourists. 

Polesden Lacey tea room

Polesden Lacey's Tea Room

Dame Margaret ‘Maggie’ Greville (1863-1942) was a famed society hostess. She refurbished Polesden Lacey to her own luxurious tastes and included an elegant Tea Room. Her highly fashionable afternoon teas were attended by the aristocracy, statesmen and royalty.

The Drawing Room at Castle Drogo.

Castle Drogo's tea foundations

As the nation's thirst for tea developed, tea dealers grew rich from their profits. Julius Drewe, founder of the Home and Colonial grocer chain in 1883, made so much money selling tea that he was able to retire at the age of 33 and build the impressive Castle Drogo in Devon.

View towards the house from The Old Garden at Hidcote, Gloucestershire, in June

Hidcote – site of our first cuppa

Legend has it that the first cup of National Trust tea was brewed at Hidcote, Gloucestershire, when the gardener and his wife served up cups of tea and buns to visitors through their cottage windows.

Afternoon tea

It's commonly believed that afternoon tea was first introduced by Anna, Duchess of Bedford in 1840. It wasn’t long before the upper, and many of the middle, classes of Britain were also enjoying tea with dainty sandwiches and cakes served in the drawing room, or sometimes the garden, at 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. This light meal filled the gap between lunch and a fashionably late dinner or supper at around 8 o'clock in the evening.

Afternoon tea should not be confused with high tea. Enjoyed by working-class families after a long day at work, high tea was a hearty meal of dishes such as pies, cheese on toast and meats, all served with a cup or mug of tea.

Afternoon tea as daily social ritual reached its zenith during the Edwardian era. Ladies would dress for tea in elegant tea gowns and picture hats and men would wear smart suits. 

Tinted magic lantern slide showing a group of people taking tea, c. 1907-15. Fox Talbot Museum, Wiltshire
Tinted magic lantern slide showing a group of people taking tea
Tinted magic lantern slide showing a group of people taking tea, c. 1907-15. Fox Talbot Museum, Wiltshire

Tea party fashion

Festive teas

Coronation Tea, 1911, Market Square, Wisbech

Street parties

During the 19th and 20th centuries it became popular to mark national or personal celebrations by holding festive teas. This 1911 photograph at Peckover House, Wisbeck probably shows a ‘coronation tea’ to mark the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary in June of that year.

'Harvest Tea' by Mary Martin

Harvest suppers

Traditionally the completion of harvest would be marked by a celebratory festival and meal. ‘Harvest Tea’ (1983) by Mary Martin at Cotehele depicts a more informal picnic tea being celebrated in a Cornish field, a reminder that celebration teas are still very much part of our modern culture.

Today we have over 100 tea-rooms and cafés across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and we look forward to welcoming you back soon, to once again enjoy a cup of tea with us.


A version of this article, by tea historian Jane Pettigrew, first appeared in the National Trust Magazine spring 2017 issue.