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.
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
This rare pair of polychrome teapots at Wallington, Northumberland, have an exquisite standard of workmanship. They were made at Het Moriaenshooft factory in Delft, 1686-8, copying a style of teapots imported from Yixing, China.
When tea first became fashionable, teapots were hard to come by. A Dutch goldsmith came up with a clever solution, creating this teapot (now at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire) by adding mounts to a Chinese porcelain jar and cover.
By the 18th century novelty teapots had made an appearance. The collection at Treasurer's House, North Yorkshire includes this cauliflower teapot. It was made around 1760 by the Wedgwood factory.
The 19th-century 'Cadogan' teapot at East Riddlesden Hall, West Yorkshire, can only be filled by turning it upside down and using a tube in the bottom. The unusual design was to prevent liquid escaping from the top when it was poured.
The exquisitely detailed 18th-century dolls’ house at Nostell Priory even includes a tea set in the drawing room. Made of silver, it bears the marks of renowned silversmith David Clayton.
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.
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.
Tea party fashion
Originally made for Lady Ann Bligh in the 1740s, this elegant court dress at Springhill, County Londonderry, was altered in 1845 so it could be worn by Lady Mary Herbert to a historical costume ball held at Buckingham Palace.
Tea gowns were first worn in the 1870s and were looser than the tightly corseted and bustled day and evening dresses of the time. This Victorian pink silk velvet tea gown is part of the collection at Ickworth, Suffolk.
Killerton’s extensive fashion collection includes this delicate white tea gown from the early 1900s. Loosing-fitting and lightweight, it would have been perfect for summer parties.
This summer day dress and matching bolero in the collection at Killerton is both elegant and practical. It was made in the 1950s by the then-popular Horrockses Fashions.
This 1960s summer dress in Killerton’s collection would certainly have added some colour to a tea party. Made of rayon, it has a short skirt and knotted-over-shoulder straps.
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.