The history of tea at our places

Visitors enjoying tea at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

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? As we launch an exclusive new National Trust tea blend, we look back at how tea became our most popular brew.

A drink fit for a queen

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 oriental luxury, 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. 

At Ham House, Surrey, the Duchess of Lauderdale is thought to have served tea to her friend Queen Catherine in this way, in the white and silver teapot still on show at the house. 

The Duchess kept up with the modern fashions of the day such as tea drinking in her private closet
The Duchess kept up with the modern fashions of the day such as tea drinking in her private closet
The Duchess kept up with the modern fashions of the day such as tea drinking in her private closet

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. 

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. 

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. 

A new blend just for you

Fast-forward more than a century and our tea story continues to evolve. Working with Fairtrade supplier Clipper, we've created an exclusive National Trust blend sourced from some of the finest tea estates in East Africa and India. Visit one of our special places to try it today.

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

Visitors enjoying a slcie of cake and a cup of tea at the Kitchen Cafe at Allan Bank and Grasmere

Visit a tea-room 

Visit one of our tea-rooms or cafés to try our new everyday tea, as well as a wider range of Fairtrade blends and fruity infusions. Take a look at a few of our favourite tea-rooms.