The leaves of the tea plant – Camellia Sinensis – have been infused in water to make a refreshing drink by the Chinese for over five thousand years.
The Dutch began to import tea in the late sixteenth century, and from here its use spread to other countries in continental Europe. Tea was not introduced to Britain until 1662 when Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II. She loved tea and it became a fashionable drink in court and among the wealthy classes. By the eighteenth century China tea and tea-ware were a feature of every aristocratic and middle class English home.
For a long time tea was only the drink of the middle and upper classes because it was taxed so highly that it was very expensive; and smuggling was commonplace. The government slashed the tax on tea in 1784 and tea suddenly became legally affordable to everyone.
Tea was soon recognized as an invaluable drink for the workforce of the industrial revolution. It was now cheap and non-alcoholic, and provided needed sustenance (when mixed with milk and sugar) for people working long hours in the factories.
The Opium Wars between Britain and China (1839 to 1842) led to the East India Company starting to grow tea in India, and this is when it really became the national drink of Britain.
The ritual of afternoon tea (with sandwiches, scones, cream and cakes) was allegedly started by the seventh Duchess of Bedford who was feeling peckish one summer afternoon while on holiday at Woburn Abbey in 1840, and asked her maid to bring tea and a tray of bread and butter to her room, to keep her going until the evening meal. She enjoyed this so much that she started to invite her friends to the occasion – and it became a way of spending time with each other and catching up with the gossip.
There has been a revival of this tradition in recent years – and of interest in tea, in all its many forms. We hope you enjoy chatting with friends and family over a cuppa, and participating in the wonderful ritual and tradition of tea drinking at Thomas Oken Tea Rooms!
"I am a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of the fascinating plant; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning." - Samuel Johnson