Travelling through time on our tea journey!

We all know that tea drinking forms part of our everyday ritual now, and we often take this for granted in our busy hustle and bustle. But did you know that tea wasn’t always so accessible? In years before us, tea came with incredibly high taxation, which created a divide between the rich and poor, and ultimately lead to tea smuggling. In the below article, we unpack the high demand for tea in Britain, and provide insight into the illegal tea industry.

More so than any other population, the British people took tea drinking to a new level, showing huge enthusiasm and revelry over this new-found drink. Tea soon became a popular drink in many coffee houses around Britain. These coffee shops served as both a place to transact for business purposes, as well as relax for pleasure, although coffee shops were only frequented by middle and upper-class men, while women drank tea in the confines of their own home.

For the widespread working class, tea was still an expensive luxury that the majority of the population was yet to experience. In part, the high price of tea can be traced back to a punitive system of taxation, whereby the lower classes were not deemed worthy of this luxury drink. The first tax on tea was introduced in 1689, and the price was so high (approximately 25 pence), that this nearly stopped the sales of tea altogether. The tax of tea was later reduced to 5 pence in 1692, where politicians were constantly working on new mathematical calculations for the exact rate and method of tea taxation. This went on until 1964, where taxation on tea was finally abolished.

The time of tea taxation lasted nearly 275 years, and with it came an opportunity to trade tea on the black market, using illegal methods of manufacture and transport. In an attempt to avoid tea taxation, there was a huge rise in smuggling and adulteration, which often ruined the final tea product, and in some instances, caused harm to those who drank it. Some of the smuggling methods used were said to be brutal, but the demand for tea drinking in Britain was so high that tea smugglers had the support of millions of people in the working class, who would not have otherwise been able to afford such a luxury drink.

Tea smuggling began as a small time illegal operation, trading a few pounds of tea to personal connections, but soon grew into an organized crime network. This network of criminals were said to have traded and imported as much as 7 million pounds of tea annually, compared to the legal import which was said to be around 5 million pounds.

As with any smuggled product, the illegal tea was not checked for quality control, and many unacceptable tea-brewing methods were followed. Some of these methods included the use of leaves from other plants, tea leaves that had already been brewed, and even more extreme methods including the use of sheep dung and poisonous copper carbonate to achieve the desired colour of tea.

It was only in 1784 that the government made the decision to put an end to this illegal trade, and reduced the heavy taxation fee from 119% to 12.5%. As if overnight, this dissolved the need for illegal tea trading, and retail tea sales began to rise again.

Were you aware of the high prices for tea in the past? We certainly think that will make us a little more mindful when we sip on our morning cup of tea.

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Nico Basson
Nico Basson