There’s at least one in most British households, even if it’s rarely used. The humble teapot has a fascinating story to tell about our country’s complex past.
Did you know that the early tea trade was bankrolled by drug trafficking and sparked wars?
Or that afternoon tea and high tea began as two distinct traditions that polarised the class divide in Britain?
This week, the fascinating Radio 4 series, A History Of The World In 100 Objects, tells the story behind an earthenware tea set – produced in the 1840s at Wedgwood’s Etruria factory in Stoke-on-Trent – and, in so doing, lifts the lid on a tale of high politics, greed, social engineering and an empire built on tea leaves.
Tea first arrived here in the early 1600s, and it was so expensive it was served in tiny cups. Then, along came a tea-loving royal, Charles II’s queen-consort Catherine of Braganza, who made it the fashionable drink of the wealthy classes.
It remained a luxury until the end of the 18th century – hardly surprising given that a pound of tea would have cost a British labourer the equivalent of nine months‘ wages.
The ritual of afternoon tea was a Victorian invention and is credited to the Duchess of Bedford. Finding she was in need of an afternoon pick-me-up between luncheon and dinner, the Duchess took to enjoying a cake or crustless sandwich with her afternoon cup of Darjeeling.
Soon, it was de rigueur for society hostesses to serve tea at 4pm, and before long every fashionable household boasted a china tea set as cheaper versions spread through society.
While the upper echelons enjoyed their tea in genteel surroundings, the drink started to be promoted among the urban population as an alternative to alcohol.
By the 19th century, beer, port and gin had become central to the diet of men, women and even children, since alcohol – with its mild antiseptic properties – was much safer to drink than unpurified city water, and alcohol consumption had become a real social problem.
So religious leaders and temperance movements joined together to proclaim the merits of tea as an alternative, promoting it as ‚cheap, refreshing and tasting good‘.
At the same time, tea became a symbol of the re-branded British character – polite and respectable, with none of the old rowdy conviviality. And along with this came a distinctly working-class, tea-drinking ritual – the high tea – served at the dinner or ‚high‘ table.
This was a hearty meal dished up at 6pm after a hard day’s work. There on the table would be a feast of bread and butter, cheese, meat, fish or eggs and cake. All washed down with a mug of tea.
Not surprisingly, as tea established itself right at the heart of British life, it became big business. But, to buy the tea in China at a more reasonable price, the British East India Company encouraged an illicit opium trade, smuggling opium grown in India into China and using the ill-gotten gains to fund the tea trade.
The first Opium War with China broke out more or less as this Wedgwood teapot was leaving the factory.
It was partly because of these difficulties with China that the British set up plantations in the area around Calcutta in the 1830s, and that’s why it was the strong, dark Assam tea that was to become the patriotic British cuppa. It soon became the drink that sustained an empire.
As the century went on, tea plantations were established in Sri Lanka – and large numbers of Tamils were moved there from South India to work on them. Meanwhile, fortunes were made in shipping as this rapidly expanding trade required huge numbers of clippers to ferry the tea to Britain.
Getting sugar on to a British tea table also came at a human cost. The first African slaves to arrive in the Americas worked on sugar plantations, the start of the long and terrible network that carried European goods to Africa, African slaves to the Americas and slave-produced sugar to Europe.
After a long campaign involving many of the people who also supported temperance movements, slavery in the British West Indies was abolished in 1830. But there was still a great deal of slave sugar around – Cuba was a massive producer – and it was, of course, cheaper than anything grown on free plantations. So the ethics of sugar continued to be hot politics.
By 1900, the average tea consumption per person in Britain was a staggering 6lb a year. But it’s one of the extraordinary ironies of British national identity – or perhaps it says everything about our national identity – that the drink that epitomises Britishness is not actually British at all and is the result of a complex imperial history.
Behind the modern British cup of tea lies the high politics of Victorian Britain, the story of 19th-century empire, of mass production and mass consumption, the taming of an industrial working class and the displacement of millions of people. It’s a lot to think about as you tuck into a slice of Victoria sponge!