Britain was an empire built on tea. The East India Company, with its monopoly on Chinese tea trade, helped finance British expansion into Asia and North American beginning with the reign of Elizabeth I. But that monopoly ended in 1833 and both Britain and America eventually turned away from Chinese teas. By the end of the 19th century, Americans preferred Japanese green teas and Britain was establishing tea gardens in India and Ceylon.
The Victorians’ love affair with their new Indian and Ceylon teas was at full boil by 1878. Tea was plentiful and cheap. Tea stores were springing up nationwide and packaged teas were beginning to fill the shelves of stores everywhere. The greatest retailer of the day, Glasgow’s Thomas Lipton, invested in several Ceylon tea gardens in order to supply his 300 stores. His slogan, “direct from the gardens to your cup,” was found on all of Lipton Tea advertisements.
Tea had for decades been a popular drink for breakfast, lunch or dinner in England. But at the time of H.M.S. Pinafore, a new occasion for tea drinking was in vogue. It was a tea meal in the middle of the afternoon known as afternoon tea.
In 1884, a chain of bakeries known as the Aerated Bread Company (ABC), opened its first tea room and started a trend that was to be followed by other bakery companies, dairies, tobacco companies, chocolate manufacturers, and ladies’ clubs. The story goes that it was the enterprising manageress of the ABC’s London Bridge branch who had the idea of turning a spare back room into a public tea room. Her plan worked so well that the company opened similar tea rooms and restaurants all over London. In 1889, an ABC publication said, “The Aerated Bread Company Limited of London has opened between fifty and sixty shops … in the City and West End … and they are frequented to an enormous extent by persons of both sexes: the main features … being cleanliness and purity, combined with comfort and cheapness.”
Women met more and more frequently in such clubs tea rooms. Tea had always carried connotations of gentility and, as public tea rooms became more popular, they were recognized as respectable places where reputable women could enjoy a peaceful cup of tea away from the hurley-burley of busy urban streets. Plus, tea rooms were one of the first establishments to offer public restrooms for ladies.
The afternoon tea phenomenon then moved into London hotels where tea time was partnered with a scandalous new dance from Argentina, the tango. Tango teas were all the rage across Great Britain, and fashion designers rushed to raise hemlines to “tea length” allowing ladies to perform the intricate leg movements involved with the latest dance fads. These soirees were often staged in the new palm courts built especially for afternoon tea gatherings — sweetened with a bit of gossip.
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” wrote American author, Henry James, while living in England.
Ceremony it was — and is. Indeed, tea to the average British citizen is ritual. There is nothing more quintessential about their daily routine than the ubiquitous cup of tea. It lubricates every gathering and calms every moment of despair. The invitation to tea is so often uttered in British society that they have compressed three words into two by simply saying, “cuppa tea?”
It’s safe to say that many early Gilbert & Sullivan fans came straight from the tea table to the music hall where they topped off their day with a bit of musical fun. For many concert-goers, both then and now, an operetta such as H.M.S. Pinafore was just their cup of tea.
by Bruce Richardson
President, Elmwood Inn Fine Teas
Danville’s resident tea master, Bruce Richardson, is the owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and author of two National Trust of England publications, The New Tea Companion and A Social History of Tea. The former choral director and founder of the Danville Children’s Choir put down his baton in favor of a tea cup over 20 years ago.