The History of Tea
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* * History of Tea: * *

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Known as the birthplace of tea, for hundreds of years China produced the only teas known to the western world. China still accounts for over 18% of world exports. Most teas from China are not easily found in the general marketplace.


According to Chinese mythology, in 2737 BC the Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, scholar and herbalist, was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water. A leaf from the tree dropped into the water and Shen Nung decided to try the brew. The tree was a wild tea tree. Thus, tea drinking began. However, until the end of the sixth century, tea continued to be drunk primarily as a remedy for illnesses.

From the earliest times tea was renowned for its properties as a healthy, refreshing drink. By the third century AD many stories were being told and some written about tea and the benefits of tea drinking, but it was not until the Tang Dynasty that tea became China's national drink and the word ch'a was used to describe tea.

Tea then spread through Japan and overseas to Holland and overland from China to Russia and eventually to the rest of the world.

Early Beginnings of Tea in Britain:

The early beginnings of tea in Britain are obscure. The East India Company, under their charter granted by Elizabeth I to the Directors, had the monopoly of importing goods from outside Europe and recorded ships reaching Britain in 1637, but no record of tea dealings with Chinese merchants appears until 1644. Sailors bringing back packets of tea from the Far East as presents, led to its introduction into London's coffee houses.

The merchant Thomas Garway was among the first to trade tea in Britain. He offered it in dry and liquid form at his coffee house in Exchange Alley in the City of London, holding his first public sale in 1657.

In 1660, Garway issued a broadsheet selling tea for sale, extolling it as "wholesome, preserving perfect health until extreme old age, good for clearing the sight," able to cure "gripping of the guts, cold, dropsies, scurveys" and claiming that "it could make the body active and lusty."

By the middle of the 18th century, however, tea had replaced ale and gin as the drink of the masses and had become Britain's most popular beverage.

Introduction of Afternoon Tea:

Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, is reputed to have originated the idea of afternoon tea in the early 1800s. She conceived the idea of having tea around four or five in the afternoon to ward off the hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. Some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread. These habits soon became a good reason for social gatherings, and started a trend that is still an integral part of British life.

Tea Clippers:

Perhaps the most famous clipper ever built was the British clipper Cutty Sark. The Cutty Sark was built in 1868 and only carried tea on just eight occasions.

Until the mid 1800's, cargo ships including those carrying tea, usually took between twelve and fifteen months to make passage from ports in the East to those in London. East India Company ships, given exclusive control of the tea trade by Act of Parliament in 1832, raced to be the first ships to land tea in Britain.

By the middle of the 19th Century, the races between the tea clippers had become a great annual competition. The race began in China where the clippers would leave the Canton River, race down the China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the Atlantic, past the Azores and into the English Channel. The clippers would then be towed up the River Thames by tugs and the race would be won by the first ship to hurl ashore its cargo at the docks. The first cargo home fetched as much as an extra sixpence (2.5p) per 1lb (450g) - and gained a cash bonus for Captain and crew.


The Potteries:

Very early tea cups had no handles, being originally imported from China where such cups traditionally had no handles. So as tea drinking gained popularity, so did the demand for more British-style tea ware. This fuelled the rapid growth of the English pottery and porcelain industry, which soon became world famous. Most factories making tea ware were located in the Midlands area which became known as "The Potteries".

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