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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

A House Through Time: Teacups

David Olusogo's television programme, A House Through Time (BBC 2 26th May), this time features a house in my home city of Bristol. The house itself is within a few hundred yards of the famous St Mary Redcliffe church and sits high above the Harbour. In fact it is on a cliff (hence 'Redcliffe') which is riddled with caves where goods were stored in the 18th century and where people sheltered during The Second World War. They are inaccessible today, but as a child I remember visiting them.

The programme was excellent, enhanced by the scholarship of Davis Olusogo. However, I believe I spotted an historic anachronism. One Professor talking about life in an 18th century grand merchant's house referred to the taking of tea by their wives. In doing so she poured a cup of tea and proceeded to drink it. If I saw correctly she drank it from a non handled teacup (think Chinese teacups). If that was the case she would probably have poured it into the dish-like saucer and drunk from that. The reason being that the British drank their tea at a higher temperature than the Chinese and could not successfully therefore drink from a non handled cup. Perhaps some reading this will remember Alexander Pope in his poem, The Rape of The Lock, who refers to 'dishes of tea drunk' in similar circumstances. Henry Fielding wrote, 'Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.' Quite.

A little research reveals that it was a German, Johann Bottger, who first made a teacup with a handle, as early as 1707. The idea never really caught on in England until the end of that century and the beginning of the 19th. By about the 1840s we had largely replaced the drinking of green Chinese tea with black Indian tea, from British held Assam.

It was the 19th century that saw the drinking of tea spread to all classes of society in Britain, so that in the 20th century George Orwell could write,'Tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country ...'. Although as early as 1757, Jonas Hanway complained that servants and labourers had become 'enslaved by foolish customs' of the rich and would rather give up a loaf of bread than a cup of sweetened tea' (v. further reading below). It is certainly true that the first working class drinkers of tea were servants and labourers and only in the 19th century did it enter working class homes. In times of poverty in East Anglia the wife would often make toast tea for herself and possibly for the children. Tea had to be given to the hard working labourer husband, then to the children, and lastly to herself. Toast Tea was made by placing a piece of blackened toast in hot water so that it looked like tea. Mrs Beeton, incidentally, talks of this drink as one to be given to convalescents. If anyone reading this was ever given this as a child I should love to hear from you.

Tea had first been drunk in London during Cromwell's time, 1657, when it was served in a coffee house. Three years later Samuel Pepys came across it for the first time, 25th September 1660, 'I did send for a cup of tee(a China drink) of which I had never drunk before". Some people suggest that it was Charles II's Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza, who popularised the drink here. I love the story, undoubtedly apocryphal, that on landing at Dover the Mayor presented her with a glass of beer, a traditional drink on arrival, to which the Queen replied, 'I'd sooner have a cup of tea'.

Sugar began to be added at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sugar, like tea, was a luxury and thus only the well to do could afford it. Milk was added, a French innovation, around 1720 and this helped to make black tea more fashionable.

Tea drinking for 'the refined' continued well into the last half of the 20th century. Tea rooms opened in the late 19th century as places where predominantly women could meet their friends in a public place, usually after shopping. The new Department Stores also had tea rooms, some reserved exclusively for women. I remember in the 1950s going for afternoon tea with my mother and grandmother in Carwardine's in Bristol. There was an upper tea room and a lower dining room. Although men were allowed in the tea room women were not allowed in the dining room. When equality finally arrived in the 1950s, my great aunt Edith, a strong supporter of women's rights and an early science graduate of The University of Reading, insisted, after we had been to the cinema, that we should enter the dining room. She was triumphant, but still couldn't reconcile herself to the fact that women could now also pay for a tea. She surreptitiously slipped me the money to pay!

Other famous tearooms were Lyons Corner Houses, The Kardomah, ABC Tea Shops, and the much lamented Fullers and their raspberry layer cake. Today there still exists The Willow Tearooms in Glasgow, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Bettys in Harrogate and York. Worth a trip to Glasgow and York just for tea alone! And, of course, every Christmas there is Widow Twankey in the Pantomine 'Aladdin'; she takes her unusual name from 'twankay' a rather beyond its sale by date green China tea.

Sometimes all you need is a good cup of tea. English Anon.

One book with a few references of interest re tea is Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

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1 Comment

May 27, 2020

William: I thought of you as I tuned into David Olosuga's programme. What a beautiful house and one familiar to you. Fascinating description of tea and an interesting inaccuracy. Remember well, Fullers in London with their gorgeous layer cakes. Also, Bettys in Harrogate. Each year whilst at school in that elegant town, we ordered our birthday cakes from that illustrious tea shop. I usually chose a swimming pool for the picture! Enjoy your half term. Sue J.

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