Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Maria Grace: Tea Time–Buyer Beware

As any of my friends will assure you, tea is a drink for refined tastes, a symbol of fine manners and serene afternoons. But was it always? Maria Grace has the real story.

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. ~C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might have rethought his statement had he considered what might be actually sitting in the teacup of his ancestors only one hundred years before.

Since its introduction into English society by Catherine of Braganza in 1662, tea was an expensive commodity, due to the cost of importing the tea and the taxes levied upon it. The cheapest grades of tea might be found for 5 to 6 shillings per pound. The best grades could cost as much as 20 shillings or more a pound. In 1800 a year’s supply of tea and sugar could cost a family of six nearly as much as their yearly rent. At that time it was usually kept under lock and key, to protect it from pilfering by the servants.

The desire of the masses for more affordable tea and the desire of merchants to increase their profits led to a lucrative trade in smuggled tea. Richard Twinning, founder of the Twinning Tea Company, estimated at least half of the tea drunk in England was smuggled. In 1820, tea was one of the two most smuggled commodities, the other being liquor.

Two primary types of tea were available: green and black. Both forms of tea begin with the same leaves, but they were processed differently. Green tea leaves are roasted as soon as they are gathered to prevent fermentation. Black tea leaves are allowed to ferment for some time. The brown/black color and flavor develop during fermentation. Roasting stops the process. Typically different types of tea leaves would be combined to produce tasty blends for consumers. 

To make the smuggled tea even more lucrative, many smugglers adulterated the tea with other substances. Green teas were generally thought easier to taint, so public preference shifted to black tea. Not to be outsmarted by wary consumers, unscrupulous merchants found ways to stretch black tea supplies with both used tea leaves, colorants, and other contaminants.

Used tea leaves were readily available. In wealthy households, tea leaves would be used several times, passing through the household hierarchy. First the family brewed and drank of it. Then the used leaves would be given to the servants to brew and drink. Finally they would end up in the hands of a high ranking servant, cook or housekeeper who, as part of her contract, would be entitled to the used leaves. She would dry and sell them to a char woman or directly to poorer families for as much as a shilling a pound.

Char women might resell the used leaves to a slop shop that would then process them for reuse. The leaves were stiffened with a solution of gum, colored with green vitriol (iron sulfate) or black lead or log wood and combined with fresh tea leaves. Willow, licorice and sloe leaves might also be added to further extend the mixture.

Fake tea called ‘smouch’ or sometimes ‘British tea’ was also widely available and cheap. Counterfeit green tea could be produced from thorn or ash leaves, steeped in green vitriol or verdigris (copper acetate) and dried. These dyes were toxic and could produce a variety of symptoms including constipation. Imitation black tea often contained the same hawthorn, ash and sloe leaves. It might also be a mixture of bran and animal dung or ‘chamber lye’ (the contents of a chamber pot). Dried and ground these were said to strongly resemble fashionable Bohea tea in appearance if not in flavor.
Some estimates suggested up to three million pounds (weight) of these mixtures were produced a year. So while most of the nation drank ‘tea’, the contents of many tea cups might not have been so pleasant as the drinker might have wished. And since there were no controls over the contents, it was indeed a case of Buyer Beware!


Fullerton, Susannah.  Jane Austen & Crime
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England . Sutton Publishing (2004)
Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness Penguin Books (1998)
Olsen, Kirstin. Cooking with Jane Austen Greenwood Press (2005)
Wilson, Kim. Tea with Jane Austen Jones Books (2004)

Get to know Maria Grace

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

You can contact her at .
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On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace

Maria's books

Darcy’s Decision

The Future Mrs. Darcy

Coming next Wednesday

David W. Robinson


  1. Replies
    1. You're most welcome! What a delight to have you come by and share your expertise.

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  3. As any of my friends will assure you, tea is a drink for refined tastes, a symbol of fine manners and serene afternoons. But was it always? Maria Grace has the real story. powder green tea perth