When you are next offered a cup of tea spare a thought for the intriguing social history which lies behind such a drink, especially taken in a Georgian home such as Wheathills.
Although now a national habit, tea drinking, and its fashionable consumption was begun by Charles 11’s queen. Catherine of Braganza in the 1860s. Like porcelain, royal and noble circles of the day could not understand how such a luxurious and medicinal drink could come from a mystical oriental world. Our knowledge of China at the time was so hazy we referred to the Far East as the East Indies.
Tea in the early 18th Century was expensive and was drunk in the famous pleasure gardens in London like Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Early tea caddies were small and made in precious materials such as silver, shagreen or tortoiseshell which reflected the valuable contents within. All caddies carried locks on them and it was typical in the 18th century for the lady of the house to keep the caddy key on her chatelaine around her waist. This meant the servant and butler of the house would not be tempted to try such a precious commodity. It was usual for the tea ceremony, with all the delicate Chinese porcelain tea wares, to be performed when the ladies retired after dinner to take tea in the drawing room.
Tea caddies by 1780 began to be made in mahogany and were often Satinwood cross-banded. They began to become larger in 1784 when William Pitt’s Commutation Act removed most of the hated tea tax. An emergent middle class could start to take tea for the first time as the average price of tea dropped by three shillings a pound. Tea was just beginning to become a national drink and more people could try the taste of Chinese Bohea, Green, or Hyson tea.
By 1833 the East India Company in China lost its monopoly of the tea trade and prices fell again when Indian tea began to be imported for the first time. The tea caddy became bigger and often alongside the tea canisters within (which were tin lined to keep the tea fresh), a mixing bowl was inset in the center for the consumer to blend tea for their personal preference. Caddies were often Sarcophagus in form and began to be made in Walnut and Rosewood.
This short insight into the history of tea drinking was an important catalyst in the 18th Century in creating the polite society of which the period was remembered for. A French visitor to these isles noted in 1781, “The greatest mark of civility and welcome they can show you, is to invite you to drink tea with them.”