Tea drinking was universal in Regency Britain. It had reached the poor and could not be dislodged as part of their diet. William Cobbett hated it because of the waste of the working man’s time, the profits it brought to the East India Company, and the replacement of tea for beer. (‘I am for MALT’!) Most of the ruling class had given up weaning the poor away from tea drinking. The Scotsman made this wry comment in 1818; ‘tea is indispensable. Almost every person, notwithstanding the present high prices, is more or less indebted to this Chinese shrub for his daily meals’
The Scotsman was right about the price. The Tory government had abolished Income Tax in 1816 and relied on taxes on consumption, so tea was taxed heavily. It was all China tea, imported by the East India Company and sold as a monopoly from their warehouses with a 96% ad valorem duty which doubled the price as it arrived into Britain. Proper quality tea, with import duties added, would be about seven or eight shillings a pound in Regency Britain and less than half that in France or Belgium. There was extensive smuggling. Smuggled tea from France and Belgium would be half that price and the smuggling industry was so large and popular that it could not be stopped.
Even the smuggled price would be too high for the poor, so a market developed in adulterated tea, which could be hawked from town to town or sold to unscrupulous tea dealers or grocers. It seems that tea that had paid duty was just as likely as smuggled tea to be adulterated, as both were aiming for a lower price that the poor could afford.
How did you adulterate tea? Adulteration was achieved by replacing tea leaves with something cheaper, from the untaxed hedge rows of Britain rather than China. It was an industry almost as big as the drink itself. Tea was sold as crushed leaves and the skill if the adulterator was to replace tea leaves with cheaper ones that looked and smelt like tea. If the resulting brew tasted like tea, then that was a bonus. The poor were not judges of good tea. Most of their consumption was Bohea tea, the lowest grade made from the last crop of the year. So sometimes, adulteration was achieved by mixing leaves with Bohea, but often there was no tea in the mixture at all.
Common leaves were ash, elder, and senna. Senna leaves smelt like tea when boiling water was put on them. None of these were deleterious in themselves, except the most common of the adulterants, sloe (blackthorn) leaves, and these were poisonous. The Norfolk Chronicle gave its readers this advice in 1818, when Regency Britain was in a poison tea panic.
The practice of adulterating Tea by the admixture of the Sloe Leaf, (which being allied to the Laurel, of poisonous quality; is by means new); but as it is to feared that the late detections and punishments will not altogether prevent a repetition of the crime, it may useful describe two leaves, which fortunately have little resemblance to each other. The sides of the tea-leaf have large jags, teeth, or serrations; the leaf itself is long and narrow, and the end or extremity is pointed. The Sloe-leaf is short’ ..and is broad or rounded.— By wetting and spreading out the leaves, any one will easily distinguish the great difference between them.
Producing imitation and adulterated tea was a skilled and labour intensive job, but it was worth it. The high price of the tea that made the complicated and dangerous process worthwhile, as the artificial high price caused by taxation also increased the price they could charge for the forgery. Adulterators were prosecuted (in a haphazard fashion) by the Customs and Excise. Although the protection of health was mentioned in the relevant Act of Parliament (1777), it was largely a revenue protection exercise. The premise- that forged products robbed the Exchequer of money as their sale diminished the consumption of taxed products- seems a bit shaky.Gaol or transportation was not a punishment for those who were caught- the crime was monetary, so the punishment was pecuniary. Some Regency commentators were calling for the use of public whipping or the pillory, but this was never an option.
The prosecution of Whitechapel men Procter and Malins shows the operation in action. First, the production of ‘black tea’. It was essentially a dying process.
Logwood was a South American plant and was normally used a dye for textiles. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the incident is that Malins ‘did not know’ whether the ingredient was injurious. This was because he did not care.
‘Green tea’ was created in an even more questionable process. Hedge row leaves were boiled and the water removed by pressing. The leaves were them warmed on a copper plate over a fire and often curled by hand to make them look like tea leaves. Then they were mixed with a dye called Dutch Pink, which was cut from a solid block and mixed in. Dutch Pink was an artist’s material used in painting on walls and making wallpaper and was added to the tea mixture with a pallet knife. The next ingredient was the highly toxic verdigris, which in reaction to the copper produced a greenish tinge to the leaves and was a danger to life. The forgers called this ‘adding the bloom’!.The court was shocked when this admission was made; but it was common knowledge. The two men received a fine of £100, the maximum possible.
There was a moral panic in 1818. The East India Company formed a committee to investigate the problem. Long and Company started to sell East India tea direct from the warehouse in sealed metal canisters. The forgers copied the canisters and put their own product in. High class teas dealers swore an affidavit to the Lord Mayor and put the details in the newspapers. The London Genuine Tea company was formed in 1818 and was immediately opposed by some dealers who did not want the size of the problem advertised. The Genuine Tea Company gave this new group the title the ‘ Anti-Genuine Tea Committee’ and had one killer argument. In the last quarter, 300,000 lbs of low grade Bohea tea was bought in London, but nobody seemed to admit to sell it. Where was it? Was it being mixed with other leaves?
The panic spread to Parliament. In 1818, a Parliamentary Committee was reassured by two major London tea dealers that the problem was exaggerated. Good quality tea was very common in London, said one of them, a Mr Twining. However, this was not where the poor bought their ‘tea’.
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12 thoughts on “A nice cup of tea in the Regency? Not always!”
Thank you for this. I’m writing a story featuring the effects of the tea trade on English politics, and your blog is very helpful background info.
Thank you Sarah!
That’s kinda cool. But what about things like nettle and peppermint tea? Did they not exist prior to trade with China?
Senna leaf tea is *basically* harmless, but it will cause a good case of the trots. It’s frequently taken to relieve constipation. Not what you need when you’re probably eating food that’s a bit ‘off’ already… Using that to adulterate black tea was just cruel!
Great article. It always amazes me how large a role tea has had in world history.