origins of tea-drinking are lost in prehistory. Chinese mythology
associates its discovery with the emperor Sin Nong, who lived in
the third millennium BC. Before the eighth century AD Lu Yu was
commissioned by Chinese tea-merchants to explain the merits of the
drink made from the leaves of the plant Camellia sinensis
in a book known as the Cha Ching.
Tea drinking spread from China to Japan by the fifth century AD.
Japanese Buddhist priests studying in China are credited with bringing
home the seeds of the plant in 1191. Japanese green tea, Chinese
black tea and Oolong tea (associated with Taiwan and is a distinctive,
partially fermented drink between black and green tea) all come
from the same bush.
the first great Japanese tea-master, wrote rules for the handling
of the Japanese equipage in the late fifteenth century. A family
required as many as 24 items for the preparation of tea, and the
cabinet in which they kept this equipage was an important status
The Portuguese priest Gaspar de Cruz was the first European to
give an account of the drinking of tea, about 1560 and tea arrived
in Lisbon shortly afterwards. Dutch merchants were the first to
carry tea back to Europe commercially for sale, in a shipment of
1610, and teapots were among the articles of porcelain that were
imported into Europe from China in ever increasing quantities during
the seventeenth century. Tea drinking became fashionable first in
Holland, and in England during the second half of the seventeenth
the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, Londoners took
every opportunity to enjoy the fresh air of the pleasure gardens
that had opened in the suburbs of the city.
Everybody knew that in order to make tea, the water had to be boiled,
which made it a safe drink to enjoy.
Coffee was also being drunk in London at this time, but tea enjoyed
greater favour partly because it was easier to prepare.
By the eighteenth century China tea and teaware were a feature of
every aristocratic and middle-class English home.
Taxes were imposed on tea in Britain from 1689 to 1964, and also
in the American colonies, but in 1773 the American merchants angrily
rebelled against the charge they had
pay, throwing a shipment of tea into the sea which became known
as the Boston Tea Party. In Britain itself the tax encouraged smuggling,
which led to tea being brought in to Ireland, Scotland and other
parts of Britain as well as by the legitimate trade through the
port of London.
Tea was soon recognized as an invaluable drink for the workforces
of the Industrial Revolution. It was cheap and non-alcoholic and,
mixed with milk and sugar; it provided needed sustenance for people
working long hours in factories.
By the nineteenth century the immense popularity of tea in Britain
had caused an imbalance of trade with China, and the East India
Company began to pay for its tea with opium grown in India and smuggled
to China in 'clipper' sailing ships.
When this trade was curtailed by the Opium Wars between Britain
and China in 1839-42, the East India Company acted on Sir Joseph
Banks recommendation, made in 1788, that it would be possible to
grow tea in North East India. In fact the tea had been growing wild
in Assam, but until 1815 nobody knew of its existence.
Opium clippers were adapted to carry tea, and the annual races from
China to Britain became legendary.
The most famous of these was the race of 1866, in which the first
three ships arrived from China in London on the same tide. The tea
was unloaded in wharves along the Thames particularly at St Katherine's
Dock and Hays wharf near the museum.
Indian tea could be harvested over a longer season than the Chinese
and Japanese variety, and British planters introduced mechanized
production that was more efficient than the traditional methods.
Tea was also grown in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1867.
with China began falling, and the British palate became adapted
to the richer, more malty Indian tea. Tea was also grown in Africa
from the late nineteenth century.
The quality of the Indian leaf varies considerably according to
season, and in order to keep both taste and price constant the tea
companies used many different crops to make up their branded blends.
Edward Bramah was trained in this tradition when he entered the
tea trade in 1950.
By 1900 there were 4000 tea estates in North and South India and
2000 estates in Sri Lanka. Much of the tea was coming to the London
auctions and Mincing Lane became known as the world centre of the
During the Second World War supplies of tea were
severely threatened and trade in the national drink was taken over
by the government and rationed. When released from government control
in 1952, the tea trade soon found itself under a new threat, instant
rapid inroad of instant coffee on sales of tea in the 1960s led
to the creation of the tea-bag, making possible a much faster infusion
but also transforming the flavour and nature of the drink.
The many episodes in the fascinating narrative of Britain's tea
heritage are explained and illustrated in the Bramah Museum with
the aid of maps, diagrams, engravings and artefacts from the history
and practice of tea-drinking.
The Bramah coffee and tea room offers the authentic taste of
British tea, the orthodox leaf-tea that has now been almost wholly
replaced by the tea bag tea.