London’s Tea: A Psychogeographical Enquiry

Blackboard reading 'Teas of the day'
At the Old Salt Quay, Rotherhithe

A couple of weeks ago I undertook a not-quite dérive in company with co-researcher and fellow-teaist Matthew Mauger. Like a happy-go-lucky and less talented Iain Sinclair and Marc Atkins, our purpose was to retrace on foot the route once travelled by London’s tea, from the East India import dock at the mouth of the River Lea, via the Custom House and City storage depot of the East India Company, to the shops of retailers and the firesides of consumers in the West End (we ended at 6 Little Russell Street, WC1, home in 1839 to the impoverished widow and tea-drinker Elizabeth Sachs). Through walking we aimed to unearth old memories and to construct new ones concerning the social and cultural histories of tea in Britain, with particular reference to contexts of international exchange, institutional operations, and local practices. In due course we plan to produce a short film that documents our journey and its outcomes (an account of our Frolick to Horn Fair in 2012 is on You Tube); until then, this post must serve as a place-holder.

Ripping off Sinclair’s lead (I’d like to say ‘riffing’, but that would be too much), we walked through urban landscapes typically bypassed underground in order to engage actively with the terrain of the city. Through attention to details often ignored – whether architectural traces of the past, lived experiences in the present, or promised mementoes of a future still being imagined – we wanted to re-memorialise the public relationship that London has with tea, and the ways in which that publicity might shape (or indeed be directed by) the private habits and tastes of Londoners. Of course we were open to encountering completely other geographies – part of what imbues such processes with meaning (perhaps the most moving moment of the trip was encountering an impromptu tribute to Liam Hamilton on the corner of Simpsons Road, E14, and discovering it was the very day that men accused of his murder were due to appear at the Old Bailey) – but tea was the guide. At one point it even lured us to an unpromising corner of South Bermondsey, a fruitless enquiry into the provenance of the Admiral Hyson industrial estate.

Mulberry Place, E14
Landscape at Mulberry Place, with vestige of East India Import Dock

In a moment I’ll outline three learning outcomes that I identified when trying to justify to my partner this rather luxuriating expenditure of personal and professional resource (the jaunt took the whole of Friday 18 October, from dawn to dusk). But first some general observations about psychogeographical investigation in 2013. The joy and curse of always being connected to the global intelligence of Google loomed large. Our instant mediation of immediate experience – the urge to represent ourselves at the very moment of living – was ineluctable. We tweeted and snapped our way through the route, often chuckling at each other’s online jokes rather than swapping genuinely impromptu pleasantries. We articulated and discovered more ‘knowledge’ in this way, but we were always in danger of falling into the trap of historical and geographical forgetting. The displays on our iPhones became like the car windscreens of Sinclair’s London Orbital – a means for perceiving yet ignoring the actuality of one’s environment. Some old dangers of the cityscape were also inevitably persistent, not least the constant regulation of civic geography in the form of visual and auditory signage. The Old Salt Quay in Rotherhithe, a rambling Thames-side parody of an early-modern galleried inn, sought repeatedly to discipline our lunch with chalk-scrawled warnings about the consequences of unsafe or unseemly behaviour. Earlier on at Mulberry Place in Blackwall – the East India Import Dock bizarrely re-landscaped as ersatz Venetian water-gardens – my sidekick was instructed to holster his camera by a security enforcer clearly alarmed at the potential of our psychogeographical imaging techniques.

More positively, however, it was a genuine thrill to discover that even familiar zones of the city harbour pleasant surprises. We were probably at our happiest when we finally accessed the East India Chapel of St Matthias Old Church. We’d heard of this place, with its seventeenth-century riches at the heart of bombed-out Poplar, but located it only when chance took us up an alley way off the High Street. The graveyard proved locked and the re-clad exterior (Victorian stone) inevitably foreboding, but we eventually found our way into a driveway and through the porch of the church. Inside, we found open space and trestle tables where once the pews had been; underfoot and upon the walls were funerary monuments to ships captains and financiers of old. Set into the ceiling a nautical crest bespoke ancient associations with the East India Company. Far from unloved or deserted, however, St Matthias now houses a vibrant community centre that welcomed us into the midst of its preparations for a lunch party. Hits of the 30s and 40s (‘Run Rabbit Run’, ‘Lambeth Walk’) boomed from an ageing stereo; we rather pompously accounted for our presence as ‘historians’; then photographed, lingered, and slipped away as a minibus full of African Caribbean pensioners was unloading in time for the main event. It was a beautifully creative, odd, and alive repurposing of space.


Learning Outcome 1: The Absence of Tea

Novelty British Teapots
British Porcelain on sale near the Tower of London

When we formulated our dérive in the saloon of a Plaistow pub, we anticipated that tea would be everywhere along the way. So ubiquitous is this beverage in British life that we expected it therefore also to be perpetually visible. The first shock then was that tea’s journey into the nation’s hearts and stomachs is barely recalled in the names of streets or landmarks. With no Bohea Buildings or Congou Close in the vicinities once enriched by the tea-trade, our only recourse was the schlep to Hyson Road (although this did also happily necessitate a few moments waterborne, from the western axilla of the Isle of Dogs to Cuckold’s Point, site of a Hilton Hotel). Moreover, it was astonishing to realise how little tea is advertised, how rarely it is used to market the venues where it is for sale. So effective has been what Markman Ellis describes as the lactification of the Anglo-Saxon drinks industry, that everywhere it was cappuccino and latte being deployed to ensnare customers, rather than chai or lapsang. Indeed, despite our lurking sense of tea’s resurgence in Britain as an object of dietary desire (rather than duty), a key visualisation of our national connection with the beverage proved to be the teapots for sale in a gift-shop near the Tower, cast in the form of Scott’s red telephone boxes, London buses, Big Ben.


Learning Outcome 2: Relocating Chinatown

Heritage Trail Plaque (Pennyfields Chinatown)
In search of Chinatown – the SPLASH heritage trail at Pennyfields

Familiarity with the urban landscape tends to breed the fiction of its stability, periodically ruptured though that is by sudden change. Having long been led to believe that Chinatown revolves around Gerard Street, W1, we were intrigued by the rumour that this cultural centre and tourist magnet is a recent recapitulation of a site once posited further east. So we struck out for Pennyfields, an unloved district of Tower Hamlets just north of Canary Wharf (in the shadow of the HSBC skyscraper). During the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries it was home to communities of sailors and emigrants from the distant port cities of Shanghai and Xiamen. Demonised in Yellow Peril pulp like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, old Chinatown was a socio-geographic function of London’s enduring commercial links with east Asia, embodied above all by the trade in silks, opium, and tea. Chinese settlers worked on British ships and signed up for the Royal Navy; the Lascar foundling James Robson enjoyed brief celebrity as cook on the Cutty Sark between 1885-95. Today the relics of Old Chinatown are meagre: an earnest, jaded sign on the SPLASH Heritage Trail; a series of exotic street names (Canton Street, Pekin Street, Nankin Street, Ming Street) that belie the locale’s postwar British grimness; the plaintive cheeriness of Noodle St, an unusually polished Pennyfields eaterie. Amidst these claims to heritage, we wondered if Birchfield Street’s Chun Yee Society Chinese School on Sundays represented the one authentic recollection of an again displaced world?


Learning Outcome 3: Hiding the East India Company

Our walk’s trajectory, though notionally (if in truth pitifully) resistant to dominant narratives, was necessarily inflected by the East India Company’s hegemony over the tea-trade during the long eighteenth century. Until the cultivation of colonial plantations in India, all tea came from China, and all legal tea (prior to the 1830s) was shipped by the East India Company. At one time, goods traded under the terms of its statutory monopoly found their way literally into every home in Britain (certainly in England). Yet in public, especially in the City, the East India Company is largely forgotten (aside perhaps from India Street in EC3), its locus of power rendered invisible by historical change and cultural anxiety. Of course, the Company emblematises (and enacted) deeply troubling facets of Britain’s past, not least by bequeathing its military and bureaucratic technologies as the imperial structure of British India. But it remains curious – particularly at a moment when remembering-without-celebrating has an increasingly viable public currency – that the East India Company is nowhere to be seen. We allow ourselves instead the comfort of obliviousness. So we found the Lloyd’s Building, the footprint of which matches that of East India House; but could discover no blue plaque. A neoclassical arch on Leadenhall Street transpired to be a twentieth-century war memorial. We drank all-too-briefly in the East India Arms on Fenchurch Street, but could not substantiate the rumours that its walls once formed a corner of the East India Company warehouses. If we did encounter the material remnants of the Company’s once formidable presence within the Square Mile it was almost accidental, and for the psychogeographer (if not the cultural historian) within us, gladsomely speculative. Whilst beating the bounds of the lost warehouse complex (via Richard Horwood’s 1790s street-map), dragging ourselves along Crutched Friars, we were tempted into French Ordinary Court (see below for a rough cut). A covered cul-de-sac (and secret car-park of sorts), its yellow brick walls visibly melded ancient and modern masonry. Maybe – just maybe – they whispered eerily, we once retained millions of pounds of Chinese tea, waiting for drinkers just like you.

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