Buying Tea in 1801

A few years ago I bought a receipt for the purchase of some tea in 1801. It cost about £10 on eBay. What does it tell us about the tea trade at the end of the eighteenth century? What can we find out about the receipt?

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My receipt records a transaction in London in June 22 1801, when the ‘Rev Mr Tonyn’ bought some tea from the shop of Richard, John & Richard Twining at No. 216, The Corner of Devereux Court near Temple Bar in the Strand.

Twinings (it doesn’t have an apostrophe any more) is an interesting firm, one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the world. It began life in 1706, when Thomas Twining became the proprietor of a coffee-house in Devereux Court in 1706. This place, soon known as ‘Tom’s Coffee-House’ went on to become one of the most celebrated coffee-houses of eighteenth-century London: notable for its clientele that included numerous poets, writers, and philosophers, as well as students from the nearby Inns of Court, and members of the Royal Society. It had an extensive library of books too, as I have described elsewhere, which coffee-house regulars could subscribe to, and for a small amount of money, keep up with the latest entertaining satires and political pamphlets.[1] From an early date, Twining developed a retail trade in tea, which from 1717 onwards was sold from a shop next door to the coffee-house, at the sign of the ‘Golden Lyon’.[2] The ledgers of his tea and coffee sales covering of these years remain in the archives of R. Twinings & Co., in a non-descript light industrial building in Andover, Hampshire, where I visited them one day in 2004, where I was shown around by Stephen Twining, then the Marketing Director, and a direct descendant of Tom Twining. These ledgers detail sales of tea, and a range of other consumables, to a wide range of people, both gentlemen in the country, and to other coffee-house proprietors. One of Twining’s most lucrative customers was Daniel Button, the keeper of Button’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Between 1716 and 1722, Button purchased packets of roasted coffee almost every day, in one or two pound quantities, along with further orders for bohea tea, pekoe tea, green tea, spaw water, rum, arrack, snuff, sugar and chocolate. For the coffee, Button paid between 5s.6d to 6s.8d per pound, and for bohea tea between 16s and 18s per pound.[3]

Trade card of Twinings, tea dealer and grocer (1789), British Museum Collection of Prints and Drawings: Trade cards Banks 68.139
Trade card of Twinings, tea dealer and grocer (1789), British Museum Collection of Prints and Drawings: Trade cards Banks 68.139

The shop in Devereux Court expanded over the years, and after some extensive rebuilding, ended up with a splendid entrance on the Strand. It is still there, now a ‘shop museum‘, 308 years after it opened (although the original buildings have all been rebuilt several times, most recently in the 1950s after Devereux Court was flattened in the Blitz). The entrance to the shop has a beautiful inhabited frieze: a golden lion in the middle, recalling the shop’s first sign board depicting the ‘Golden Lyon’, between two reclining Chinese men, one in yellow and one in blue, wearing distinctive Chinese hats. The ornamental entrance to the shop is still there, although Twinings was taken over in 1964 by Associated British Foods, a multinational food processing and retail giant, which also owns various food brands such as Ovaltine and Rivita, as well as the cut-price clothing chain Primark.

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From 1706 to 1964 though, Twining’s was a family business. In 1801, the company was headed by Richard Twining (1749–1824), born over the shop in Devereux Court, and subsequently educated at Eton College. Richard started at the company aged sixteen, and took over overall management in 1771. He rose to great prominence in the tea trade. He was one of the leading tea-trade lobbyists in the 1780s, who successfully persuaded the government to pass the Commutation Act in 1784-86, which greatly lowered the tax on tea, and so destroyed the smuggling trade. He was a director of the East India Company, and as such, a very important player in the tea trade in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a period of great change for the Company. He was joined at the head of the Twining’s tea company by his brother John, and his son Richard Twining (1772–1857), who was also born at Devereux Court, and was educated under Samuel Parr at Norwich Grammar School. The younger Richard (‘& Richd Twining’ on my receipt) started work in the tea business in 1794, where he worked until within five weeks of his death on 14 October 1857. On my receipt, the customer had been served by another Twining, ‘J.A. Twining’.

‘Richard Twining (1749–1824), tea merchant’, (1812) engraving by Charles Turner, after John James Halls
‘Richard Twining (1749–1824), tea merchant’, (1812) engraving by Charles Turner, after John James Halls

What about the customer? He is described as the ‘Rev Mr Tonyn’. He is probably the Reverend Charles William Tonyn, the Rector of St Mary’s Church in Radnage, a village in the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire. His death was noticed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in September 1805, when he was described as being 75 years old, having served as Rector for 37 years. He was unusual in his family in that he went into the church rather than following his father and brothers into the military: his brother John was a cavalry commandant with the East India Company in Madras and his brother George took part in the capture of Quebec with Wolfe during the Seven Years War. His father was General Patrick Tonyn, an officer in the dragoons who rose to become Governor of East Florida between 1775 and 1783 and subsequently supervised the hand over of Florida to the Spanish before he left in 1785.

Tea Leaves: a - Flowery Pekoe, b - Orange Pekoe, c - Pekoe, d - Souchong (first). e - Souchong (second). f - Congou. H - Bohea.
Tea Leaves: a – Flowery Pekoe, b – Orange Pekoe, c – Pekoe, d – Souchong (first). e – Souchong (second). f – Congou. H – Bohea.

The receipt is for two parcels of tea. The first mentioned is for two packets of ‘fine Souchong’ tea costing six shillings and sixpence (‘6/6’) each, adding up to thirteen shillings. The second is for one packet of ‘fine Green’ tea at nine shillings. The total price for the two packets is one pound and two shillings. This is a lot of money: the equivalent of about fifty pounds now (but more than two weeks pay for a manual worker).

Souchong tea
Souchong tea

Tonyn has purchased two kinds of tea. One is simply identified as a fine green tea. The other is ‘Souchong’, a tea with no exact modern equivalent, and which, like ‘bohea’, seems to refer to different products at different times in the eighteenth century. In the 1790s, it was in some sense a kind of Bohea, that is, an Oolong tea from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian province in China. It was less refined and of lower quality than Pekoe, which was made from the newest and most tender leaves at the tips of the tea bush. Souchong was made from lower grade and larger leaves further from the tip: Congou was cheaper still, and further from the tip. Like all bohea teas, Souchong counted as a ‘black’ tea in the eighteenth century, although as an Oolong, its leaf was greyish in appearance, and the liquid colour was more accurately described as ‘a dirty dark brown, tinged with a slight green’ (to quote a tea guide from 1785).[4]

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What does this receipt tell us about the tea trade? The receipt accompanied the packets of tea to Tonyn, perhaps even to his rectory in Radnage. There, it was folded in four, and then ‘filed’ by being strung on a string or wire. As the reverse of the receipt makes clear, the folds and filing holes in the receipt are quite distinct. The filed receipt was thereafter endorsed in ink ‘22 June 1803 / R J Twining’ (followed by an indistinct word). This date may have been when Tonyn paid his account to Twining.  The receipt gives us a brief insight into the back office of a tea company: each transaction was recorded in a ledger by a sales clerk, who issued a receipt on purchase, and at a later date, sent an account to be settled. All this points to the fact that the tea trade was a highly organised information network as well as a system for redistributing prepared botanical commodities around the world.

Detail of a Twining's wrapper, 1765 (John Johnson Collection, Oxford)
Detail of a Twining’s wrapper, 1765 (John Johnson Collection, Oxford)

[1] Markman Ellis, ‘Coffee-house Libraries in Mid Eighteenth-Century London’, The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, 10: 1 (March 2009), pp. 3-40

[2] Stephen H. Twining, The House of Twining 1706-1956 (London: R. Twining, 1956), pp. 4-13.

[3] T.T. Ledger C, 1715-1722. R. Twining & Co. Archives, Andover, Hampshire. Mss 5/3/1, ff 24, 59, 98, 130, 170, 229, 260, 288, 299, 320, 345

[4] The tea purchaser’s guide; or, The lady and gentleman’s tea table and useful companion, in the knowledge and choice of teas (London: 1785)

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