A Nice Cup of Tea – George Orwell in the Eighteenth Century

One of the most influential statements of the British ‘way of tea’ is George Orwell’s essay ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in the Evening Standard on 12 January 1946. It was written at a time when tea was rationed and in short supply, against the backdrop of severe food shortages across Europe.[1] There’s something sentimental but also ironic about his title — this was a time when tea was widely available, as every adult in Britain had a 2oz weekly ration, but very little of it was nice. In mock-serious tones, Orwell’s essay gives us an eleven-point guide to tea making in mid-twentieth century England. But what would Orwell have described if he had been writing two hundred years earlier? How would he have described the tea making process in 1746?

tea_ration_book1

Tea in the eighteenth century, as now, was a hot infusion of the prepared leaves of camellia sinensis. But despite this basic similarity, there are a number of important differences to the process of making ‘a nice cup of tea’ between 1946 and 1746, reflecting both the kinds of tea used, and the kinds of labour involved. In describing how to make a nice cup of tea in 1746, those Orwellian instructions have to bifurcate, listing the division of responsibilities between the servants and the family. You will have to decide which one of these subject positions is closest to your own.

george-orwells-nice-cup-of-tea1

Servant track

First of all, one’s master or mistress will call for tea (the impersonal pronoun is Orwell’s convention). This instruction sets in train all subsequent decisions, such as preparing the tea service and ensuring there is sufficient hot water.

Secondly, one would arrange the tea equipage on a tray, selecting the right number of porcelain tea-cups and saucers, along with the sugar bowl, slops bowl, and a plate for bread and butter. Onto the tray, one would add a silver tea-pot, on a warming burner, sufficient tea spoons for each cup, and sugar tongs. The tray would be readied for service, and carried into the salon where the family was gathered.

Thirdly, one would prepare thin slices of bread and good bright butter. This is the only dairy product: there is no milk or cream served, nor is there a jug for its presentation.

Fourthly, one would pour sufficient water, preferably rain water, into a kettle, to be heated on the stove in the kitchen. To keep it warm for service, one would prepare a brazier of coals from the stove, carrying it into the salon where tea was to be served.

Detail of kettle on brazier of coals in Jan Josef Horemans, The New Song, 1740-1760, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
Detail of kettle on brazier of coals in Jan Josef Horemans, The New Song, 1740-1760, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,

Fifthly, when signaled by the master or mistress, you would bring the kettle from the brazier to the table, to add water to the tea-pot.

Sixthly, after the master or mistress has made and poured the tea, one should hand around the cups. As further cups are required, one is expected to ferry empty cups from the guest to your mistress or master, and back.

Seventhly, at the end of service, one would collect the tea equipage, and return it to the kitchens for cleaning and storage.

Richard Collins 'A Family of Three at Tea' ca. 1727, British Galleries, Victoria & Albert Museum London
Richard Collins ‘A Family of Three at Tea’ ca. 1727, British Galleries, Victoria & Albert Museum London

Family track

First of all, the ranking tea drinker should instruct a servant to prepare the tea service and sufficient hot water.

Second, one should use Chinese tea, of a better quality, either of the green kind (imperial, bing, singlo, soumlo), or the red kind (oolong or bohea). Tea is very precious, and selecting and ordering a fine kind reflects on your taste.

Thirdly, one would unlock and open the tea chest, withdrawing the canister for the tea or teas you wish to consume. One should be careful to keep the key to the tea chest safe about your person, so that no unauthorized use of the expensive commodity of tea can occur.

Fourthly, when the servant has brought the tea equipage into the salon, and arranged the brazier and kettle for use, one should instruct the servant to begin service.

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781-1783, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781-1783, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA

Fifthly, you should add sufficient tea to the tea-pot, of one kind or an admixture devised by oneself. Hot but not boiling water should be added to the leaves in the tea-pot, which should be allowed to rest for as long as it takes to complete a leisurely recitation of the Miserere Psalm (in the absence of individual timepieces, Psalm 51 was a common unit for the measure of time in cooking, delineating a period of about two and a half to three minutes).

Sixthly, tea for each member of the party should be poured into the cups, with sugar added by request. Filled cups are handed round by the servant.

Seventhly, further cups should be offered to all who signal that they would like a refill, indicated by the tea spoon remaining right way up on their saucer. Some men happily drank ten to fifteen of the small cups at one sitting: Samuel Johnson is reported to have drunk eighteen cups when he visited Mrs Zachariah Mudge in Plymouth in 1762. When the servant returns with a cup to be refilled, any remaining cold tea can be poured into the slops bowl.

Eighthly, at the end of tea service, a servant should be ordered to clear the tea things. Looking after the precious tea chest is one’s own responsibility, which must be locked, and then returned to one’s private closet.

18th Century Brass Mounted Tulipwood Tea Caddy
18th Century Brass Mounted Tulipwood Tea Caddy

Just as Orwell observed at the end of his essay in 1946, the tea itself is what makes it worth paying attention to the details of tea preparation. Orwell was writing at a time when tea was changing rapidly: demand for its consumption had grown during the war years, but supply had failed to keep pace. In the years after rationing was removed in 1952, consumption rose to a peak in 1956, but ever since then, tea consumption has declined. And tea preparation, through the rapid take-up of tea bags and instant teas, had become more and more efficient, using less and less tea to make more and more cups — and of less nice tea, Orwell might have added.

[1] George Orwell, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, in Smothered Under Journalism: 1946: Volume 18, in The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. by Peter Davison (London: Secker & Warburg, 1998), No. 2857, pp. 33-35.

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