Rich Tea, Poor Tea

One of the great gifts of cultural history – and great pleasures of being a cultural historian – is to analyse how objects and practices that we experience from day-to-day as stable and enduring, actually turn out to be shifting and transitory when viewed in historical perspective. Things are not always as they seem, so to speak. This is certainly as true for tea in Britain as for anything else. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about how tea in eighteenth-century Britain was viewed as an engine of moral delinquency, but was re-appraised in the Victorian world as an upright and sobering beverage that could off-set the evils of gin and strong beer. Likewise I’ve thought about how tea’s social and economic value was transformed during the long-eighteenth century from a ‘luxury’ to a ‘necessary’ item of daily life. (This is summarised in our Janus-concept of the ‘luxo-necessity’, and in the nineteenth-century notion of tea as ‘necessary luxury’.) Now I want to turn to another process of cultural historical inversion: the shift from tea being understood as an index of wealth and status, to tea demarcating wretchedness and penury.

When tea was first retailed in Britain during the mid-seventeenth century, the price was exclusively high. In an oft-cited advertising broadsheet circulated by Thomas Garway (also Garraway) in the 1660s, tea was valued between 16-50 shillings per pound (as a rough guide, 16 shillings was at least two weeks’ salary for a labourer). Even 50 years later, when Mr Spectator was promising (or threatening) to bring philosophy ‘to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee–houses’, tea typically sold for upwards of 10 shillings per pound. Not surprisingly, in its early days British tea was firmly established in the public imagination as an expensive luxury, affordable (and appropriate) only for the nobility, gentry, and urbane middling sort.

In Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress (1732), Moll’s taste for tea emblematises her susceptibility to social ambition and her chronic moral fragility. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

For this reason, the consumption of tea by the labouring classes was routinely observed with a mixture of suspicion, concern, and outrage. For Jonas Hanway in 1756, the tea-drinking of the poor was ‘an idle custom; an absurd expence’: ‘those will have TEA who have not BREAD’. Pricy, foreign tea was simply incommensurate with dominant ideas about the proper character, province, and habits of the labouring sort. ‘China, Jamaica, the bake-house, the dairy, the poultry or fish-market, with the seasoning shop, must all combine now to furnish a chambermaid’s breakfast!’, complained Godfrey McCalman in 1787.[1] Alongside Caribbean sugar, Chinese tea remained a notation of disposable wealth, and as such was an inappropriate commodity for widespread consumption.

Of course there were more sympathetic voices even in the eighteenth century. Writing in 1795, the clergyman David Davies reproached the likes of McCalman for begrudging the impecunious an occasional draught of ‘spring water, just coloured with a few leaves of the lowest-priced tea, and sweetened with the brownest sugar’. Here then was a new way of imagining tea: not as a marker of affluence but rather as evidence of its absence. For Davies ‘tea-drinking is not the cause, but the consequence, of the distresses of the poor’.[2] This recognition turned on its head the commonplace construction of tea as indelibly luxurious, unforgiveably self-indulgent. During the nineteenth century this inverted narrative became dominant. Indeed, when Sir Henry Ellis, Commissioner of the Board of Control, framed a new scale of excise duties for tea in 1834 he claimed (before the Select Committee convened to review the relevant Act of Parliament) that ‘the whole object I had in view was the interests of the lower orders, as far as they could be combined with the interests of the revenue’.

Genuine Tea Company (1825). In this etching, tea-drinking by the poor remains a target of satire, but it is also a normal part of the urban landscape. Image: Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

In Victorian Britain, tea became so affordable and widespread as to appear truly ubiquitous. Such conditions meant that tea could no longer sustain its totemic value as a signifier of luxury and fashion. Instead tea functioned increasingly as an index of common life – and in households where it was the sole beverage consumed, it came to symbolise poverty. The truth of this observation struck me recently when I was reading Annie Besant’s famous essay ‘White Slavery in London’, published in issue 21 of The Link: A Journal for the Servants of Man (23 June 1888). The Link was a weekly 4 page newspaper, priced at a half-penny, carrying stories with socialist slant, principally (but not solely) in relation to London. The plight of female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow – now an upscale neo-suburban apartment block – was one recurrent cause of the paper:

A typical case is that of a girl of 16, a piece-worker; she earns 4s. a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who “earns good money, as much as 8s. or 9s. per week”. Out of the earnings 2s. is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where “you get coffee, and bread and butter, and jam, and marmalade, and lots of it”; now and then she goes to the Paragon, someone “stands treat, you know”, and that appeared to be the solitary bit of color in her life.

What is noticeable (for my purposes) of course is that ‘tea’ has been re-invented alongside ‘bread-and-butter’ as a subsistence staple. Even ‘coffee’ – which found popularity and a sizeable market-share more rapidly than tea when introduced in seventeenth-century London – retained a lingering waft of luxury for the interviewee ‘piece-worker’ (if not perhaps, for the actual readership of The Link). Such accounts of tea became fundamental to descriptions of working-class life in late nineteenth-century Britain. In Children of Gibeon (1886), by Annie’s husband Walter Besant, the heroine Valentine (who has left a life of relative comfort for East London, where she intends to rediscover what she wrongly believes to be her proletarian roots) imagines a curse to which female garment workers in the city have been subjected by the tyrant ‘Witch’ who oversees their button-hole making work:

“You girls; take the work or leave it. If you leave it, you will starve; if you take it, you shall taste meat once a week — on Sundays, perhaps — and live for six days on bread and butter and tea. You shall work all day long except Sundays; you shall not have any holidays; you shall waste and throw away in this dreadful work all your youth and beauty; you shall not know any pleasure or rest or fulness; you shall go hungry in body and soul.”

In the eighteenth century, tea-drinking by the poor indicated indecent pretensions to upward social mobility, or an improvident taste for fashion among those whose priorities really lay elsewhere. By the later nineteenth century, a diet of tea alone had become synonymous with abject misery and social marginalisation. Our forthcoming book, Empire of Tea, is deeply interested in such reversals. Tea as commodity, routine, and idea has become deeply embedded in certain imaginaries of Britishness (and Englishness). If we are to understand these categories of national identity as historically contingent, then appreciating the instability of their constituent parts is vital. The transformation of tea – from luxury to necessity, from rarity to ubiquity, from occasional to quotidian, from foreign to domestic, from other to us – is not a wondrous aberration, but rather the shape of cultural history itself.


[1] Godfrey McCalman, A Natural, Commercial and Medicinal Treatise on Tea (Glasgow, 1787), p. 119.

[2] David Davies, The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered, in Three Parts (London, 1795), p. 39.


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