Elizabeth Pepys’s Potticary Tea

Samuel Pepys was an enthusiast for novelties. In the first few years of Restoration, he was surprised to see the return of full wigs, ‘painted’ women wearing cosmetics, and the theatre — and happily adopted them as soon as it was fashionable. He was also interested in novelty hot drinks, and was in the first few years of the 1660s a committed coffee-house habitué. His habituation to coffee began before his famous diary starts in 1660, so we don’t know what he thought of it (coffee had been openly sold in London from at least 1652).

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by J. Hayls. Oil on canvas, 1666, 756 mm × 629 mm National Portrait Gallery, London.
Portrait of Samuel Pepys by J. Hayls. Oil on canvas, 1666, 756 mm × 629 mm
National Portrait Gallery, London.

Of tea, Pepys appears to have been entirely ignorant until he was given a cup by Sir Richard Ford on 25 September 1660 at a meeting in the Navy Office in Seething Lane, near the Tower. He was the most junior among a group of navy Restoration heavy-weights, including Sir William Batten (Surveyor of the Navy), Colonel Slingsby (the Comptroller of the Navy), Sir Richard Ford, and Pepys. In his Diary, Pepys wrote a note about the meeting:

Where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before) and went away.[1]

While Ford went off to other business, Pepys remained in the office, having another meeting with Colonel Birch and Sir R. Browne (making sense of Pepys’s writing, it was Ford who left, and also Ford who called for the ‘tee’). Given this is a secret diary intended for a few eyes only, it is interesting that Pepys needs to explain in brackets that ‘tee’ is ‘a China drink’: he seems to have been totally unsure of what it was.

Although untrue, Pepys has been celebrated as the first English writer to writer about tea.
images Although untrue, Pepys has been celebrated as the first English writer to describe tea.

Who was Sir Richard Ford and what did he know of tea? An English merchant who held high office during the Protectorate as a Commissioner in the East India Company, Ford had been knighted for his loyalty to the crown during the Restoration in 1660 – in other words, he had successfully managed the transition of his loyalty from Cromwell’s Protectorate to Charles’s Kingdom. Ford had spent time in Holland, living in Rotterdam during the English Civil War. His commercial contacts in the East India Company, and in the Netherlands, were both important influences on his tea drinking. Ford was an important man in the navy and in the government, with powerful supporters at Court. Pepys thought he was ‘a very able man of his brains and tongue, and a scholar’, though he also discovered Ford was unable to keep a secret. Ford was wealthy, and could afford to import tea from Holland. It was remarkably expensive: advertisements in the press in 1660 give prices for ‘tea or tay’ from two to six pounds a pound. This is ten times the cost of coffee, making it a very expensive drink indeed. To illustrate how expensive this was, compare the price of tea with that of sherry. In 1660 Pepys spent a shilling to buy a dozen bottles of sack (sherry or other white wine from Spain). At this rate, a pound of tea was worth the same as 1440 bottles of sherry. Cheap sherry costs about £7 in my local supermarket, making a pound of tea over £10,000 in today’s money.

Seventeenth century tea-time with Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraeten (1630–1700).
Seventeenth century tea-time with Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraeten (1630–1700).

Pepys didn’t much like tea. It isn’t clear what sort he drank, though it was likely to be a green tea from China. In any case, every subsequent mention of tea in the Diary is deeply suspicious of it, and this at a time when he was habitually drinking coffee. On 13 December 1665 Pepys visited a business associate, a navy purser called Mr Pierce, ‘where he and his wife made me drink some tea’.[2] Again, this doesn’t sound like he enjoyed the drink.

Finally (at least in the Diary), on 28 June 1667, Pepys notes that his wife Elizabeth drank some tea on medical advice, as directed by her apothecary Mr Pelling (perhaps Walter Pelling, Master of the Society of Apothecaries, 1671-72). Pepys says he came ‘by coach home, and there find my wife making of tea, a drink which Mr. Pelling, the Potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions’.[3] As this makes clear, Elizabeth Pepys considered tea a therapeutic remedy, good for cold and defluxions — the latter being a runny nose (flow or discharge accompanying a cold, a running at the nose). There’s no evidence either way, but this makes me think that medicinal grade tea may have been prepared as a tincture or decoction, a very strong and bitter drink that tried to capture the effective essence or principles of the substance.

Elisabeth Pepys in a stipple engraving by John Thomson, after a 1666 painting (now destroyed) by John Hayls.
Elisabeth Pepys in a stipple engraving by John Thomson, after a 1666 painting (now destroyed) by John Hayls.

A Recipe for Elizabeth Pepys’s Potticary Tea

Serves two.

Mr Pelling the Potticary says tea is good for colds and defluxions. I was served something like this in 2001 in Noe Valley, San Francisco, by a libertarian professor of philosophy. He made it in a coffee-filter from Yorkshire tea-bags and served it lukewarm with coffee-mate (a non-dairy creamer made by Nestlé which can stay fresh for up to two years after opening). I can still taste it.

  1. Take six teabags, ideally of a strong dark British tea like Tetleys or Yorkshire.
  2. Place in a pot with two cups of water, bring to the boil, and keep on a slow simmer for ten minutes.
  3. Strain tea into cups and serve. The brew should be black and opaque, looking to the eye a little like coffee. It will be powerfully tannic and bitter. Elizabeth Pepys didn’t take it with coffee-mate, but you may try adding some if you wish.
Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraeten (1630–1700) 'Still-Life with Chinese Teabowls', second half of 17th century
Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraeten (1630–1700) ‘Still-Life with Chinese Teabowls’, second half of 17th century

This is part of a series of posts to this blog during 2015 that relates to a specific chapter of Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.

[1] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, trans and ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols (London: Bell & Hyman, 1970-1983), I, p. 253.

[2]  Diary of Samuel Pepys, VI, 328.

[3]  Diary of Samuel Pepys, VIII, p. 302.

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