How tea came to Britain – a story of pirates, princesses, and coffee


In Britain we are all avid drinks of tea, but it’s surprising how little we know of its history and how it came to our shores. Interestingly, Great Britain was actually the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes – before doing which there was simply no access to tea in Britain!

It was 1601 when the first voyage of the East India Company set out under Captain James Lancaster. Lancaster had to resort to piracy in order to bring back things such as pepper, trading South India cottons and textiles in Java and Sumatra. The lack of success in their first expedition meant that they would need more money in order to be able to compete with the Dutch, and as such EIC remained unsuccessful for a further 20 years.



It was around this time that Catherine of Braganza of Portugal married Charles II and brought with her the preference for tea. Being her drink of choice, it quickly gained social acceptance among the aristocracy as she often used it to replace ale or wine. In an attempt to please Charles II, the East India Company brought small gifts of tea from Europe for Catherine in 1664 and 1666. Despite these small gifts of tea, the EIC did not actually consider tea to be worth importing from China until 1668. The Portuguese and Dutch continued to supply Europe, not including England, with tea for some time, until East India Company were eventually able to absorb their competitors and capitalise on tea’s growing popularity. In no time at all, tea became popular enough to replace ale entirely as the national drink of England!

Interestingly, it was London coffee houses that were responsible for introducing tea to the public of England. One of the first merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public, but it was very expensive. So expensive in fact, that people began to smuggle tea into England to avoid tax!

Nowadays, tea is more popular than ever, with the UK importuning around 160 thousand tonnes of tea per year and drinking 165 millions cups per day, that’s 62 billion cups per year. So, who’s turn is it to make the tea?