When did Tea become the National Drink of England?

When and why did tea become the national drink of England? Throughout most of the 1700s, tea was affordable only to the wealthiest classes. But immediately after the War of Independence, in 1784, the British tax on tea was lowered from what amounted to a 100% tariff to a flat 12.5 per cent of the value of tea imported.

Why was the tax cut so dramatically? The motivating factor was ale. This was precipitated by bad harvests and high grain prices that drove up the price of ale, the staple drink of the poor.

In an era of without adequate public supplies of clean drinking water, the boiling of water or its fermentation into ale were necessary in order to make it reasonably safe.

Twining business card

Twining business card

The Twining family met several times with the Prime Minister to work a deal whereby the tax would be removed or lowered and the merchants would make up the loss of revenue to the treasury. Parliament recognized that ‘tea has become an economical substitute to the middle and lower classes of society for malt liquor, the price of which renders it impossible for them to procure the quantity sufficient for them as their only drink.’

Within ten years of the Commutation Act, tea imports had quadrupled and the Twining tea business boomed. This act solidified tea’s role as a necessity for all classes of British society and it marks the point at which we can see tea established as the national drink of England.

 

François de La Rochefoucauld in 1784 commented:

The drinking of tea is general throughout England. It is drunk twice a day, and although it is still very expensive, even the humblest peasant will take his tea twice a day, like the proudest; it is a huge consumption. Sugar, even unrefined sugar, which is necessary in large quantities and is very dear, does nothing to prevent this custom from being universal, without any exception.

Even the poorest English families drank tea after tea taxes were axed.

Even the poorest English families drank tea after tea taxes were axed.

Sir Frederic Eden in his 1797 survey of the state of the poor commented:

Any person who will give himself the trouble of stepping into the cottages of Middlesex and Surrey at meal times, will find that in poor families’ tea is not only usual beverage, in the morning and evening, but is generally drunk in large quantities even at dinner.