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The Royal Dining Table at Kew Palace.

Tea and the Madness of King George

The exterior of Kew Palace in England
Kew Palace

Was it tea that brought on the madness of King George and his eventual banishment to Kew Palace at the turn of the 19th century?

Dr. Willis, psychiatrist and guardian to George III during His Majesty’s debilitating illness and confinement at Kew Palace, suggested it was specifically Chinese tea that drove men mad.

As I’ve previously written, both King George and Queen Charlotte were avid tea drinkers. You can see their exquisite tea wares on display in their second-floor apartments at Kew Palace.

In A Treatise on those disorders of the brain and nervous system, which are usually considered and called mental, a Dr. Unwins considered Willis’s thesis and expands on the doctor’s diagnosis.

The treatise was published in the 1834 edition of The Medico-chirurgical Review.

Here are a couple of quotes from that paper:

Willis might be correct in one sense, but not in another. It is not the mere abstract poison of tea which deteriorates the nervous system—though there is something even in this,—but it is the accompaniments which tea brings with it that do the greatest mischief.

Pianos, parasols, Edinburgh Reviews, and Paris-going desires are now found among a class of persons who formerly thought these things belonged to a different race; there is the true source of nervousness and mental ailments, and not merely this or that specific article of food or drink.

Kew dining room in England
The first floor Dining Room at Kew Palace.

Can tea-drinking increase mischievous desires for pianos and Paris-going?

Dr. Unwin’s hypothesis must be true because I fall into that category of deviant behavior.

I willfully confess that, like King George, I constantly drink tea and have enjoyed the pleasures of pianos and Paris-going since my teenage years. Thankfully, parasols have not yet been a distraction— but I do love a good Edinburgh Review.

Photograph of Miss Emily Hart by Joshua Reynolds
Emma Hart by Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy V&A.

Other moralists of the day preached that tea was no innocent diversion for it tended to corrupt society with pleasure gardens where tea and associated vices prevailed. But if tea really had a corrupting influence on London society, the path to hell ran through the fine homes of the rich and not via the public gardens. Here’s an illustration

During the late 1700s, wealthy London noblemen sometimes employed resident “tea-blenders,” attractive female servants with, perhaps, other duties than simply tending the master’s tea table. The most notorious was Emma Hart (c.1765-1815), famed mistress of Lord Nelson and muse to artist George Romney.

Emma was considered the ‘fair tea maker of Edgware Row’. Young, vivacious and beautiful, she conjured up the embodiment of ancient Greek sculptures in the mind of yet another suitor William Hamilton, British Envoy at Naples.

Unable to erase Emma’s classical features from his mind because he said, they reminded him of a Greek goddess, Lord Hamilton commissioned none other than the president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to paint a likeness of her as a teasing follower of Bacchus.

Beware, dear reader, the temptations of the seemingly innocent cup of tea!

Bruce Richardson’s latest book is  A Social History of Tea.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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