Tea and the Madness of King George

king-george-iii-coronation-thumbWas it tea that brought on the madness of King George?

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.

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 the 1834 edition of The Medico-chirurgical Review:

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 are the true source of nervousness and mental ailments, and not merely this or that specific article of food or drink.

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.)

Tea at Kew Palace

The tea table of George III and Queen Charlotte in the second floor parlor at Kew Palace. Photo by Bruce Richardson

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

Portrait of Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), as a Bacchante by Joshua Reynolds

Portrait of Emma Hart Hamilton (1765-1815), as a Bacchante by Joshua Reynolds

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.