092：EPISODE 92 - Early Victorian Tea Set
Early Victorian tea set (made between 1840 and 1845), from Staffordshire, England
What could be more domestic, more unremarkable, more 'British', than a nice cup of tea? But you could ask that question the other way round and ask what could be 'less' British than a cup of tea, given that tea is made from plants grown in India, China or Africa, and is usually sweetened by sugar from the Caribbean. It's one of the extraordinary ironies of British national identity - or perhaps it says everything about our national identity - that the drink that has become the worldwide caricature of Britishness has nothing indigenous about it, but is the result of centuries of global trade and a complex imperial history. Behind the modern British cup of tea lie the high politics of Victorian Britain. The story of nineteenth-century empire, of mass production and mass consumption, the taming of a turbulent and drunken industrial working class, the re-shaping of agriculture across continents, the movement of millions of people . . . and a world-wide shipping industry. It's a lot to think about as you tuck into the cucumber sandwiches at the vicarage.
"It takes one into the heart of the Victorian parlour. You have this superficial gloss of politeness and sobriety, but underneath you have this absolutely cut-throat imperial economic agenda." (Celina Fox)
This week we're looking at the global economy in the nineteenth century, at mass production and mass consumption, when all over the industrialised world luxuries became commonplace - clothes and clocks, pepper and porcelain - and some luxuries came to be seen as not only desirable but essential. In Britain, the most ubiquitous of all these former luxuries was tea.
Today's object is the tea set that I've got in front of me now - three pieces of brownish-red pottery. A smallish teapot with a short straight spout, a milk jug and a sugar bowl - the trinity of afternoon tea. They were made - as we can read on their bases - at Wedgwood's Etruria factory in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, in the heart of the Potteries. In the eighteenth century Wedgwood had made some of the most expensive ceramics in Britain, but this earthenware tea set shows that by the 1840s, when Wedgwood produced it, the company was aiming at a much wider market. This is quite clearly a mid-range tea set, of a sort that many quite modest British households were now able to afford. But this had not been the case for long.
Among the upper classes, tea had been popular since before 1700. It received celebrity endorsement first from Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza, and then again from Queen Anne. It came from China, it was expensive and it was refreshingly bitter, drunk in tiny cups without milk or sugar. People kept their tea in locked tea caddies as if it were a drug, and for those who could afford it, it often was. In the 1750s Samuel Johnson confessed himself a happy addict:
". . . a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for 20 years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning." ('The Literary Magazine')
Desire for the drink increased steadily in the eighteenth century. At some point early in the century people had started adding milk and sugar, transforming bitter refinement into sustaining sweetness. Consumption rocketed - tea supplies surged to meet the nation's growing appetite, and prices fell. Unlike coffee, which was seen as a masculine drink, with heavy overtones of all lads together, tea was specifically marketed as a respectable drink suitable for both sexes - and women were particularly targeted. Tea houses and tea gardens flourished in London, china tea sets became an essential part of a fashionable household, and less costly versions in pottery spread throughout society.
There's one more point that needs to be made about our tea set. Although it's made of simple earthenware, it's been given something extra, because all three pieces have been decorated with lacy open-work silver, cut out by hand. This is not for a modest middle-class household - this is a tea set with serious aspirations. It's not just going to keep up with the Jones's, it's going to leave them far behind.
As the eighteenth century went on, and tea got cheaper, the taste for it spread rapidly to the working classes. In 1809 a startled Swedish visitor to Britain noted:
"Next to water, tea is the Englishman's proper element. All classes consume it. In the morning one may see in many places small tables set up under the open sky, around which coal-carters and workmen empty their cups of delicious beverage."
By 1900 every person in Britain was, on average, getting through a staggering three kilos of tea a year. The ruling classes had an interest in promoting tea-drinking among the industrial urban population, who were poor, vulnerable to disease, and thought to be given to disorderly drunkenness. Beer, port and gin had all become a significant part of the diet of men, women and even children, largely because alcohol as a mild antiseptic was much safer to drink than the unpurified city water. Religious leaders and temperance movements joined together to proclaim the merits of tea. A cup of sweet, milky tea made with boiled water was healthy, cheap, energy-giving - and it didn't make you drunk. So in that way it was also a powerful instrument of social control. Here's historian Celina Fox:
"Temperance was huge. Drink and the Victorians was a very big issue. The desire to have a working population that was sober and industrious was very, very strong, and there was a great deal of propaganda to that effect. It was tied in with dissent, Methodism and so on . . . sobriety . . . and tea really was the drink of choice. And on top of that you have got the ritual of afternoon tea, because by this time dinner had become so late - 7.30, 8 o'clock - it was quite a bit of a gap for the British tummy between lunchtime and evening. So again, there is a revival of tea drinking as a sort of meal - for sandwiches and so forth - round about 4 o'clock. So really tea drinking takes off in a massive way in the nineteenth century."
In a remarkable re-branding of the British character, boisterous, rowdy beer was ousted as the defining national drink, and replaced by polite, respectable tea. Songs and poems celebrated tea's triumph over the demon drink:
"With you I see, in ages yet unborn,
Thy votaries the British Isles adorn,
Till rosy Bacchus shall his wreaths resign,
And love and tea triumph o'er the vine."
But our loving, tranquil cup of tea has a violent hinterland. To buy tea from the Chinese, British traders brought huge quantities of opium into the country, a practice that led to the two Opium Wars between Britain and China. We refer to these as the Opium Wars, but in fact they were just as much about tea. And the first Opium War broke out more-or-less at the same time as our teapot was leaving the Wedgwood factory.
Traders began looking for other sources, and in the 1830s the British set up tea plantations around Calcutta. In order to encourage demand, tea from British India was exempted from import duty, and strong, dark Assam tea became the patriotic national "cuppa". As the century went on, further tea plantations were established in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and large numbers of Tamils moved from South India to Ceylon to work on them. The physical geography and the populations of both India and Sri Lanka were re-shaped by the insatiable British thirst for tea. Here's Monique Simmonds from Kew Gardens:
"You would have had hundreds of acres being turned over to tea, especially in India. They also had success when they took it to places like Ceylon. It would have had an impact on local populations, but it also did bring jobs to the area - although low-paid jobs - and started off with males being employed. But then it was mostly females who would be clipping the tea. Local communities in parts of India and China were benefiting from growing the material, and also being able to sell it. But the added value from the trade would have really occurred within the Empire, and especially within Britain."
If there was big money in growing tea, fortunes were also made in shipping it. The tea trade required huge numbers of large fast clippers, and when they docked in British harbours they met cargo vessels coming from the other side of the world, bringing sugar from the Caribbean.
Getting sugar on to the British tea table had, until recently, also had a darker side. The first African slaves in the Americas worked on sugar plantations, the start of the long and terrible triangular trade that carried European goods to Africa, African slaves to the Americas, and slave-produced sugar to Europe. After a long campaign, which involved many of the same people who supported temperance movements, slavery in the British West Indies had been abolished. But there was still a great deal of slave sugar around - Cuba was a massive producer - and it was of course cheaper than the sugar produced on free plantations. In the 1840s, the ethics of sugar were hot politics.
The most peaceful part of our tea set is of course the milk jug. But it too is part of a huge social and economic transformation. Until the 1830s, for urban-dwellers to have milk, cows had to live in the city - it's an aspect of nineteenth-century life we're barely aware of now. But suburban railways changed all that. Thanks to them, the cows could leave town.
"A new trade has been opened in Surrey since the completion of the South-Western Railway. Several dairies of 20 to 30 cows are kept, and the milk is sent to the various stations of the South-Western Railway, and conveyed to the Waterloo terminus for the supply of the London Market."
Our tea set is in fact a three-piece social history of nineteenth-century Britain. And it's a lens through which we can look at a large part of the history of the world. Here's historian Linda Colley:
"I think the other striking thing for me is, of course, it does underline how much empire - consciously or not - impacts on everybody eventually in this country. If, in the nineteenth century, you are sitting at a mahogany table, drinking tea with sugar, you are linked to virtually every continent on the globe. You are linked with the Royal Navy, which is guarding the sea routes between these continents. You are linked with this great tentacular capital machinery, through which the British control so many parts of the world and ransack them for commodities."
In the next programme we will be in another tea-drinking island nation, but one that - quite unlike Britain - had done all it could to keep itself separate from the rest of the world. Yet the image that I shall be looking at is now known all over the world . . . we'll be in Japan, with a print of Hokusai's 'Great Wave'.