Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more


Watch this video with Dr Kate Smith discussing how tea become popular in Britain and how it is important in historic houses today
First and foremost, Kate, can you give us a brief overview of some of the everyday items that you look at? What are they? And why have you chosen them? Yeah, so Empire is something that we really find influencing all different walks of life in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century. So it has a really long history.
If we think about things that we consider to be really every day, a cup of tea, the sugar that we might put in tea, thinking about the spices that we use in cooking, thinking about some of the objects that we have, if we think about cotton and its relationship to Asia, particularly to India, these things, these everyday items that we use all the time in our homes, these all have imperial histories. And that’s why they’re here in Britain. And that really influenced why they came here, how they were used, and how we use them today. Right. So something like tea for example, well I was going to have some. But I’ve decided on water.
A timeline of how it ends up here, and why. So first of all, we have Europeans in the 16th century. So that’s the 1500s onwards. Travellers and merchants are going out to China. And they are the first people as Europeans to really engage with drinking tea. And they learn how to drink it, how to prepare it. And then we see it slowly coming over to Europe. By the time we get to the 1600s, lots of different European nations set up East India Company. So we see them being set up by England, by the Dutch, by France, by Denmark.
And this is because Europeans see the importance of going to Asia and trying to trade in these luxury commodities that they found. And tea is one of those luxury commodities. So they start shipping tea back to Europe really in the 17th century. People like Thomas Galway set up places where people can go and buy and drink tea. We also see kind of women of the court and scientists becoming really interested in tea. And then it’s really in the 18th century that it starts to become something that ordinary people, if you like, start to actually kind of drink, become involved with. So we know that by the 1760s, it’s become a kind of universal habit.
And really by the 1820s, this is when it starts to become linked to an idea of Britishness. It becomes so embedded in everyday life that it becomes associated with kind of British identities and ideas of Britishness. Sticking with tea, what do the tea cups, and tea pots, and things like that, what do they tell us about colonial Britain? That’s a really great question, Lynn, because once we start to think about it’s not just about the fact that tea comes in it’s this new drink, there’s also ways to drink it. And ceramics, particularly porcelain, become really important. Because the thing about porcelain is that it doesn’t break when you fill it with hot liquid.
And it’s not until– again, it’s the same kind of processes. So Chinese porcelain starts to be shipped in into Europe in the 16th and 17th century. And then British manufacturers say, well, gosh. We’re shipping all this porcelain in from China. People really want it to drink their tea. It’s starting to become a universal habit.
Let’s trying to imitate porcelain. Let’s try and make it. It’s not until 1708 that Europeans figure out how to make Chinese porcelain. That happens in Saxony, it ends up with the Meissen factory. In Britain, we see different kinds of imitation happening, both in terms of kind of this idea of producing porcelain, which is absolutely like Chinese porcelain, but also trying to produce sort of imitations of porcelain. And that gets us to people like Josiah Wedgwood and to his invention of creamware. So even when we’re thinking about the cup of tea, it’s not just about the tea in the cup. It’s also about the cup. Even that has this kind of imperial and colonial connections. Right. Yes, I see.
Also, I mean tea was very expensive, wasn’t it? Because I know from doing the volunteering that I do that these houses all have tea caddies. And that’s because– they were locked because the tea is expensive. Yeah, absolutely. And one of the– it’s interesting to think about how tea moves down the social scale. And one of the kind of important ways that people at the lower end of the social scale start to engage with tea is obviously servants. One of the biggest modes of employment in the 18th century is people involved, particularly women, are involved with domestic service.
And one of the ways in which servants are kind of arguing for better conditions and better pay in the 18th century is they want tea. They want a better ration of tea from their employers. One of the reasons that’s possible in Britain is because smuggling becomes really, really important and influential. Smuggling’s really important because it lowers the price. And it also means that tea is entering at different ports around the country. So you have kind of geographical range as well as it being something that people up and down the social scale drink.

Watch this video with Dr Kate Smith, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Birmingham, where she discusses:

  • The European nations that formed East India Companies
  • When tea became popular in Britain
  • How tea is important in historic houses today.

Reflect on the ways in which tea is consumed at historic house tearooms today. Is this a legacy of colonialism?

This article is from the free online

Country Houses and the British Empire: How Imperialism Transformed Britain’s Colonial Countryside

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now