"While there is tea there is hope", wrote the playwright Arthur Wing Pinero in Sweet Lavender.

While The Lightbox is closed to the public and many of us are confined to our own homes, we've recruited the help of Rosemary and Richard, two of our beloved Heritage volunteers, to discuss topics relating to the home.

Having a cup of tea is something the British have been doing at home or in cafés and tea rooms for three and a half centuries.

But what do we know about the history of tea?

Drawing of the tea plant 

Tea was first grown in China and comes from the camellia sinensis plant, which is native to East Asia. It was originally a medicinal drink from south west China and the first reference to the beverage dates back to the third century.

Tea plantation

In 1662, King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza who had a taste for Chinese tea, known as ‘Tchaa’, and thus tea-drinking became fashionable at the Royal Court.

Tea was first advertised in a London Journal c.1660 by Thomas Garway, the owner of a London coffee house and the first to sell and brew tea on the premises. By 1700, tea was being sold by grocers and tea shops in London, and by the 1720s, black tea overtook green tea in popularity as its price dropped.

Originally, tea was served weak, without milk and in a handleless cup. Costing about £4 for a pound of tea, it was still very expensive and was kept safely locked up, sometimes in beautifully ornamented caddies. The word 'caddy' is derived from the Chinese 'catty', the Chinese pound, equal to about 700g.

Chinese tea caddy

Tea in Woking

Thomas Twining opened the first tea shop for ladies in London in 1717, which welcomed all classes. The Twining name is now famous for its tea and between 1913 and 1915, one of the partners of Twining's, Clement Twining Donaldson, lived in The Ridgeway in Horsell, Woking.

Tea drinking increased rapidly during the nineteenth century when it was found growing wild in Assam and tea was cultivated in India on a large scale. However, while the addition of sugar in tea was popular, the Quakers and Methodists refused sugar as a protest against the slave trade as many slaves were working in sugar plantations, although by now milk was usually added to the brew.

It is reputed that William Ewart Gladstone, the nineteenth century Prime Minister, would on occasion, put tea in his hot water bottle before bed - presumably in case he got thirsty in the night!

In the grand houses of Woking, there would have been formal afternoon tea, e.g. at Sutton Place, and in Byfleet, where a house was used to depict the home of the Dowager Lady Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. Such gatherings, mostly of ladies, would have been frequent.

The Introduction of Afternoon Tea

For most people, dropping into each other’s houses for a morning or afternoon cup of tea would have been quite usual, but largely unrecorded, although postcards might’ve be sent and delivered between neighbours inviting each other for a cup.

Afternoon tea was introduced by the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840 to satisfy her hunger between lunch time and dinner, which was usually served at 8 o’clock. From a cup of tea and a piece of cake, afternoon tea has grown to include sandwiches and scones and has become a very popular English custom, served in many cafés, including some in Woking.

Afternoon tea

Census data for the impact of tea in Woking seems to fall into two classes:

First, in the 1939 register taken on 29 September, there were eight retired or active tea planters and merchants living in considerable luxury in the area. One tea buyer was a patient at Brookwood Hospital, and another was John Brett, brother of illustration artist and previous Local Hero in Woking's Story, Molly Brett. A further four were employed in the tea business, probably in London, and at an uncertain level. 

Second, nearer home, five men and women were proprietors of tea shops, along with managers – from Lyons tea shop, located outside Woking, and of Theresa Pielsticker's tea shop in West Byfleet – and just one assistant. Phrases like 'merchant' or 'café assistant' may have been used to cover others involved in the business.

There do not seem to be any tea-related occupations shown in censuses earlier than 1911, when there were a tea merchant, a retired tea planter at one end of the social scale, two tea hawkers in Brookwood Hospital, and a blind tea peddler at the other, along with some local tea shop workers.

Tipperary Tea Room, Duke Street, Woking. Demolished in 1958 when Woolworths was rebuilt.

The Tipperary Tea Room in Duke Street opened in 1915 and was part of the Tipperary League set up to provide an opportunity for soldiers’ and  sailors’ wives to socialise – a rejected suggestion for its name was ‘Woking Women’s Tea and Talk Rooms’.

The Green Lantern Tea Rooms at 15, The Broadway, Woking, advertised in July 1917 that they were one minute away from the railway station and met a long-felt need for a high class resort where meals are daintily served at moderate charges amidst restful and artistic surroundings.

And there you have it

In the past, tea shops provided a place where an unchaperoned woman could meet her friends and socialise without risking damage to her reputation. Nowadays, many variations of afternoon tea are enjoyed throughout the country by men, women and children alike.

While you're enjoying your perfect morning cuppa, remind yourself that this social distancing is not permanent. It will pass, and we will enjoy our teas together again.

For more ways to stay creative while at home, browse our blog.