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Tucked away in the bustling heart of London is a narrow, almost-too-easy-to-miss shop lined with the most quintessentially British beverage of all: tea. The establishment is Twinings and its 300-year-old premises are steeped in the long and colourful history of the country’s love of the drink. So, make yourself a brew and dive with us into the fascinating past of tea…
‘Tea’, declared the writer George Orwell in 1946, ‘is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country’. It seems fitting, then, that the building directly opposite the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand is not a Seattle-sprung Starbucks or an insouciant Irish pub, but a Twinings tea shop, the oldest establishment of its kind anywhere in the world and a London institution through-and-through. English common law and English breakfast tea, it seems, go hand-in-hand. Today, the tiny Twinings entrance opens, Tardis-like, onto an incredibly long, thin shop. Starting at the threshold and running almost its entire length are dark wooden shelves, stacked high with box after box of tea leaves and bags from all over the world and in all kinds of blends; a tunnel of tea, almost. On the shelves next to each infusion are Victorian sweetshop-style jars with samples to smell, ranging from old classics like Earl Grey and Assam to more unusual combinations. Camomile and spearmint, liquorice and lemon, salted caramel and green tea all pop out from the shelves. The store invariably heaves with tourists and Londoners alike, bouncing from one infusion to another as they work their way deeper into the shop. Local customers are no surprise; the beverage-loving British are estimated to drink some 165 million cups of tea each day. However, it almost didn’t turn out this way…
When Thomas Twining — the founder of the tea business — was born in Gloucestershire in 1675, tea was still something of an oddity. Although the beverage had started to appear in London coffee-houses in the 1650s, it was overshadowed by drinks like small beer, which provided a safe alternative to the often polluted drinking water of the city. Only the marriage of King Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662 sparked tea’s slow ascent to fashionable status. The King’s new wife brought to court the tea-drinking traditions of her native homeland Portugal, helping to popularise the beverage among the highest levels of society. Nevertheless, when the Twining family moved to the capital in 1684, tea seemed far from the young Thomas’ mind. He set out to continue the family business of weaving, and at the age of nineteen was apprenticed to his older brother as a lace maker. It was only when Twining began working for a merchant of the East India Company, the most important global trader of the day, that things changed. Amongst the exotic products the Company shipped to London were tea leaves, which Twining soon found to be, well, just his cup of tea!
Having spotted the potential of the new beverage, Twining founded his own business on the Strand in 1706. ‘Tom’s Coffee House’, as it was called, served both coffee and tea to City traders and Westminster aristocrats. It soon became clear, however, that tea was the more lucrative product. Twining’s ledgers from the period 1715-20 show that tea was sold at between 14 and 36 shillings per pound, while coffee went for a mere four shillings. In 1711, therefore, Twining converted his premises into the world’s first tea shop, and by 1734 he had ceased to trade coffee altogether. His establishment, renamed ‘The Golden Lyon’, became famous for its speciality teas. At this time, the shop enjoyed the custom of some of the leading Londoners of the day, including architect Christopher Wren and artist William Hogarth. Hogarth, always short of cash, in fact racked up such a bill that he offered to paint a portrait of Twining in lieu of payment – a picture which still hangs in the shop today. While English coffee houses had traditionally been exclusively male spaces, Twining also opened the shop’s doors to women. By 1717 he had acquired the three adjacent buildings and was using the space to sell dry tea as well as the beverage itself.
After Twining’s death in 1741, the flourishing business remained in family hands. His son, Daniel, became the first Twining to export tea, selling to America (including, ironically, to the Governor of Boston, of ‘Tea Party’ fame). It was nevertheless Daniel’s own son, Richard Twining, who had the greatest impact on tea drinking in Britain. Since 1692, tea had been heavily taxed, at rates ranging from 80 to 100 per cent of the original cost. In 1706, for example, 100 grams of Twinings Gunpowder Green Tea sold for £160 in today’s money. As a result, tea was a privilege of the very wealthy – or the cargo of the smuggler. By the late eighteenth century, the illegal tea trade had grown to a gargantuan operation, bringing some seven million lbs of tea into the country annually compared with a legal import of five million lbs. While smuggled tea made the drink accessible to the lower and middle classes, bootleg tea leaves were frequently of poor quality, and often adulterated by faeces and poisonous substances. It was Richard Twining who helped bring this illegal trade to an end. As Chairman of the London Tea Dealers, he persuaded the Prime Minister, William Pitt, that government revenues would in fact be greater with lower taxation, since legal tea trading would increase. The resulting Commutation Act of 1784 slashed duties on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5, considerably mitigating the incentives for smuggling. Richard Twining was also responsible for the creation of the Twinings brand. In 1787, he commissioned a new doorway for the Strand premises, with distinctive ‘Twinings’ lettering and his grandfather’s ‘Golden Lyon’ symbol carved into the stonework. The very same typeface is used by the company today, making it the oldest logo in continuous use in the world.
Twinings tea became entrenched as a truly British institution in 1837, when Queen Victoria granted the company a Royal Warrant. Since then, Twinings has supplied tea to every British monarch. In this period, the company also – allegedly – invented Earl Grey tea. The story goes that Charles Grey, second Earl Grey and Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834, received a sample of tea scented with bergamot oil from an envoy returning from China. The Earl was so enamoured with the taste that he gave a sample to Twinings, his tea merchant, with the instruction to recreate the blend — and a star was born! By now, tea had taken hold of the nation. The Temperance Movement, founded in 1818, had done much to promote the drink amongst the lower echelons of society by advocating it as a substitute for alcohol. A Tea Committee was meanwhile appointed in 1834 to identify new sources for tea across the world. It was soon reported that leaves could successfully be cultivated in India, and by 1838 the British government had begun to annex Assam to protect these interests. Just two years later, Anna, Duchess of Bedford is said to have invented the tradition of afternoon tea by requesting a bite to eat with her drink to tide her over until dinner.
Fast-forward to 1956 and Twinings rocketed into the modern world with the production of their first tea bags. The handy packets had inadvertently been invented at the beginning of the century by a New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, who had sent samples of tea to his customers in small silk bags. His recipients put them straight into the pot and from there it was a simple hop, sip and a jump to today’s brewing methods. Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In 2010, Twinings announced the transfer of 200 of its British factory jobs to China and Poland, an unpopular move which landed the company in considerable hot water. However, Twinings’ success seems undiminished; today, the firm boasts 500 varieties of tea and sells its products in 115 countries.
The 300-year-old Twinings shop on the Strand is, in short, a veritable time-capsule of tea history. It has played its part in the pioneering moments of the drink’s unfolding story, as tea has infused every aspect of modern life. Visit today and you’ll find not only blend after blend of tea on its shelves, but a dedicated tasting bar at the back of the shop, lined with high stools and manned by a sharply dressed tea-maker, as though tea blends were cocktails. There’s also a mini museum in the very back corner, exhibiting the most significant and charming pieces from the company’s past – from antique teapots to the very first Royal Warrant. The shop is often frustratingly overcrowded, so pop in early on a weekday- you might just find it suits you to a tea!
Monday to Friday 9.30AM – 7PM, Saturday 10AM – 5PM, Sunday 10.30AM – 4.30PM