Our meals and meal-hours have passed through great changes since the first records of English home-life were written. Our early English ancestors took four meals a day - breakfast at 7 a.m., dinner at 10, supper at 4 and "livery" at 8 or 9, after which they retired for the night. The middle-class - persons employed in trade - the peasantry, and labourers of all kinds had three meals a day; breaking their fast at 8 a.m., dinner at 12, and supping at 6 p.m.
The nobility and gentry rose at 6 a.m., and, at their breakfast, as at other meals, they had no drinks but wine and beer. Queen Elizabeth rarely varied hers from the latter, as she feared that the former might cloud her faculties. Dr Johnson says that the Earls of Arlington and Ossory imported tea from Holland in 1666 - the year when the Plague broke out in London - and that the great ladies of the country were taught how to make use of it by their two respective wives. He also gave it as his opinion that this was the first appearance of tea in England. But in this latter assertion he was mistaken. Notices of it, scarce as it was, are to be found of earlier date. If you have a copy of "Pepys' Diary" in your home library, you will find a mention of his taking "a cup of tea, a China drink" - which he had never before tasted - on the 25th of September 1660. That same year a duty of eightpence a gallon was laid on all tea and chocolate made for sale; and in the previous year (1559) tea was sold in nearly every street in London, although at enormous prices. Indeed, in 1661, a couple of pounds and as many extra ounces were presented as a worthy gift to the Sovereign himself by the Honourable East India Company. Although exceedingly scarce at first, tea dates back some years, earlier in the 17th century than the periods already named.
The real date of its first introduction is ascertained to have been at about 1635; and for some twenty or thirty years afterwards it price varied, according to the quality, from £6 to £10 per pound. A certain Thomas Garraway, tobacconist and coffee-house keeper, was the first to sell tea by retail at the more reasonable price of 16s, up to £2 10s the pound. "Doctors differed", but "patients" did not "die' from their conflicting opinions about it. According to one advertisement, it was "by all physicians approved"; but amongst other detractors, Guy Patin, a French doctor, denounced it as an "impertinent novelty of the age". So absurd was the prejudice of some, that a man who indulged in this fragrant non-intoxicating beverage was even charged with "effeminancy" by a writer in the Weekly Journal of June 27th, 1723. Walking through the rows of tents pitched for the camp in St James' s Park, the champion of the Bottle, versus the Teapot, beheld, as he says, "a number of knickknacks standing on the table" in some officer's tent. He supposed that the occupant was an engineer, and the "knickknacks" represented "some fortification". To his surprise, the officer raised one of the "bastions" to his mouth, when the disgraceful fact became apparent that the supposed engineer was nothing better than "an effeminate tea-drinker"; and that the "knickknacks" (or cups); representing the bastions, were "the equipage appurtenant to that unmanly practice". After such a sight, he thought that "Misses from a boarding-school would do very well for officers", being versed in the dress and management of the tea-table.
Another "champion" of the stronger drinks, by name Henry Saville, the nephew of Secretary Coventry, writing in the year 1678, abuses the drinking of tea after dinner, instead of enjoying the bottle and pipe, and calls it "a base, unworthy Indian practice". Even the poet Young denounced the tea-drinking parties as much as Dean Swift, and, no doubt, much evil-speaking of neighbours often disgraces them in the last century; but the decoction, not being intoxicating, was assuredly innocent. Of the charge brought against it. Washington Irving also has remarked severely on the mischievous tattling that used to go on at tea-drinkings, and winds up by expressing his preference to "a newspaper roasting" adding -
"But spare me, O spare me, a tea-table toasting!"
No doubt, when sold at such high prices, it was a source of great expenditure and led to much extravagance; and I dare say the writer in the Female Spectator of 1745 was quite right in saying that the tea-table then cost more for its support than "two children at nurse".
In one of our earliest newspapers, dated "September 30th, 1658", we find an advertisement, probably the first, in reference to this the favourite beverage of modern times -
"That excellent, and by all physicians approved, China drink - called by the Chinese Tcha, by other nations" (our Irish peasantry included) "Tay, alias Tee - is sold at the 'Sultaness Head' Cophee House, in Sweeting's Rents, by the Royal exchange, London".
But whatever may be the conflicting opinions expressed, and the real, or evil qualities of this popular beverage, I cannot omit to give you Florence Nightingale's observations respecting it; as every girl must, sooner or later, act as a nurse to some sick person or child -
"A great deal too much against tea is said by wise people, and a great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people. When you see the almost universal craving in English sick for tea, you cannot but feel that Nature knows what she is about. But a little tea restores them as much as a great deal. I should be glad if any of the abusers of tea would point out what to give an English patient, after a sleepless night, instead of tea? At the same time, you should never give tea to the sick, as a rule, after five o'clock in the afternoon.
It is time now that I should tell you something about the plant itself. No one appears to know when its use was recognised in the land of its origin; but it is said that it grew spontaneously on the mountains in China, that a duty was raised on it nearly 800 years before the birth of Christ (B.C. 780), and that it was the East India Company that commenced the regular importation of it. They began by sending out for 100 lbs from their agent at Bantam (much frequented by the Chinese junks from Canton), for making presents to their friends at Court. Now there is more tea drunk in England than in all the countries of the world put together, except China.
Amongst the several kinds sold in the English market are the Orange and the Flowery Pekoe, Bohea, Souchong, Congou, Caper and Campoi, the two of Pekoe being the most expensive of the black teas, and only suitable for flavouring one of the others. The green teas are known as the Gunpowder and Pearl Gunpowder, the Hyson, Imperial and Twankay. There is much adulteration of tea, the black being dried on copper plates to give the green colour, and the leaves of the ash, elder, sloe and white thorn are often mixed with real tea in England, as well as other familiar herbs. This is not done to any extent, however, since the price of tea has been so much reduced. Old tea leaves dried form the chief adulteration in our day.
The shrub is small, and somewhat resembles the myrtle; the blossoms are white and perfumed, and not unlike the white rose, and these are succeeded by soft green capsules, containing two or three white seeds, which are crushed for oil, and much employed in China. The tea plant grows also in Japan, Cochin China, Tonquin and Java, and we have been growing it ourselves in Assam. When six or seven years old the leaves become of little value, and the old wood is cut away to make way for young shoots, or else removed for new trees. Several kinds of plants are said to be employed in China to add to the flavour and perfume of tea. The Chinese drink it, generally, without sugar, and always without milk. Sometimes they beat up the yolks of eggs with sugar, and mix this with it, and in Russia, and in other parts of Europe lemon juice is substituted for milk. Some of the nomadic tribes of Tartary not only drink it as a decoction, but, mixing the leaves with some gelatinous substance, they press them into moulds, and pack them together like bricks. When required, they scrape off a portion, and boil it with flour, butter, milk and salt.
This reminds me that some funny stories are told of the mistakes made by the first purchasers of tea in this country; though according to the Tartars, they were not very wrong after all.
Mrs Hutchinson's great-grandmother sat down to enjoy the novelty provided by the first pound of tea that reached the town of Penrith. No directions accompanied the present, and the good ladies assembled were at a loss what to do with it. So they chanced the boiling of the whole quantity at once in a bottle, and then turning the leaves out into a dish, they ate them with butter and salt, as if they had been ordinary vegetables, and great was their surprise that anyone should have thought the dish a nice one!
Lastly, my young housekeepers, I must warn you never to be careless in your tea-making. Warm the teapot and cups, wait till the steam puffs from the spout of the kettle, or lid of the urn, before you pour the boiling water on the tea. Half fill the cups, and then add more water to the teapot before filling them up, unless quite sure that it holds all that will be required without being replenished. Also, never forget the "cosy" cap, which, should there be none as yet amongst the other appliances of the breakfast table, I advise you to manufacture forthwith for yourselves.