Dr Johnson and His Love of Tea

Dr Johnson (whose house is within a 2-minute walk from The London Silver Vaults) was an advocate of drinking tea, despite it being considered by many in his time as unfit for human consumption and an unhealthy beverage. Tea had been in the UK for over 100 years before Dr Johnson’s time and was becoming increasingly popular. We take a look at tea during the lifetime of Dr Johnson, the inspiration behind our current selling exhibition: “Antique and Contemporary Tea Sets,” highlighting wonderful tea equipage from Georgian through Victorian to modern day designs.

Dr Johnson was an interesting character. Indeed it is now believed he had suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome or a form of Aspergers. He had strange habits. For example, when walking the streets of London he had to tap every street lamppost he passed, if he missed one he would have to start his journey again, much to the annoyance of his companions. Untidy in his outward appearance, Dr Johnson also lived most of his life without money, often in debt, however, despite this Dr Johnson is one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century, most famously for compiling A Dictionary of the English Language. When Dr Johnson received significant sums for his publication the first thing he bought was an expertly crafted silver teapot.

 

George III silver teapot by Parker and Wakelm, ca. 1765. By repute, it belonged to Dr. Johnson

George III silver teapot by Parker and Wakelm, ca. 1765. By repute, it belonged to Dr. Johnson

 

In his “Essay on Tea” in 1737 Jonas Hanaway (Dr Johnson’s adversary in tea) stated “Will the sons and daughters of this happy isle, this reputed abode of sense and liberty, ever submit to the bondage of so tyrannical a custom as drinking tea?” Johnson’s review of this essay is often termed his “defence” of tea. In it he professed to be “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant …who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” Dr Johnson and Jonas Hanaway were often embroiled in debate over the now ubiquitous liquid and its effects on society!

 

Dr Samuel Johnson, local literary hero and passionate tea drinker.

Dr Samuel Johnson, local literary hero and passionate tea drinker.

Tea had been familiar to Chinese for thousands of years before it came to the UK. The first written reference to tea in the UK is dated September 1658 when a notice was placed in the Mercurius Politicus advertising “That excellent and, by all Physitians approved, China drink, sold at the Cophee House in Sweetings Rents”

Tea was first mainly consumed for it’s medicinal rather than taste or social qualities and tea was initially sold by apothecaries. Tea, unlike coffee, was mainly taken at home, at the domestic setting of the tea table. The tea ritual was an excellent way of showing one’s wealth through the provision of tea – which was hugely expensive – but also through the accompanying tea equipage.

A selection of teaware that can be found in the current exhibition at The London Silver Vaults.

A selection of teaware that can be found in the current exhibition at The London Silver Vaults.

The tea table and its accoutrements become an increasingly common setting in family portraits of the time: Tea equipages would have originally been made from silver, but as the century progressed, porcelain overtook silver in popularity. So tea became popular among the upper classes who used the tea ritual as a convivial social forum and an opportunity to show off their expensive tea services. The tea itself was imported by the omnipotent East India Company and then sold at auctions before the individual retailers would sell it on to private customers. Thomas Twining took over Tom’s Coffee House in 1706 and soon began to specialise in selling packaged tea.

 

Twining's tea shop is still on Fleet Street near The London Silver Vaults

Twining’s tea shop is still on Fleet Street near The London Silver Vaults

 

As ladies were the main consumers of tea, and no respectable woman would be seen inside a coffee-house, they used to sit waiting outside in their carriage whilst a servant would make the desired purchase. Spotting an opportunity, Twining opened a specialist tea shop on the Strand (just yards from The London Silver Vaults) called The Golden Lion to cope with increased business and to provide a suitably respectable environment for elegant and fashionable ladies to make their purchases.

Dr Johnson, despite being poor and unable to afford tea, was at liberty to dispose others of theirs! In various records housekeepers, maids and hosts recount their horrors at the vast quantities of tea Dr Johnson would consume. The record number going to an unnamed hostess who, knowing that Johnson was famed for his ready wit and conversation, had unadvisedly invited him to her tea-table in order to exhibit him to her friends. Johnson, who as we know, hated being on display, recounted: ‘I had my revenge of her; for I swallowed five-and-twenty cups of her tea, and did not treat her with as many words.’ A typical cup in Johnson’s day was a good deal smaller than a modern cup but even so, 25 cups was a large quantity of liquid.

A silver tea set, similar items can be viewed in the current selling exhibition.

A silver tea set, similar items can be viewed in the current selling exhibition.

Tea was an expensive commodity, sold on the black market in several millions of tones and affordable in good quality only to the rich. To put things into perspective, Twinings have been selling Gunpowder Green tea constantly from the start of the eighteenth century, so we can make a good estimate of what the relative cost of tea would have been. 100g of Twinings Gunpowder Green loose tea costs £3.43 today but in 1706, when Thomas Twining opened Tom’s Coffeehouse, he was selling 1/4lb (just over 100g) of Gunpowder Green tea for what is the equivalent of over £200 today. Much of this cost was due to the heavy taxes imposed by the government.

Tea became a much-debated commodity with arguments both for and against its consumption. Dr Jonson and Jonas Hanaway were constantly having heated debates about whether it should be consumed, Johnson a passionate tea drinker himself and never receiving harm from it said, ‘I have drank it twenty years without hurt, and therefore believe it not to be poison’ –However, they did agree on one essential point: tea is too expensive and not suitable for the poor. Tea had escalated rapidly though the classes and was consumed by all walks of life, many sighting its huge costs as a burden to those less well off. Everyone, must have breathed a great sigh of relief when, in the year of his death, William Pitt decided to alleviate the tax on tea. On 21 June 1784 the Commutation Act came into force, which implemented the much despised window tax but reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12%. At least for the last six months of his life Johnson was able to enjoy the benefits of a much cheaper brew. Rather wonderfully, according to the memoirs of the former Curator Betty Gathergood, Dr Johnson’s House was chosen as the location for the launch of the tea bag in the UK by Tetley in 1953. I’m sure that Johnson would have been proud.

Tetley launched the first tea bag in the UK at Dr Johnson's House in 1953

Tetley launched the first tea bag in the UK at Dr Johnson’s House in 1953