The history of tea drinking in England begins with Portuguese traders importing tea to Portugal. The exotic oriental nature of this new drink, along with its high price, soon brought it to the attention of the Portuguese Royal Court, where tea became highly fashionable. Samual Pepys diary records that small amounts of tea were being imported into England by 1660, but tea didn’t acquire popularity. It took the Restoration of the Monarchy and the marriage of Charles II to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 before tea gained favour in England. Catherine had been brought up with tea in the Portuguese court and brought the tea drinking habit with her to the English court. Very soon tea became fashionable at court from where tea drinking spread to the aristocracy. This led to the East India Company, founded in 1600, making its first order of 100lbs of China tea from Java in 1664. Throughout the rest of the 17th century the amounts of tea shipped into Britain by the East India Tea Company steadily increased, but tea really took off as a popular drink in the 18th century, such that by 1750 the East India Company was shipping in just under 5 million pounds of tea.
During the early to mid 18th century, the East India Trading Company shipped tea along with other goods from China to England. One of the problems with the shipping of perishable commodities from China to England was the length of the voyage. The return trip could take up to 22 months and sea water could get into the holds. In order to use this space profitably, the East India Company and its officers, who traded privately, began to buy inexpensively manufactured Chinese porcelain teaware from dealers in Canton. As the teaware was sea water resistant, it could be used as ballast by packing it into the lower, leaky parts of the hold. The teaware could then be sold at 3-4 times the price paid on arrival in England. The availability of teaware further promoted tea drinking and the sale of tea.
Most of the Chinese porcelain imported by the East India Company was landed at the company wharf at London Bridge and sold via East India House in Leadenhall Street to a group of English merchants referred to as the London Chinamen. This had the effect of centralising the supply of teaware and Chinese porcelain in London.
Chinese porcelain was quite different to English and continental earthenware based ceramics. The Chinese porcelain was hard, glass-like and could withstand large changes in temperature, making it the perfect choice for tea drinkers. European pottery makers recognised the value of Chinese porcelain and strove to emulate it. In Europe, this was first achieved at Meissen near Dresden in 1709 by the development of a feldspar based paste supplemented with kaolin, fired at high temperatures. The English pottery manufacturers came up with an alternative, so called soft paste porcelain, formed from a combination of clay and frit (ground quartz) fired at lower temperatures than hard paste porcelain. One of the earliest manufacturers of soft paste porcelain was Bow circa 1749. Such was the value of the Bow paste, which incorporated bone ash, that it was said Robert Brown, the founder of Lowestoft, hid in a barrel at the Bow works to watch the mixing of the paste.
The development of English soft paste porcelains by Bow, Lowestoft, Chelsea, Derby and Worcester, and the later production of hard paste porcelains by New Hall and Keeling allowed English pottery makers to emulate the Chinese porcelains styles/patterns (Figures 1) or Europeanised Chinese styles (Figure 2) by producing tea wares of comparable translucency and quality. This rise in good quality English tea wares combined with an ever increasing import duty on Chinese porcelain, made the continued trade in Chinese tea wares unviable. This resulted in the East India Company ceasing its trade in imported Chinese porcelain in 1798, which left the English tea ware market to the English ceramics manufacturers.