Off to the Linnaean Society last night for a cup of tea – and a talk about tea, in their plush Piccadilly home. The talk was being given by John Griffiths FLS, who coincidentally has written a book on the subject.

After a cup of tea in the Library (I chose a Kenyan blend in silent tribute to the new US President), and the formality of the minutes and elections for the society, the talk got under way. It was a packed room, and they overflowed into the library via a video link. According to a couple of people I spoke to, they haven’t had such a busy night in ages (naughty people were promoting the event)

The talk was a mirthful romp through the history of tea and its development as the dominant drink of the Brits, and didn’t linger too much on the facts and figures as John focused much more on the humourous anecdotes which made the talk a lot more enjoyable to listen to.

The setting, in the Linnaean Society, was also quite apt, as it was the infamous Carl Linnaeus who spent some 20 years trying, unsuccessfully to cultivate the various tea plants and try to get them to grow in the wet English climate. As the Chinese were demanding that their tea be paid for in silver bullion, this was not just a scientific curiosity, but a very real worry that the Chinese would end up with all of England’s wealth if something wasn’t done.

Poor old Linnaeus had quite a few problems – not least a plant he spent two years cultivating, only for it to turn out not to be a tea plant at all. Nor to forget the time when a ship carrying his precious plants did the the routine morning firing of a cannon on deck to mark the raising of the flag – and promptly blew the whole lot into the sea!

There is a controversy about exactly when tea was first brought to the attention of the Europeans as a drink, but certainly by the time of Samuel Pepys, it was being sold widely – although more as a medicinal cordial than a casual drink. Indeed, it was initially sold as a thick syrup – and taxed by the gallon, rather than in the leaf form we are familiar with today.

The taxes were shockingly high – at something like 119% of the retail price. Worth remembering when you complain about the cost of a pint of lager (or a litre of petrol) today.

Tea has also directly, and indirectly had quite a significant impact on history – the most egregious example being how the British government fought the Opium Wars with China to maintain its supply of tea without having to pay with silver. Without tea, Hong Kong might never have been a British colony.

John also mentioned a rather odd issue with the notorious Boston Tea Party which has rather puzzled him.

The tea ships were quite large for the day and the hold was quite deep with fairly small hatches in the deck to get into them. Also, the tea was stored in wooden crates, which weighed on average some 45lbs each. So, how did a small gang of Bostonians manage in one night to dump some 342 casks of tea into the harbour? He suspects, although it is unlikely that this could ever be proved, that the sailors who were quite annoyed with the captain over his plans to leave without unloading the cargo (and hence they wouldn’t get paid) assisted the rebels in offloading the cargo from the ships’ hold.

If true – then the iconic moment of US independence might not have been possible without help from British Sailors!

As we are talking about the deep cargo ships, mention was made of the tea-clippers, the super fast cargo ships of the day – the most famous being the Cutty Sark – currently being restored in Greenwich.

In a manner which is not unlike the origins of the Beaujolais Nouveaux mania of the 1970s, Victorians would pay a high price for the first tea deliveries of the season and the tea-clippers would race round Africa to be the first back. Alas, the first tea of the season never became popular enough to justify the high cost of the fast ships, and when the Suez Canal opened – the 100+ day trip was shrunk to just a month and the short-lived, but glorious era of the tea-clippers was at an end.

The heyday of tea in England was in the 1970s, when the average person consumed something like 10lbs of tea per year, each. Now it is about half that as the inexorable rise of coffee and canned drinks has diminished the popularity of the drink.

And with that – we were invited to adjourn back to the library for a glass of wine to finish the evening – although I left then, as the room looked a bit overcrowded, and I had work to do when I got home.

John Griffiths has, as mentioned earlier, released a book on the subject and if it includes only a fraction of the anecdotes he read out last night, will prove to be a very enjoyable read.

The Society has talks most months, and the next lecture is on the vexatious topic of why Bee populations seem to be declining so precipitously at the moment.


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  1. OMG, I was there, I could have been sitting next to you. Shame the average age of the audience was about 80 – the Linneans look a crusty old lot.

    I did wonder why it took Mr. L two whole years to realise his plant wasnt a tea plant. Perhaps he had other things on his mind?

    The Society should take note – I picked up a “Join the Linnean Society” pack on the way out and there was nothing in there about “benefits of joining the society”. I suppose one of the main benefits would be access to their library – there were some jolly interesting garden history books in there. Most of the cake was dreadfully stale though, and I thought it cheeky of Mr. Griffiths to be selling hardbacked copies of his book when its been out in paperback for quite a while! I enjoyed the “psychological experiment” about tea tasting enormously.

  2. IanVisits says:

    Oh rats, I forgot about the experiment – which was a fun interlude.

    (for those not there, a person was asked to judge three cups of tea for preference and after noting how she preferred the one in a mug for quaffing, and the ones in china cups for more specialised drinking – it was pointed out that all three cups contained identical drinks!)

    It might be worth noting that while the average person would judge tea from a china cup to taste better one from a mug because of the social expectation that it should taste better, there could actually be a genuine taste difference.

    The best wine glasses have very thin rims as the fluid flowing over the sharp edge it is disturbed and releases more flavours – so in theory, tea served in a thin porcelain cup should taste better than one served in a mug with a thick rim.

    Whether a person can actually taste the difference though – that is debatable, and maybe worth testing more formally.

    On the age issue – it is a tendency of many societies to be thus dominated by the retired who have the time and inclination to find out about these events. In part, that is why I launched the events guide on here, so that us younglings can more easily find out about all these interesting talks that go on around the city.

  3. I like being referred to as “a youngling” at 42! Mind you, compared to some of the crusties there last night, I was a veritable whippersnapper.

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