Tea Pages - British Tea House History


"I am in no way interested in immortality

But only in the taste of tea."

--"Song of Tea", Lu Tung

Thomas Garway (or Garraway) ran a coffee house in London and in 1657 became the first to sell tea to the public in England. His shop in Exchange Alley off Lombard Street in London sold tea as drink and as loose leaf. This shop was in business for more than 200 years and its location is now marked by a plaque engraved with a grasshopper. (Moxham)

The coffee houses became the main sellers of tea. The first coffee house in London was established in 1652. By the end of the 1600's there were 2000 within London. (Ukers) They were doing a steady business of selling coffee, tea, and chocolate. They were also a place for business, socializing, and debating politics. In the 1680s the Penny Post made coffeehouses the location for collecting and delivering mail as well. (Moxham)

Each coffee house began to draw a particular type of client - bankers, politicians, writers, etc. The insurance company, Lloyds, started in Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse in London.

During this time, coffee houses were for men only. Women consumed tea at their homes only. It was not until the rise of the tea gardens of the 18th century that women began to consumer tea publicly.

From 1660 - 1689, tea sold in coffee houses was taxed as a liquid. Tea was infused and stored in kegs so the excise officers could see and measure it before sale. It was then drawn off and heated for sale. Inspections occurred once or twice per day. Tea was becoming very desirable at this time in Europe because of its rarity. Like silks, chinaware, and chocolate, tea was a status symbol because it was expensive and difficult to obtain. (Beauthea) Tea levies remained in place until 1780.

In 1706, Thomas Twining (born 1675 to a weaver) opened Tom's Coffee House on the Strand. In 1717 it expanded and became the Golden Lyon. It was a famous seller of loose leaf tea, was the first to offer tea by the cup, and it was open to both women and men. (Pettigrew) They also sold tea wholesale to London's retail tea outlets. (Beautheac) The business passed through the family and is still headed by a Twining.

Coffee houses of the 1700's would remind you of today's pubs. There were tables at which one could sit and high tops for standing. These coffee houses generally had a large open fire with coffee pots, chocolate, and teapots in the front. Alcohol was frequently served as well.

The first tea gardens or "pleasure gardens" opened in the late 1600s but they became much more popular in the 1700's. Most coffee houses closed as the tea gardens became more popular. At first admission was free. Later there was a charge for entrance but the tea was free. People would walk, ride horses and boats, drink tea,and see concerts and fireworks. By the end of the 18th century their popularity had waned and they had become disreputable. Very few tea gardens existed after 1840. (Moxham, Pettigrew)

Late in the 1800s tea had surpassed coffee's popularity. In 1864 the first London tea house that we know of was established at the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) bakery at London Bridge station. (The first known shop in the UK was established in Glasgow in 1864.)  Some of ABC's best customers were invited to drink tea in the backroom. By the late 1800s they had opened 50 tea shops! In the decades that followed other very popular shops opened - Lockharts, Express Dairy, Kardomah, and Lyons. Lyons, a tobacconist, opened Lyons Tea Shop in 1894 in Piccadilly. In 1895 they opened 14 more. By 1900 there were 250 Lyons. (Moxham) Hot and cold tea was served as well as sweets and savory foods. Music was also frequently offered. The Edwardian Period, 1900 - 1914, was the height of tea shops.

Tea dances began in 1912 when tango came to Britain from Argentina. It is likely that the French North African colonies contributed to the idea of dancing at tea. All over London these "tango teas" which sometimes included classes were run.   These lost popularity in the 1920s. (Pettigrew)

In the 1950s tea shops fell out of fashion. Coffee gained more attention again as did the concept of cocktails. But tea did not disappear. Far from it. And in the 1980s tea shops began to gain popularity again. (Pettigrew)