Britain's great tea ceremony ends after 300 years

Modern trade has no time for the leisurely London Tea Auction, writes Hester Lacey

IN THE offices of Wilson Smithett tea brokers, overlooking the river Thames, Tim Clifton, chair of the Tea Brokers Association and his colleague Michael Bunston are busily tasting. There are around 50 teas on the agenda this morning, sent for evaluation from Rwanda and Tanzania. An exact amount of each tea is measured out into an army of small pots; the liquid is tipped into small china bowls; a spoonful of milk, no more, no less, is added to each (and absolutely no sugar) and Messrs Clifton and Bunston go to work with their spoons, their highly-trained palates and their very large spittoon.

Tea-tasting is an unchanging process; Wilson Smithett was founded in 1865 and the generations of tasters have followed a very similar ritual for the past 133 years. But in other respects, the tea industry is rapidly evolving. Tomorrow, the last London Tea Auction will take place; from then onwards, most sales will happen via e-mail. "It's a sad day because it is the end of an era," says Tim Clifton. "But like many of the old trade practices, changes in communications and technology have made it outdated." Even the familiar, traditional wooden tea chests are fast disappearing, replaced by cheaper, more environmentally-friendly sacks.

Tomorrow's final auction has long been on its way. "There has been a gradual swing towards e-mail for years," says Mr Clifton. "The quantities at auction have been going down and down - people don't want to spare the time to go to the auction."

A tea auction, he explains, is "a very gentlemanly affair; not like a tobacco auction". Tea was first auctioned in London by the East India Company 311 years ago; the first auction specifically dedicated to tea took place in 1706. The earliest auctions were held quarterly and the tea was "sold by the candle"; as each lot was announced, a candle marked off in inches was lit, and the hammer fell on each lot as the inch-lines were reached. By the beginning of this century, there were auctions nearly every day of consignments from China, India, Ceylon and Africa. (Today more than half of the tea drunk in the UK comes from Africa.) The only interruptions were during wars. Now much of the tea is sold before it even reaches this country and the London Tea Auction is to close.

This does not, however, mean that tea is any less popular. Tomorrow the Tea Council will publish its annual report, which shows that tea remains the most popular drink in Britain. Three-quarters of the population drink tea, an average of 3.39 cups a day (more than double the amount of coffee). A report the Council has commissioned suggests that tea drinking is good for health: drinking between four and five cups a day could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, and tea also contains antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and natural fluoride - and no calories.

But the main reason for the British love affair with tea is that we like it. "It's a splendid drink - and part of our national heritage," says Mr Clifton.

When the East India Company first brought tea to Britain, it was exclusive and was sold in London's fashionable coffee houses. At court in the 1660s, tea drinking was introduced as the de rigueur social habit by Queen Catherine, wife of Charles II, and gradually grew to replace ale as the "ladies' beverage". Samuel Pepys records, on Sunday 25 September 1660, that he tried "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before".

The ritual of afternoon tea was established in the early 1800s, supposedly by Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, who found she was too hungry to wait for dinner and began the tradition of serving tea and light food between four and five o'clock. Then came tea gardens and tea dances, tea shops and tea rooms, as tea became a drink for the masses. Even before the age of e-mail, speed was of the essence. The swift and elegant triple-masted tea clippers rushed the leaves back to auction in London throughout the mid-1800s.

The samples which flood every day into the offices of Wilson Smithett from all over the world are the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis. The plant is native to China and parts of India, but today it is cultivated in more than 25 countries. The leaves are left to wither naturally after harvesting, broken to release the natural juices and left to ferment or oxidise naturally, then dried, sorted and packed; the only added ingredients are aromas such as the oil of bergamot used to flavour Earl Grey.

Brokers then take over, checking quality and flavour and finding a buyer. "We work on behalf of the plantations, finding the best market for the chap's tea," says Mr Clifton.

The tasting is similar to wine tasting, a noisy slurp, swill and spit. Tim samples a high-grown Rwandan and pronounces it "very bright, with useful colour and strength - it's got briskness to it, it's a very attractive tea". He and Michael have worked together for 20 years and rarely disagree, though sometimes, says Michael, the teas have "very elusive characters". The tasting room's wooden benches and wooden drawers are all crammed with little metal boxes full of tea samples. Of today's samples, some are fibrous, some are dust-like, some are tawny-red, some dark brown. The smell is wonderful. The teas that make the grade will be sold and shipped off from their plantations to their buyers. The British are the only tea drinkers who habitually add milk, and have done so since the 1660s. Tim Clifton's own favourite, he says, is nothing fancy - "a thick, English, gutsy cup of tea".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May