Tea time is up for London auctions

LONDON'S two remaining tea brokers occupy different floors in the same decrepit building overlooking the Thames.

Once it was part of a crowded complex filled with tea brokers, consultants, producers, warehouse companies and buyers. The whole of London's tea world, in fact, could be found on High Timber Street.

Now only a third of the firms are linked to tea, and the building is slated for demolition.

Starting next month, London's weekly tea auctions, once the tea brokers' main source of business, will be cut back to every other week. Then in June, a tradition that began in 1679 will cease altogether.

"From a commercial point of view, it's inevitable," said John Leeder, commodities director of R Twining, a specialty tea producer owned by Associated British Foods. "From a sentimental point of view, one says isn't it a shame? This is the end of an era."

The London tea auctions have been in a cycle of decline for decades, prompted by dwindling UK consumption, consolidation in the tea trade, and the increasing power of large international tea packers and marketers such as Unilever and Tetley.

Another key factor is the rising competition from other tea auctions around the world.

When the London auctions cease, British packers and blenders will purchase their teas at auctions far closer to the tea plantations themselves, in places such as India, Sri Lanka and Kenya. They will also continue to buy tea privately through their networks of overseas agents.

"Most of our business is private anyway," said Robin Harrison, a director at Thompson Lloyd & Ewart, one of London's remaining brokers. The auctions had constituted less than half of his firm's sales for about the last three years.

At last Monday's tea auction, held in a rented room at London's Chamber of Commerce, only 407 tons of tea were auctioned. A decade ago, a typical day's auction sales would be 1,000 tons. Last week about 5,000 tons of tea were auctioned off in Mombasa alone .

The end of the London auction reflects its diminished role in a trade nurtured by the British Empire. The first auctions were held on the banks of the River Thames in 1679, when clippers loaded with chests of tea returned from British-owned plantations in the Orient.

Aside from a few years during and after the Second World War, the auctions have been held on a weekly basis in London since 1864.

So great were the volumes in the early 1900s that Indian teas were auctioned off on Mondays and Wednesdays, Ceylon teas on Tuesdays, and China, Java and other teas on Thursdays.

Even up to the 1960s, the London auctions would take up two or three days. In the cavernous amphitheatre in Plantation House on Mincing Lane - known as the Street of Tea - it was standing room only. Last Monday's auction lasted just 45 minutes.

As the London market has shrunk, so have the number of brokers who serve as middlemen. In 1959, they were 12 tea brokers in London. Today there are two - Wilson Smithett, established in 1865, and Thompson Lloyd & Ewart, an amalgamation of several firms that go back to 1760.

Partly, London's diminished role is a result of changing drinking habits. While the UK is still the largest tea importer in the world - tea consumption in Great Britain is larger than in the rest of Western Europe and the US combined - other countries and regions such as Pakistan and the Commonwealth of Independent States are catching up. In Muslim regions, where the population is rising, tea's appeal is boosted by the fact that it's cheap and non- alcoholic.

Consolidation in the tea industry is also a factor. About 75 per cent of the tea purchased at the London auctions for domestic use is now in the hands of three firms - Brooke Bond Foods, owned by Unilever, Premier Brands, owned by Hillsdown Holdings, and the privately-owned Tetley Group.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power