Edward Bramah: Museum founder and tea expert

Thursday 14 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Edward Bramah was the founder of the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee, which first opened on Butler's Wharf, near Tower Bridge in London, in 1992 and is now based in Southwark.

The idea for the museum had come to Bramah 40 years earlier while he was working on a tea plantation in Malawi. In 1950, a chance meeting on a train with a tea planter had led Bramah, fresh out of National Service with the Royal Navy, to join the tea trade. Later he trained as a tea taster with J Lyons & Co. But, in 1954, he suddenly switched to coffee, joining a coffee brokerage firm which sent him to Tanzania and Kenya. He recalled starting out on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and recently described his life as "a double career in tea and coffee".

Bramah joined China's national tea trade corporation in 1956 with a brief to encourage China tea consumption. He worked in London liaising with Shanghai and conducting conversations with Chinese diplomats through an interpreter, but the post was a victim of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1966, sensing that tea was losing its appeal, he founded his own company, Bramah Tea & Coffee, and began designing coffee filter machines, including the Bramah Filter. He began by examining early coffee machines and these discarded models formed the basis of his museum collection.

The original location for the museum was the Clove Building on Butler's Wharf, where tea had once been traded. But in 1992 the south end of Tower Bridge was not part of the tourist trail and Bramah began a long dispute with Southwark Council about signage. In 1999 the collection moved across the road into a former tea warehouse, which at first seemed ideal. However, two years later, following a collapse in visitor numbers, the museum closed.

In 2002, to the surprise of many, it reopened a mile away in Southwark Street, near the newly opened Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the relaunched Borough Market, which were all attracting crowds.

The Bramah Museum's history of tea-drinking began with Catherine of Braganza who introduced Charles II's courtiers to the drink. Bramah's teapots ranged from a Chinese blue-and-white porcelain example dated 1690 to 20th-century Goss. Some were exotic or in the form of an animal, such as a camel. But still most popular with visitors are old tea labels such as Home & Colonial, Horniman's, Lipton's, Maypole, Mazzawatte and Ridgways.

Bramah included the invention of the tea bag. "That's not my cup of tea any more than instant coffee is coffee to a German or Scandinavian," Bramah would tell visitors. "There are no better things in life than tea and time." He liked to allow a newly filled pot to stand until sand had run through an outsized egg-timer. Among examples of coffee brands, he had a wooden box of Camp coffee displayed along with early coffee pots, percolators and 20th-century steam-operated machines.

Bramah was proud to have among his ancestors the 18th-century inventor Joseph Bramah who held patents for the improved water closet and the "unpickable" Bramah Lock. Another relative was Sir Joseph Banks, who had introduced the tea trade to India.

Edward Bramah had a reputation as a slightly obsessive enthusiast, although he was recognised as probably the only world authority on tea and coffee. He nearly always appeared good-humoured and optimistic, although his years running the museum were an enormous and lonely struggle for him. His project was often short of money and bills sometimes went unpaid. He regularly slept on the premises and for a time seemed to rely on charging Americans high prices for afternoon tea. But the teashop was an important living exhibit and not just a handy addition. At least two of his pianists, recruited by Bramah "to add a touch of elegance", had also played at the Ritz.

Overseas tourists still make up a significant percentage of visitors. Bramah's first book, Tea and Coffee: a modern view of 300 years of tradition (1972), was translated into Japanese and today many who seek out the museum are visitors from Japan. In 2003 Bramah was delighted when the Japanese ambassador posed with him beside the Bramah Teapot, the world's largest, which requires 4lb of tea when used.

Together Bramah and his wife Joan wrote Coffee-Makers: 300 years of art and design (1989) and four years later he produced Novelty Teapots. In 2005 he devised The Bramah Tea and Coffee Walk Around London guidebook, which records the many buildings and sites in the City and on the riverside connected with storage and tea auctions.

Despite his illness, Bramah continued working on a book which was to be called "Britain's Tea Heritage".

Leigh Hatts

Edward Roderick Bramah, tea and coffee merchant: born Worksop, Nottinghamshire 4 April 1931; married 1960 Joan Edmunds (one son, one daughter); died Christchurch, Dorset 15 January 2008.

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