Tea, Southwark and the Thames

Categories: History of food

Tea specialist and historian Jane Pettigrew on the inextricable historical ties between tea, Southwark and the Thames

Tea first arrived in London from China sometime in the 1650s and was brought up the Channel and into the Pool of London not on an English ship but by the Dutch East India Company, which had been trading tea direct from China since around 1610.

The green and black leaves, picked and processed in the spring, had been carried by porters over mountain passes from China’s tea villages to regional wholesale centres, then loaded on to small river boats that continued the journey through a network of waterways to the Canton River, inland from Hong Kong, where it was finally packed on board sturdy East Indiamen.

When these slow, heavy vessels reached London a year later, after a perilous journey fraught with pirate attacks and violent storms, their cargos were unloaded around Billingsgate along the north side of the Thames.

New exotic beverage
With a growing interest in the new exotic beverage, the English East India Company started buying its own tea from China and in 1703, imported 85,000 lbs of green tea, and 20,000 lb of black. As foreign trade increased rapidly through the 18th century, the river struggled to cope with the hundreds of ships to-ing and fro-ing on her waters.

So, in the 19th century, new enclosed docks were built to the east of the City in what we know today as Docklands—first the West India Docks in 1802, then the East India Docks in 1803—and new highways such as Commercial Road were built to connect them and to carry the goods to the London markets where they were sold. 

During the late 1840s, anyone standing in the London docks would have been aware of the sleek new clipper ships that were now arriving from China, their holds tightly packed like three-dimensional jigsaws with chests of porcelain and tea, and completing the journey in around 100 days.

Newspaper cutting re United Kingdom tea company

Annual clipper races
The rivalry between the clipper crews soon prompted the annual clipper races to see which ship could land China’s premium spring teas first onto the dockside. Crowds gathered along the river, and tea brokers slept in or near the docks in order to be there for the glorious moment when the first cargo was landed.

The winning tea fetched several shillings more per pound and the crew shared a £500 bonus from the owners of the cargo. Sadly, a few years after the most famous race, when two ships, the Ariel and the Taeping, arrived on the same tide on 7th September 1866, the opening of the Suez Canal and the introduction of steamships brought the glory days of those speedy, efficient ships to an end.

The last of the clippers, the Cutty Sark, stands proudly at Greenwich today, her brow yearning towards the waters she last sailed in 1877.  

The Larder of London
To the west of the City, more new warehouses and closed docks were built to cope with the increasing number of ships sailing their cargos into London, and in 1840, Southwark’s Hay’s Wharf, now Hay’s Galleria, was developed as one of the most important. Just along the river from Borough Market and nicknamed the Larder of London, it was a major depot for tea and other dry produce.

Thirty years later, the newly-built Butler’s Wharf by Tower Bridge, also in Southwark, became the largest tea warehouse in the world. Once unloaded, the chests of tea were trundled into the vast storage space and kept safe until they had been sold at the weekly tea auctions in Mincing Lane, and then delivered to the various tea companies, many of which had their tasting rooms, packing facilities and offices overlooking the river.

By now, it was not just Chinese tea arriving into the docks, for Britain had started growing her own tea in India in the 1830s and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1870s. The previously high tax on tea was reduced in 1865 and everyone could now afford a daily cuppa.

Little Dorrit
Near Borough Market, which then sold grain, fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and livestock, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit walked past stores selling tea on her way to and from Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison where she had grown up. Her friend Maggy “must stop at a grocer’s window, short of their destination, for her to show her learning. She stumbles through various philanthropic recommendations to Try our Mixture, Try our Family Black, Try our Orange-flavoured Pekoe, challenging competition at the head of Flowery Teas…”.

For hundreds of years, the river has been bringing produce in from all over the world and allowing the easy transportation of goods from the noisy docks to the bustling markets along her banks. Borough Market still sells its traditional mix of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, but now, there’s so much more and, just a few minutes’ walk from old Hays Wharf, tea is today among the goods on sale.

Two companies offer quality teas from the world’s most important origins: Tea2You sells the finest darjeelings, and Greenfield Farm Organic Life sells organic teas from Sri Lanka that include ceylon earl grey and orange pekoe—not orange-flavoured, as suggested by Dickens, just a beautiful, neatly twisted flavoury black tea. No matter what your favourite brew, there’s a tea here for everyone.