27th
Sep
2013

Posted in Reference

“..a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning”

….was how Samuel Johnson described himself  in 1757  in an essay responding to tea naysayer, Jonas Hanway. Tea in the eighteenth century was as contentious an issue as the legalisation of marijuana is today. How could a beverage as innocuous as a humble cup of tea provoke such strong argument either way? It has to be remembered that as little was known about the effects of tea drinking as was known about smoking. Thus, a person could advocate tobacco as a great way to clear the lungs and simultaneously accuse tea of causing depression and laziness; reputable medical research did not exist to claim otherwise.

A big question mark hung over tea as far as the great and good of Georgian society were concerned. While the temperance movement generally saw its worth as an alternative to the evils of alcohol, others remained unconvinced. The social reformer, William Cobbett, was adamant that tea was an evil in itself,

“It must be evident to every one, that the practice of tea drinking must render the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather.......corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel…”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was less strident than Cobbett but advised abstinence from tea on the grounds that it could cause nervous disorders. He claimed that a paralytic disorder he had suffered from had cleared up once he'd stopped drinking tea. In his own essay about the effects of tea, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway argued that it was bad for the health, with a particularly detrimental effect on women, plus it undermined the efficiency of the working classes. Hanway was a typical representative of the ruling and middle class mindset with his overriding concern that the masses should be toeing the line, not spending their money on tea or partaking of idle chat whilst drinking it.

Samuel Johnson thought quite differently. Perhaps most famous for writing his dictionary, he lead a life full of ups and downs in education, career and fortune. Biographers gave such detailed accounts of his odd mannerisms, gestures and nervous tics that it's now thought he suffered from Tourette syndrome. Perhaps the many obstacles he had to surmount gave him a greater sympathy towards people and their foibles, but certainly his intelligence and wit always seemed to win the day. The stand he took for tea was a prime example. Johnson wrote an extremely satirical review of Jonas Hanway's essay and when Hanway hit back in defence of his views, Johnson was moved to respond with another scornful yet erudite piece, dismantling Hanway's biased opinion. Apart from anything else it was perfectly clear to Johnson that most people are naturally predisposed to a good gossip, regardless of tea or not. It was a realistic approach that would win favour with tea drinkers now as then and it seems highly likely that Johnson would have been gratified by modern research that has proved tea's benefits, though not a bit surprised.

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