Posted in Kafevend Blog
When we've talked about how tea was introduced to England in the past, Catherine of Braganza invariably got a look in. Whilst it is certainly true that she did her bit for helping the country adopt the drink, it was really only the top nobs and those with wads of cash who got a crash course in tea brewing from her and the court. For everyone else, all they could do was dream of a day when they had the money to spend on such a delicacy- or wait for an enterprising group of scoundrels to balance the odds a little...
After tea's introduction in the 17th century, it didn't take long to become popular throughout the country. By the 18th century, even those further down the rungs of society were able to enjoy it as production ramped up abroad. However, government taxes began to made it harder again for commoners to get access to tea. By the end of the 18th century the tax on tea had reached a staggering 119%! This ridiculous taxation was justified by the government by branding tea as a luxury and was used to fund, in part, the various wars the country fought over the years.
Tea smuggling evolved naturally in these circumstances- people wanted and were willing to pay for tea at a reasonable price, and weren't particularly bothered about the legality of how it had entered the country. It was quite easy to nip across the channel and buy tea cheaply before bringing it back to a hidden cove, and then distribute it around the local area. Interestingly, it was the smugglers rather than Catherine who did the lion's share of work introducing tea to the population at large. This was in part due to the sheer scale of smuggling during the latter years of the century. Though it's impossible to know for certain, estimates put the amount smuggled per year at around 4 to 7.5 million lbs, far more than was entering the country legally.
Communities along the coasts were coming together to smuggle goods and even fund the excursions. Some people used smuggling as a way to supplement their meagre pay- for example, fishermen would bring goods ashore, where farm labourers were waiting to haul them to hidden stores. The trade even provided livelihoods back across the channel, such as for coopers making specialised barrels that were easy to carry, or had hidden compartments. French villages turned into large towns full of warehouses, all to fill the demand for goods like tea in England.
The smuggling wasn't to last though. Rising pressure from lobbying merchants from the East India Company (who had sole rights on importing tea), along with a rising discontent due to the indecency and sometimes outright violence of the trade meant that the government had to act. In 1783 William Pitt the Younger was elected Prime Minister, and decided change was needed. The next year, he cut the tax from its whopping 119% to just 12.5% which saw tea smuggling die out overnight. Despite the low tax, the rapid uptake in the purchase of legitimate tea meant that the government saw no real decrease in the amount of money earnt from the tax.
There's probably a moral here somewhere.