Twining, Tea, and Jane Austen
Updated: Jul 24
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a tea drinker. Some might unfairly say tea snob, but I do like my tea, which is kept in double-lidded containers with labels that say the temperature and brew time. Don’t get me started on the dregs of leaves that are sold in tiny little paper bags. My favorites at the moment are a Longjing (dragon well) premium green tea from China and a black tea from Yunnan, China called Golden Halo.
The tea drank during Jane Austen’s lifetime came from China or Japan. Tea production in India didn’t begin until the propagation of Assam in the 1820s. The tea imported then from the East India Company might have been called Indian tea, but that was because of who imported it; it was actually Chinese tea.
There were two types of tea drank in Georgian England: one was Bohea (an anglicized pronunciation of Wuyi, the mountain region the tea came from) that was likely an oolong, and a few varietals of green tea. Bohea was not a black tea as we think of it now, and it was a low quality tea that the Chinese were happy to export.
Tea was first brought to the United Kingdom in the early 17th century by the East India Company. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II, introduced tea to her aristocratic circles in the 1660s and popularized it. The custom and acceptability of drinking tea was 150 years old by the time we imagine Mr. Darcy sipping tea at Netherfield.
It was imported in limited quantities by merchant ships and this was reflected in the price. Because of this, extensive use was made of tea leaves, sometimes using the leaves twice and then passing them on the servants to use. Yum. Tea canisters were lockable chests made for storing tea. They could only be accessed by a key which was kept under the watchful eye of the lady of the house. Jane Austen was responsible for the tea caddy at Chawton Cottage.
Thomas Twining left a family career in weaving at 26 in 1701 to work for an East India Company tea merchant, and he saw the possibilities in this fast-growing beverage. He bought a coffee house on London’s Strand in 1706 and turned it into a tea room. He served tea to customers---in addition to the more common coffee---and also sold dry tea to both customers and nearby coffee shops. Tea was still a luxury; in 1707, Twinings Gunpowder Green tea sold for what is the equivalence today of £160 for 100g.
He soon sold more dry tea than brewed, and more tea than coffee. Twining’s knowledge of tea and the tea business kept him competitive, and his reputation for only selling the finest tea helped London ladies serve tea in their drawing rooms. From 1720-1750, the import of tea to Britain through the East India Company more than quadrupled.
By 1717, Thomas Twining had acquired three adjacent houses and converted them into one shop at what is now 216 Strand, under the sign of the Golden Lyon. At this time, the shop enjoyed the patronage of some of the leading Londoners of the day, including architect Christopher Wren and artist William Hogarth. While women couldn’t enter coffee houses, it became acceptable for a woman to enter Twining’s shop.
Twinings flourished during the 18th century under the direction of Thomas Twining’s son and then daughter-in-law. Mary Twining conducted all of Twining’s business until she died in 1782 and was succeeded by her sons. One of these sons, Richard, commissioned the company’s logo in 1787, and it is the world’s oldest logo in continuous use.
Twinings has been on the same premises on the Strand since 1706, and was known to Jane Austen. When she stayed with her brother Henry in Henrietta Street in 1814 she wrote to her sister:
I am sorry there has been a rise in tea. I do not intend to pay Twining til later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply.
It was a wise move on Jane Austen's part to go to such a reputable seller, since unscrupulous businessmen in China and England added things to bulk up their shipments of green tea. Dishonest dealers and smugglers added things like iron filings and the leaves of other plants. Tea taxes were high, and smuggling drove the quality down and kept the price high. It was Mary Twining’s son Richard who helped bring the illegal trade to an end. As Chairman of the London Tea Dealers, he persuaded Prime Minister William Pitt that government revenues would be greater with lower taxation since legal tea trading would increase. Tea taxes were slashed and Twinings helped make tea affordable to all.
Jane Austen would have entered the same store that is open for tea tastings and purchases today. Twinings' global exports grew over Austen’s lifetime and the business remained stable, despite rising tea taxes. They thrived through the 19th and 20th centuries, and the 300-year-old Twinings has played its part in infusing tea into modern life.
What's your favorite tea? Bagged or loose leaf?