National Tea Day – Time for Tea!

Tomorrow is British National Tea Day 2018 and in today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Fang from the Visitor Team takes us on a ‘Tea Tour’ of Manchester Museum focusing some of the history and objects associated with tea.

tea 1

British National Tea Day – 21st April 2018 (Source: National Day Calendar)

Time for Tea!

Samuel Pepys was an early adopter, George Orwell wrote an essay on how to make it perfectly and Douglas Adams also wrote his own excellent guide to making tea –   for around 360 years, the British people have had a love affair with tea.

“On April 21st every year, the British honour their tea. It is their national drink after all. Whether it’s English Breakfast or Early Grey isn’t really important. It’s tea time! That’s what’s important.” – National Tea Day 2018

Manchester Museum has a vast collection of tea-associated objects from different nations around the world. So, grab a cuppa and join our Museum ‘tea tour’, including tea specimens and all sorts of tea-related paraphernalia.

Tea Tree: Camellia sinensis

There are hundreds of tea varieties, however all teas originally came from one single species, Camellia sinensis. Its Latin name sinensis indicates that the origin of tea was in China.

Left: Botanical illustration showing tea leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. Donated by British educator and botanist Leo Grindon (1818-1904), in 1911. Right: Herbarium specimen of a tea tree branch with leaves and flowers, collected from Manchester Botanical Garden in 1887, on display in the Manchester Gallery.

From East to West

Tea picture

Yunnan province in China, (  

According to Chinese legend, tea was first discovered in 2727 BC, when the Emperor Shennong  was resting under a tree.  As he was boiling water for a drink, several leaves blew into the kettle and intrigued by the aroma he took a sip and found the brew refreshing. Since then, this plant, Camellia sinensis, has changed the world, and the resulting drink is tea. The Emperor introduced the hot beverage to his people, but until roughly 618 AD, it was used mostly for medicinal purposes. It was not until the Tang Dynasty, that tea became a popular household drink.

The British introduced tea cultivation from China to India in the mid-19th century, and the extensive plantations there have provided most of the tea drunk in the UK.

Black Tea from India

From the ‘Materia Medica’, Manchester Museum.

This old glass jar of dried black tea leaves was transferred to the museum in 1990 by Professor Daniel Leech from the Pharmacy Department, University of Manchester, and is now part of the Museum’s Materia Medica collection. Maybe it was used for teaching and research purposes because of the medicinal properties of tea. The label says, “Capers for blending tea.” Capers here refer to the small, round leaves resembling capers, prepared from the youngest and tenderest leaves of the tea plant.

Chinese Porcelain Tea Set

tea 7Chinese Tea Set, Manchester Museum

Donated to the Museum in 1936, this tea set is currently on display in the ‘Journey’ case in our Manchester Gallery, which illustrates that when Chinese people have migrated to Manchester, the have brought their culture with them. Indeed, this is not just a set of crockery for serving tea, it is decorated with Chinese characters which show much about traditional Chinese culture: ancient Chinese scholars, classical Chinese poetry and sayings, and Chinese Calligraphy and Seals.

Tea Enters Japan

Around the early 9th century,  Japanese Buddhist monks Kūkai and Saichō may have been the first to bring tea seeds to Japan.

tea 8 left

Japanese water jar and tea cups, Manchester Museum

Illustrated above, and on display in our Living Cultures gallery, is a Japanese water-jar, which would be used in a tea ceremony. Its decoration is full of Japanese symbols and cultural elements,  In Japan, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of the Imperial family, and an unofficial national flower. And on displayed in the Study at Manchester Museum are these Japanese mini tea cups, depicting cherry blossom, the national flower of Japan, and Japanese women’s hair dressing and costume.

Tea travels to Europe

tea 9Tin tea-tray with a printed European design showing a beautiful flowering garden. Manchester Museum.

Tea didn’t make a lasting appearance in the West until the early 17th century when the Portuguese introduced it from China to Europe, and it was not seriously traded until  Dutch merchants started trading it via ships charted by the Dutch East India Company. However, tea soon became a fashionable drink among western European countries.

Samovar Box – A United Nations of Tea

Our collection at Manchester Museum includes this lockable wooden box covered in red-painted leather and reinforced with strips of gilded tin. It is decorated with various patterns including talismanic inscriptions, indicating it contains very important items.

Inside, like a United Nations of Tea, are a Chinese porcelain teapot, Japanese porcelain saucers, a metal lidded sugar bowl, gold-rimmed tea glasses and metal teaspoons and a brass samovar.  A samovar is a metal device traditionally used to boil water for tea in Russia. The word ‘samovar’ comes from the Russian ‘сам’ meaning self and ‘варить’ meaning to boil, so a samovar is a ‘self-boiler’. They are also widely used in Eastern and Central Europe, the Middle East, Iran, Turkey and Kashmir.

The Birth of an English Love Affair

On 23 September 1658, the London republican newspaper Mercurius Politicus carried the first advert for tea in the British isles, announcing that a “China drink”  was available in a coffee house in the city. But it was tea addict Catherine of Braganza – wife of Charles II – who turned it into a fashionable drink.  By the middle of the 18th century, tea had replaced ale & gin as the people’s favorite beverage.


tea 11

Wedgwood Jasper tea canister, tea-bowls and saucers (1775-1795). They are typical Wedgwood Blue & White jasperware: rare blue jasper base with a white jasper bas-relief, in this case, of ‘Cupids at Play’.

In 1765, the Wedgwood family was commissioned to make tea ware for Queen Charlotte, wife of the tea devotee King George III.

British Token for Tea

tea 12To promote tea business, many tea traders and tea shops issued their own tokens, like this one, an Advertising Token issued in 1849 by ‘R. Cooper, Tea & Coffee Merchant, Oldham, the ‘Genuine Tea Warehouse’, with an image of a tea caddy.

BOOST! Wake Up Tea Break

tea 16Staff tea break, Manchester Museum (photo: Fang Zong)

The ‘Tea Break‘ is a British invention for the world’s working class. This was first introduced during the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, and this tradition continues… Boost! is the Staff wellbeing programme at Manchester Museum.

“Boost aims to help us through some of the challenges of the Courtyard Project. Boost will actively encourage behaviours that promote good health and mental wellbeing by providing us with some exciting and fun opportunities and activities”

“Wednesday Wake Up is an opportunity to connect with your colleagues with a sociable afternoon break, drinking international coffees, ethically sourced teas and sharing a selection of home baked cakes.”

Wendy Gallagher, Head of Learning and Engagement and Arts and Health    Partnership Manager

 This Blog post is based on the Collection Bites talk which took place in Wellbeing Week 2017, University of Manchester.

tea 2(Source: Nick Merriman, former director of Manchester Museum via Instagram)

Happy British National Tea Day from Stan – our T-REX!

“As the world’s most popular drink, tea crosses all the boundaries of history, nation, culture and class” – Susan Cohen, Historian says in her book “Where to Take Tea”

Whatever your nation is, we wish you all to enjoy the “Tea Time” at Manchester Museum!

Tea trivia: During the Victorian era, tea rooms may have helped the women’s suffrage movement.  Tea rooms were popular and fashionable social gathering places, especially for women. British historian Sir Roger Fulford argued that tea rooms provided neutral public spaces to help women strategise political campaigns.

Fang Zong

Acknowledgements: Dr Rachel Webster (Curator of Botany), Lindsey Loughtman (Curatorial Assistant, Botany), Stephen T. Welsh (Curator of Living Cultures), Susan Martin (Curatorial Assistant, Human Cultures), Dr Dmitri Logunov (Curator of Arthropods), and Bryan Sitch (Curator of Archaeology and Numismatics), for their advice and help.

Wendy Gallagher (Head of Learning and Engagement and Arts and Health Partnership Manager), for her encouragement to include the Boost! in this Blog post.

Note: all objects unless indicated are from Manchester Museum online collection, © Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

Susan Cohen, Where to Take Tea, New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 2003
Linda Gaylard, THE TEA BOOK, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2015
Wendy Gallagher, Boost! Staff wellbeing programme, 2018


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