The Story of the British Tea Room

The Story of the British Tea Room

Oxford is truly beautiful this time of year, but the city can get a little hectic over the Summer months, with people flocking from all over to come and see itwe can hardly blame them! So what better way to take a breather from the bustling streets than to sit down to a nice relaxing cuppa. Hurrah for tea rooms!

But where did all of these amazing places come from? And what exactly is the difference between a tea room and a coffee house? We've been doing some digging into the history of the tea room, so pop the kettle on, put your feet up and read on to find out more...

The Arrival of the Coffee House

Queens Lane Coffee House ImageAs it turns out, there are actually a lot of differences between a tea room and a coffee house, going back centuries. The first English coffee house was in fact right here in Oxford, on the site of The Grand Café on High Street, while across the road from it The Queen’s Lane Coffee House (founded four years later in 1654) is the oldest established coffee house in Europe! Needless to say, we highly recommend a visit to both of these incredible places.

The new fashion for coffee reached London late in 1654, and spread quickly, however the coffee houses of the 17th Century were not quite like the coffee houses and cafes we know today. 

These were boisterous places where people engaged freely in intense debate with strangers, with topics ranging from politics, philosophy and science to theatrical and literary criticism. 

Coffee Beans

In one London coffee house Isaac Newton is said to have performed a public dissection on a dolphin, and in another patrons would regularly conduct informal investigations into the nature of insanity. Anything was up for debate, and for the cost of a penny any man could enter, discuss and enjoy unlimited coffee refills. But while coffee houses were social spaces in which Enlightenment thinking flourished and democratic opinions were freely exercised, women were not permitted to enter.

Tea, Glorious Tea!

It was Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, who first introduced tea to England, making it fashionable amongst the aristocracy’s elite. 

Twinings Tea Image

But while coffee was by this time becoming relatively common place, tea remained a rare curiosity. It was considered unusual enough that Samuel Pepys documented his first sampling of the drink in his famous diary in September 1660.

But it was through coffee houses that tea first entered the wider public domain, allowing it to eventually become the British staple that it is today. In 1706 Thomas Twining opened what is generally considered to be the first tea room in Britain, which you can still find on The Strand in London, open for business to this day.

While coffee was a cheap beverage for the masses, tea began its illustrious relationship with the people of Britain as an expensive, excessively taxed commodity—taxation on tea at its height reaching 119%!

Tea Leaves Image

Such high taxation led to a country-wide surge in tea smuggling, and it’s estimated that by the late 18th Century such was the British affinity for tea that more was smuggled into the country than was actually legally imported. In 1784 William Pitt the Younger passed an Act of Parliament that reduced the tax on tea to 12.5%, making it significantly more affordable for people of all social classes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Trusty Tea Room

Afternoon Tea ImageThe 18th Century tea rooms were very different from coffee houses. While women were forbidden from the egalitarian conversations of the contemporary coffee houses, tea rooms were reputable public spaces that woman could enter unescorted by a man, a rarity at that time.

This meant that, much like coffee houses, tea rooms became social venues—places where people (particularly women) could gather and talk freely, but generally with a more relaxed atmosphere than the raucous coffee establishments of the time. And, with the creation of afternoon tea in 1841, this also became a part of the tea room’s custom and heritage.

By the late 19th Century large tea room chains, run by The Aerated Bread Company and J. Lyons & Co., began to pop up all over the country—A.B.C. Tea Rooms offering the first ever self-service tea rooms.

J. Lyons Coventry 1942 Image

During this period, and into the early 20th Century, suffragettes would often meet in tea rooms, gathering together to informally discuss their rights, and of course enjoy a nice cup of tea.

Even during the height of the Blitz, and wartime rationing, tea rooms remained a hub for people to come for refreshment and to socialise—a relief from the everyday stresses of the war.

(Image Credit)

Oxfordshire Tea Rooms Today

But of course the story of the tea room doesn't end there. These amazing places have endured into the 21st Century, and Oxfordshire has many wonderful tea rooms worth sampling. We particularly recommend The Rose on High Street and Annie’s Tea Room in Thrupp.

1738 Tearoom

The continuing popularity of the tea room is a testament to its relaxed atmosphere, the tradition of getting together for a chat, and, of course, the prevailing British love affair with an excellent cup of tea. Not to mention that taking a little time out to unwind in one of these great settings is a very special way to make your own little contribution to the long history of the tea room. 

For a great tea room right in the centre of Oxford come and visit our 1738 Tea Room (on the first floor of the store) where you can sit and relax with some Twinings tea (just as they did in 1706), some scrummy cake and, of course, a good natter!

For more information on Boswells' 1738 Tea Room click here to read Rosie from our Pharmacy's review.

19th August 2016

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