"More tea, vicar?"
The british and their tea...
Essentially, the British like nothing better than than to boil up and drink a tasty bit of foreign hedge.
Call it what you will but we've been at it since at least 1660 and aren't showing any sign of shaking the habit off.
Coffee shops may well be springing up left, right and chelsea but as soon as it goes tits up and disaster strikes the British still reach for their lifesaving cuppa and If things are particularly bad then we might even put an extra sugar in it, you know, 'for the shock'.
While it's true that by and large we no longer own jewel inlaid tea caddies from the orient and few of us regularly swallow a caddy key in order to keep our precious privet safe any more, we do still talk about our neighbours behind their backs if their brand of tea is, well, shite...
Just for the record, it's Yorkshire Tea for me, every time, although I'm notoriously bad at making a cuppa and it's usually referred to as 'chicken soup' by those in my circle of trust who feel safe enough or familiar enough to comment.
Fancy a quick look at the British and their tea? Then read on!
In the 1880's, when the Empire was going like the clappers and Queen Victoria was wearing increasingly large and bizarre lacy doilies on her head, we had absolutely no shame when it came to advertising our national drink
I mean who wouldn't want to skip down Mincing Lane and do one of those little side-swipe jump-kick in the air things on the way to pick up their wonderful tea from the solid and sterling United Kingdom Tea Company? You could probably have taken your goods home in your top hat, waving it under the candle-filled nose of the odd urchin as you danced along, winking cheekily at consumptive flower sellers as you went. The latter may have been on their last legs but it's odds on that a sniff at your dried oriental bush as you passed would make their inevitable passing all the sweeter..
During the Great War, when those of us left at home all had household staff and were deliciously melodramatic we were pretty honest (if a little less skippy) about the importance of tea. If the price happened to shoot up due to problems anywhere east of Dover we were quiet happy to be 'made gay' by a grandparent who had suffered from tea trauma too, and the rattling of the measuring spoon in our caddies (horror! if you can hear the spoon then it's hitting the bottom and we must be almost out!) clearly meant that we were indeed in the same unfortunate set of circumstances as our now deceased countrymen at Lucknow...
It was most certainly a time of melodrama. And gramophones. And dances where you ponced about pretending to be bears. You know, that sort of thing.
But let's fast forward to the time we're most interested in, the 1940's when possibly the most barking British generation of all, the lion-hearted, tea-drinking defenders of these islands with their fabulous hairdo's and legs covered in gravy browning were unleashed upon the world.
The government of the time knew how important our cuppas were and in 1942 made a strenuous effort to buy up all of the tea supplies in the world (except Japanese tea, negotiations may have been a tad tricky there) to keep us going. Tea was our biggest gross purchase (by weight) after bullets. Our national shopping bag of tea weighed more than our national shopping bag of explosives.
In Hampstead, London, in 1941, the locals put down their cuppas for a few minutes each day and nipped outside to collect shell splinters. When they'd collected a vast pile, they had it shipped over to the United States where it was melted down and made into - yes, you guessed it, a tea van - by the Americans who then gamely loaded it onto a convoy ship which bravely battled its way across the u-boat infested Atlantic and dropped the impressive vehicle (pictured below) off back in Hampstead, just in time for, yes, tea:
The wartime British were experts at putting their cuppas to good use, the Actress Mary Ellis , the star of 'Glamorous Night' and 'Strange Interlude' (I know, me neither) teamed up with the redoubtable Commandant of the Selkirk VAD and sold cups of tea in aid of the Cripples Welfare Association:
Everyone was at it, solid - as they say - the good honest working classes in the north who reached for a cuppa in their Anderson shelters as soon as the raiders had passed...
Miss Mary Churchill and Mrs Randolph Churchill (Winston's daughter and daughter-in-law) who were the 'guest tea drinkers' at a communal feeding centre in Liverpool in 1941 (slightly unfortunate photograph there, I'm assuming that the fellow behind the counter wasn't actually Adolf Hitler):
Even Clement Atlee's wife, Violet, was caught doing a bit of washing up whilst on duty with the YMCA. When she wasn't doing this, she was tootling around in a tea-car taking cuppas to troops manning anti-aircraft guns and searchlights:
To the stranger, the sight of a posse of tea-drinking Britons may well have been a bit unnerving...
By March 1941, the British were rather up against it (a bit). Churchill was doing his best to persuade the United States to come and join us on the grounds that once we were gone, it was only a short hop to Iceland, Greenland and then North America for Hitler. A raft of heavy bombers from the POTUS might have been nice at this point but - credit where it's due - the good people of Greenwood, Virginia sent us a tea wagon:
Hop-pickers, tea-trays at the ready, pause for a cuppa and a photo in Kent, in 1942. The holes in the tea trays were made by Nazi bullets as the hop-pickers were strafed during the Battle of Britain the previous summer.
Interrupting the British whilst they're drinking their tea? jolly bad form, jerry, you brute...
And so yes, one cannot ever underestimate nor indeed undermine the importance of a bit of dried up foreign bush to the British. If ever we had a rallying cry it was surely
"Shall we fight on?"
"Is there tea?"
"Yes! There's tea! Mostly Darjeeling but Mr Parker at number 30 has a sizeable stash of Assam! "
"Then let us indeed fight on!"
The final words on Wartime tea drinking, should probably include the following excerpt from an article which appeared in The Tatler on Wednesday 19 February 1941 and illustrated perfectly the importance of dried foreign hedge issues for the British: