Copied from A Social History of the Nation’s Favourite Drink
The great tea debate and the Temperance Movement
But not everyone agreed that tea was an appropriate drink for the working classes. Indeed, from the early eighteenth century well into the nineteenth century a debate raged among middle and upper-class commentators about the benefits or otherwise of tea drinking - and particularly about whether the lower classes should be allowed to drink tea at all. This was partly based upon a consideration of whether tea might be injurious to health (it was a long time before the benefits of tea to health would be scientifically proven) but also partly based upon snobbery and a belief that the poor existed essentially to serve the needs of the rich.
In 1706 a book by a doctor from Montpelier, France, was translated into English. Its title: Wholesome Advice against the Abuse of Hot Liquors’. Its particular targets were tea, coffee and hot chocolate. In the late seventeenth century, great medicinal claims had been made for hot drinks, including tea, and this book was a response to them, arguing that though while moderate consumption could be beneficial, an excess of hot drinks caused the blood and insides to heat up and that ‘Excess of Heat is the most Common Cause of Sickness and Death’. Indeed, noted the doctor, ‘The name of Phlegeton, one of the rivers of Hell, coming from a word that signifies to Burn, denotes, That the Abuse of Hot Liquors contributes very much to People the Kingdom of Death’. Medical science at the time was so basic that the ‘evidence’ presented in the book was based largely upon vague anatomical knowledge and references to Bible stories and classical Greek and Roman texts. It is noted, for example, that Methuselah, the Old Testament figure who lived almost a thousand years, never drank hot liquors.
John Wesley and abstinence from tea
This book though counselled moderation rather than abstinence (and noted indeed that an excess of cold is equally as damaging as an excess of heat). ￼But a few decades later in 1748 John Wesley, the great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement, was arguing for complete absitinence from tea, on the grounds that it gave rise to ‘numberless disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind’. He cited the example of himself, claiming that tea drinking had caused in him a ‘Paralytick disorder’, which had cleared up since he began to abstain from the beverage. Wesley urged that the money previously spent by an individual on tea should instead be given to the poor, and as an alternative hot infusions could be made from English herbs including sage or mint. His argument was certainly thorough (although medically entirely incorrect), and he even touched on how one ought to deal with the awkward situation of having to refuse an offered cup of tea. The tract is shot through with the emphasis on the religious importance of self-denial that was a central tenet of early Methodism, but in fact at later in his life Wesley went back to tea drinking.
In the following years the debate about the health-giving properties of tea got under way in earnest. An anonymous ‘Gentleman of Cambridge’ published a pamphlet claiming (based on the work of a physician who had served no less a figure than the King of Denmark!) that tea was virtually a cure-all. He cited conditions as varied as scurvy, rheumatism, inflammation and poor sight, all of which he said could be cured by the daily drinking of large quantities of tea. He also noted that it was particularly beneficial to the ‘fair sex’ (meaning women), which was a great contrast to the doctor of Montpelier, who was very concerned that hot liquors could heat the womb and adversely affect a woman’s fertility (his evidence for the adverse effect of heat included the Biblical figure Rachel, who had rather a hot temper, and had to wait many years to conceive).
Jonas Hanway thought tea as ‘pernicious to health’
In 1757 the philanthropist Jonas Hanway published an essay on the effects of tea drinking, ‘considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’. Published in the form of 25 letters written to two wealthy female friends, Hanway dismissed the claim that tea could cure scurvy, and claimed instead, like Wesley, that it caused ‘paralitic and nervous disorders’. He was particularly concerned about its effect on women: ‘How many sweet creatures of your sex, languish with weak digestion, low spirits, lassitudes, melancholy, and… nervous complaints? Tell them to change their diet, and among other articles leave off drinking tea, it is more than probable the greatest part of them will be restored to health.’ He also appealed to their vanity - insisting that due to women drinking tea ‘there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was’. But more than just injurious to women,Hanway believed that tea-drinking risked ruining the nation, because of its increasing prevalence among the working classes, and associated the drinking of tea with the drinking of gin. ￼He argued that the poor could ill-afford to spend their money on tea, claiming that ‘those will have tea who have not bread’, and that children born to poor mothers were dying because their mothers were spending all their money on tea, and drinking this ‘liquid fire’ while breast-feeding. This, he claimed, had led to a decline in numbers in the workforce, which he believed was obstructing agriculture and manufacturing, and would leave the country open to attack because there would not be enough fit men for the army. Thus Hanway urged the rich to give up tea drinking, in the hope that their example would be followed by the poor, on whose labour Britain depended. Much of Hanway’s essay is then based on the assumption that the injurious habits of the poor must be controlled, not for the sake of poor themselves, but because a decline in their numbers or would ultimately be damaging to the interests of the rich.
Snobbery about tea and social class
In 1758 an anonymous author entered the debate with a pamphlet entitled The Good and Bad Effects of Tea Consider’d, which very much supported Hanway’s arguments. The pamphlet argued that while tea-drinking was acceptable for the middle and upper-classes, it should be prevented among ‘persons of an inferior rank and mean abilities’. Although his argument started reasonably, pointing out that a cup of tea alone was an inadequate breakfast for those who had to do hard work, it soon descended into a tirade based, like Hanway’s original essay, on the belief that the social habits of the poor must be controlled for the sake of the rich. He claimed that the practice of tea-drinking in the afternoon among working class women meant that they were ‘neglecting their spinning knitting etc spending what their husbands are labouring hard for, their children are in rags, gnawing a brown crust, while these gossips are canvassing over the affairs of the whole town, making free with the good name and reputation of their superiors.’ He believed that it also encouraged these ‘artful husseys’ to drink spirits and to complain about their husbands, and urged innocent people to hold out against their malign influence. Unsurprisingly, this author was set against the practice of providing servants with an allowance for tea.
Dr Samuel Johnson, a devotee of tea
But not everybody followed Hanway’s argument. The eminent intellectual Dr Samuel Johnson, a devotee of tea, so disagreed with Hanway’s 1757 essay that he published a hilariously satirical review of it in the Literary Magazine, a monthly journal. ￼Johnson started of by admitting that Hanway should expect little justice, since Johnson himself was ‘a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning’. He then poured scorn on Hanway’s suggestion that women are less beautiful than they once were, before considering the claim that tea-drinking has led to an increase in nervous disorders. Johnson suggested that rather than blaming tea, one ought to blame the ‘general langour [that] is theeffect of general luxury, of general idleness’, because those who are idle get no exercise, and are thus susceptible to nervous disorders. He argued that there is only a link with tea-drinking because tea-drinking is common among those who are already ‘idle and luxurious’. Johnson was also perceptive enough to note that often tea-drinking was just an excuse for bringing people together: ‘a pretence for assembling to prattle, for interrupting business’ - but unlike tea’s critics, who saw such gatherings as dangerous (particularly among the working classes), Johnson saw no harm in it. Thus he has much in common with many modern tea-drinkers, who delight in getting together with a cuppa for a gossip and a giggle.
Spat between Jonas Hanway and Dr Samuel Johnson
Jonas Hanway was as furious with Johnson’s review as Johnson had been scathing about Hanway’s original work. He wrote a response to Johnson’s review in the Gazateer, and in turn Johnson was moved to respond to this, again in the Literary Magazine, the only occasion on which Johnson was ever moved to reply to an attacker. ￼Hanway would have been wise not to have taken up his pen again, for Johnson’s reply to him was so witty and effective that it demolished once again Hanway’s arguments. Thus ended the spat between Jonas Hanway and Dr Samuel Johnson, but the arguments about tea raged for years. As late as 1826, a London tea dealer (admittedly biased by his profession) published a book which included a defence of tea from the claim that it caused ‘nervous disorders’. With some insight, he questioned the medical basis of these disorders, and suggested that they might be cured not by giving up tea, but by the sufferers taking up regular exercise, eating healthy food and getting plenty of sleep. He noted that tea ‘quenches the most burning thirst, and cheers the spirits without heating the blood… I am inclined to believe that the man who could willingly forgo the pleasures of the tea-table and society around it, wants that kind of congenial spirit without which life would be a burden, and the world a dreary waste…’. In conclusion he pointed out the government provided tea to the Navy, without any concern that ‘our future enemies will have to contend with bilious and nervous sailors, instead of hearts of oak, and sinews of iron’. The arguments are now over once and for all, since it has now been shown scientifically that drinking four cups of tea a day can be beneficial to health.
Given the insistence of some eighteenth-century authors of a link between tea-drinking and ‘dram-drinking’, it is somewhat ironic then that tea-drinking was actually being used as a weapon in the armoury of the temperance movement - a movement that was primarily an attempt by sections of the ruling classes to get the working classes to give up alcohol. Virtually since historical records began, alcoholic drinks had been a central part of the diet of men, women and even children in Britain. There was some sense in this: weak alcoholic drinks could quench the drinker’s thirst without the risk of contracting disease from contaminated water. But the eighteenth century saw a rise in the popularity of strong wines such as port among the upper classes, and of spirits, particularly gin, among the working classes. ￼In the nineteenth century there was the inevitable backlash, inspired primarily by upper class fears that gin-sodden working class would be difficult to control and unable to work. Thus a movement developed in support of temperance - the drinking of alcohol only in moderation, if at all. Tea was useful to thetemperance movement because it offered a refreshing, thirst-quenching alternative to alcohol that was cheap and (made of course from boiled water) safe to drink. Preachers of temperance urged people to sign a pledge to give up drinking alcohol, and millions did so (although merely signing the paper was no guarantee of a future of abstinence). Often this took place at mass meetings, and tea would be served to those who attended. The Methodist church was at the forefront of the temperance movement and often served tea at its meetings, rather ironically since its founder, John Wesley, had been so anti-tea.
Cafes and coffee houses
During the 1830s the movement was so successful that businessmen recognised that there was a gap in the market for catering outlets that sold non-alcoholic refreshments - a temperance alternative to pubs and inns. A great many new cafes and coffee houses opened up. Though in principal similar to the coffee houses of the seventeenth century, they were different in that these new businesses catered to the needs of ordinary people, not just wealthy men. From the 1880s, tea rooms and tea shops became popular and fashionable, particularly among women, for whom they offered a most welcome and respectable environment in which to meet, chat and relax, without the need to be accompanied by a man.