ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 187
by David McKinley
(click on photos to enlarge image)


It has been said that there is more tea drunk in England than in any other country in the world and tea is known as the English national drink. It is difficult to know why this is but it may be that tea was looked on in its early days as a status symbol. When tea first came to England it was believed to have medicinal properties and was very expensive so that it was only drunk by the wealthy.

Another mystery surrounding the consumption of tea in England is the way in which it is taken. Originally it was imported from China and the Chinese did not, at the time, use dairy products at all yet the English habitually put milk in their tea. It cannot be established when exactly this practice started but it was certainly well established by the 18th century. The international traveller Per Kalm on a visit to England in 1748 wrote "most people pour a little cream or sweet milk into the tea cup when they are about to drink the tea..." (see note 1).

The first records of tea being drunk in England are a bit sketchy but there is a record of tea being imported into London as early as 1657 when the Dutch East India Company brought in a small consignment using ships registered in England under the Navigation Act of 1651 (see note 2). It was not until 1669 however that the English East India Company began importing tea to London.
Tea was being advertised in London in 1658 and it is believed that Thomas Garway (Garaway) served tea in his London coffee house in that year. The following year, 1659, Thomas Rugge wrote: "There were also at this time a Turkish drink to be solde, almost in every street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee,..." (see note 3). The earliest actual record of tea being drunk is in Pepys diary (his entry for 25th September 1660 records that he sent for "a cupp of tee, a China drink, of which I never drank before" and it is known that Catherine of Braganza brought a small casket of tea with her when she came to England in 1662 to marry Charles II following his restoration to the English throne in 1660. She was also given a present of some tea in that year so that it can be said that it was a socially accepted drink by the time of the 'Restoration').

Although it seems likely that the fact that Catherine drank tea may have had an influence in making it popular it was originally a male drink since it was served in the coffee houses of both London and Oxford and these were male preserves. It was not until the end of the 17th century that it found its way into the private home.
There is no record known to this author of how the tea was served in coffee houses or what equipment may have been used. The first known tea pot, distinguishable as such by the inscription on it which reads "This silver tea pott was presented to ye Committee of ye East India Company by ye Honourable George Lord Berkley of Berkley Castle. A member of that Honourable and worthy Society and A true Hearty Lover of them 1670", differs from the first known coffee pot dated London 1681 only in that the former is larger and has its handle at a right angle to the spout whereas the latter has the two in a straight line. They are both somewhat conical in form (Fig 1).
Earliest known tea pot Earliest known coffee pot
Fig 1: Earliest known tea pot and earliest known coffee pot - late 17th century
(Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum. London)
The earliest known tea spoon (fig 2), dated by its provenance (see note 4), must have been made before 1676 but as small items of this sort were not hallmarked at the time it is not possible to say when exactly or when 'tea tongs' (sugar tongs) (fig 3) and 'long tea strained spoons with narrow pointed handles' (mote spoons) (fig 4) were first made although it must have been before 1700.
The earliest known English silver teaspoon - c1670
Fig 2: The earliest known English silver teaspoon - c1670
(Courtesy The David Whitbread collection)
Andiron Tea Tongs by Abraham Harache - late 17th century
Fig 3: Andiron Tea Tongs by Abraham Harache - late 17th century
Early 18th century Mote Spoon by William Lutwich
Fig 4: Early 18th century Mote Spoon by William Lutwich
The earliest known reference to a tea kettle (Fig 5) is of one dated 1687 and the earliest extant example, now at the Norwich Castle Museum, is dated 1694. It must have been somewhen after 1670 therefore that tea drinking became a domestic rather than a commercial pastime and well established as such by the 1690s since the purpose of the tea kettle with its stand and spirit burner was to produce hot water at the table for a second brew and this would have been a domestic necessity.
Tea Kettle on Stand by - early 18th century
Fig 5: Tea Kettle on Stand by - early 18th century
Not only was tea itself expensive but the equipment used in its preparation was also expensive. A tea kettle and stand supplied to a certain Oliver St. George Esq of Dublin in 1703 by Peter Harache of London cost 23.18.00! (see note 5)

By the beginning of the 18th century therefore the social habit of tea drinking had become established and a suitable container in which the tea could be kept had to be produced. This container, known as a canister and later as a caddy (Fig 6), took the form of a bottle shaped vessel with a narrow neck and a pull off cap or lid. The tea was put into the canister by means of a sliding base or sliding shoulder and taken from it by dispensing it into the cap from the neck.
Tea canister by John Chatier - first quarter on 18th century
Fig 6: Tea canister by John Chatier - first quarter on 18th century
(Courtesy of Woolley & Wallis - Auctioneers of Salisbury)
The earliest pictorial representation of tea drinking in England known to this author is a painting by Richard Collins of about 1725. It shows the tea canister and next to it a hot milk jug. This shows us that milk was taken with tea by the reign of George I but that at this date it was served hot although in 1698 Rachel, Lady Russell mentions milk bottles used in connection with tea implying that it was used cold (see note 6). However it was roughly by the 1720s that small jugs (Fig 7) started to be produced and although these are usually referred to as cream jugs it is likely that they were used for cold milk as well as for cream since the larger lidded jugs with insulated handles used for hot milk are not common after about 1720.
Sparrow Beak jug by an unidentified maker - London 1728
Fig 7: Sparrow Beak jug by an unidentified maker - London 1728
By the end of the 17th century ceramic tableware was being imported from China mostly, at that time, as ballast in ships. The tea pots, used by the Chinese, which formed part of this cargo were of a more spherical than conical shape and this form was adopted by English silversmiths so that by the reign of Queen Anne tea pots were easily distinguishable from coffee pots which were still tall and, although shaped, narrower at the top than at the bottom.

In the same way that milk had become an adjunct to tea in England so too had sugar. For some reason crushed sugar, which was available, was not used and this addition to the cup of tea was served in lump form. This necessitated the production of sugar bowls which were made both with and without lids. The earliest known examples are dated to the middle of Queen Anne's reign. Notwithstanding this date the earliest tea tongs, as sugar tongs were called at the time, must be dated to the late 17th century and it must be assumed that at that time sugar lumps were served in the small ceramic bowls thought to be tea bowls. These latter bowls were not in use for tea drinking for very long as, without handles, they were quite unsuitable for use with a hot liquid. It seems likely that sugar bowls evolved from these since they differ only in size. In this connection it is believed that the first teaspoons were not for stirring either milk or sugar in the tea, which initially would have been taken in the Chinese way, but were used to 'sip' the tea rather as one drinks soup and this would seem logical when tea bowls were in use.

There was some considerable experimentation in the production of tea tongs in the late 17th and early 18th centuries resulting in a variety of 'bow' shaped tongs usually known as 'andiron' tongs because of their resemblance to the andiron fire tongs of the time. However, certainly by the reign of George I, a scissors form of tongs (Fig 8) had been introduced and this persisted throughout the 18th century until the 'bow' form of tongs common today was introduced in the 1770s.
Scissors form of tea tongs first mentioned in a Warning Carriers  notice of 1726
Fig 8: Scissors form of tea tongs first mentioned in a Warning Carriers (see note 8) notice of 1726.
A mysterious little spoon referred to in a London Gazette of 1697 as a "long tea strainer spoon with narrow pointed handle" was introduced in about 1690. Its production persisted until the 1770s although it is mentioned in the Act of 1790 (see note 7) as not being exempt from marking. Date letters were introduced for small spoons in 1781 and, to date, no long tea strainer spoon has been found bearing a date letter. As it had ceased to be used by the end of the 19th century the way in which it was used became obscure and in the early 20th century it was believed that it was for skimming off the tea leaf debris that floats to the top of the tea once it has been poured into the cup. It was given the name 'mote spoon or mote skimmer' although it had merely been called a 'tea strainer' in the 18th century.

The dictionary definition of the word 'mote' is "small speck" and experimentation has shown that all but quite large debris passes through the perforations of all but the earliest mote spoons tried (Fig 9) so that either it has been wrongly named or it was not used in this way at all. How these spoons were used cannot therefore be determined with any certainty but for convenience they continue to be called mote spoons.
Mote spoon of about 1690 by Abraham Harache. (probably experimental)
Fig 9: Mote spoon of about 1690 by Abraham Harache. (probably experimental)
By the middle of the 18th century tea was being taken in two forms although Thomas Twining is known to have been blending tea as early as the reign of George I by which time there were no fewer than 20 different teas being imported to London. These two forms were green (Hyson) tea which was that originally imported and black (Bohea) tea which was thought to have more medicinal properties and for this reason, presumably, tea was also eaten. Arthur Hayden, in his book 'Chats on Old Silver' quotes from Sir Walter Scott "A silver strainer, in which in times more economical than our own, the lady of the house placed the tea-leaves after the very last drop had been exhausted, that they might hospitably be divided among the company to be eaten with bread and butter" (see note 9) showing that this practice was established at least by the end of the 18th century.
These teas were sold by apothecaries and were very expensive partly because tea was so heavily taxed. By 1784 the tax on tea was at the rate of 119% and in 1812 whilst two ounces of coffee cost four pence two ounces of tea would cost one shilling (three times as much) (see note 10).

Just as Roman soldiers were paid in salt (giving rise to the English word salary) so 18th century serving maids were often paid, or at least part paid, in tea and it was not uncommon for the staff in the 'big house' to collect spent tea leaves and dry them for re-use or re-sale. Tea caddies were produced in pairs by this date (Fig 10) and lockable wooden boxes were being produced in which these two varieties of tea could be kept.
Pair of tea caddies by John Kincard London 1756
Fig 10: Pair of tea caddies by John Kincard London 1756
As the sugar used with tea was also expensive these boxes were often made to hold three containers, one for each of the teas and one for the sugar, and although all three containers could be of silver and made as a matching set it was not uncommon for the sugar container to take the form of a glass bowl. This has led some authorities to the erroneous belief that this glass bowl was for blending the two teas but, whereas there is documentary evidence that it was for sugar (see note 11), there is no evidence that tea was ever blended at the table. Indeed the prestige was to be able to offer both sorts of tea to guests!
As the caddies in these lockable boxes had hinged or lift off lids some implement would have been needed to transfer the tea from caddy to pot. To date no designated spoon or other tool has been identified for this purpose and for this date so that how the tea was dispensed remains a mystery. By the end of the century however the caddy spoon (Fig 11) had come into use but the earliest known example dates to the 1770s.
Caddy spoon by Peter and Anne Bateman - London 1796
Fig 11: Caddy spoon by Peter and Anne Bateman - London 1796
Although in later centuries such passing fancies as the tea infuser and the tea bag have found their way into the ritual of tea drinking it is true to say that the caddy spoon was the last true addition to the tea equipage used by the English. Throughout the 18th century the various items dealt with in this survey took on the design and decorative innovations of their time but their concept and usage did not change. Indeed, apart from the mote spoon and possibly the kettle on stand, the artifacts invented in that century are still in use today.

note   1: Jane Pettigrew - A Social History Of Tea - published by The National Trust -p59
note   2:Op Cit -p13
note   3: Christopher Hartop - The Huguenot Legacy -Thomas Heneage p36
note   4: Before this spoon came on the market it had spent 200 years wrapped in a document the authenticity of which must, in light of in-depth research by its present owner, be accepted. On it is written "The last remaining gilt teaspoon of half a dozen, given along with six cups and saucers, to the Aglionby family, by the celebrated Ann Countess of Pembroke & Montgomery...". NB: The Countess died in 1676.
note   5: McKinley - The First Huguenot Silversmiths Of London - ( -p28
note   6: Jane Pettigrew -Op cit -p33
note   7: 30 Geo III c31
note   8: Warning Carriers were men (usually retired silversmiths) employed by the Goldsmiths "Company to take notices of stolen or lost silver plate to silversmiths so that they could be warned in case such items were offered for sale.
note   9: Arthur Hayden-Chats on Old Silver-Pub. T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd.-p304
note 10: I am indebted to A.B.L.Dove FSA for this information
note 11: "Advice To The Waiting Maid" in the publication Directions to Servants by Jonathan Swift and published in 1745. He makes the observation; "the Invention of small Chests and Trunks, with Lock and Key, wherein they keep the Tea and Sugar, without which it is impossible for the Waiting maid to live...".

David McKinley
- 2014 -
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with particular reference to hallmarking at the London office. He writes for both The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain and The Silver Society.

David McKinley is the author of the book THE FIRST HUGUENOT SILVERSMITHS OF LONDON
Information about the content of this book and the discounted price applied to members of ASCAS is available in September 2011 Newsletter