Judith L. Fisher, “Tea and Food Adulteration, 1834-75”


This essay examines the adulteration of tea in the contexts of free trade and the politics of empire. It contends that the importance of tea as a healthful, particularly British drink made the adulteration of the beverage a significant matter for social and moral concern. Adulterated tea was primarily from China and so was typed as “foreign” and unclean in contrast to tea imported from Assam, India, that was defined as “British” and healthy.

Food Adulteration in the United Kingdom

image of tea plant

Figure 1: Illustration of the Tea Plant

Food adulteration has existed as long as food has been “made” and sold. Historians of food adulteration such as Frederick Filby trace additions and modifications to food back to the Middle Ages and before (Filby, ch. 1 passim), and categorize intentional adulteration into two large categories of “poison” and “fraud,”— neatly caught in the title of Michael French and Jim Philip’s history of food regulation in the United Kingdom from 1875 to 1923: Cheated not Poisoned?[1] Poisoning adulteration usually adds a substance that can physically harm the consumer, such as alum or gypsum to flour to make bread whiter. Fraudulent adulteration changes the product in some way that does not actually harm the consumer but that renders the product “impure,” such as adding water to beer or milk. These categories are not mutually exclusive, however; while all “fraud” is not “poisoning,” all “poisoning” is fraudulent because both practices deceive unknowing consumers. Any discussion of food adulteration and the state response of regulation or the voluntary self-regulation by the food industry has to recognize that, increasingly, public discussion of adulteration and responses to it was a consequence of increasing urbanization and the growth of commercial marketing replacing the traditional home grown sense of “I made this myself and so I know what it is” with a kind of alienation.[2]

The expansion of the consumer market that increased demand for “manufactured” food as well as transported “pure” food such as milk (and tea) encouraged adulteration simply because the prospects for increased profit developed, in the era of free trade, into what Burnett typifies as “excessive competition” (Plenty 112-13). As well, food adulteration and the public awareness of such adulteration were spurred by the rise of modern chemistry. As Filby puts it, the development of analytic chemistry allowed researchers to detect and describe the methods and effects of adulteration while, ironically, making “formulae for adulteration” clear and available (18). In 1820, Frederick Accum, the Professor of Chemistry at the map iconSurrey Institution, published a Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, which “disclosed that almost all the foods and drinks of his day were more or less heavily adulterated” (Burnett, Plenty 101, 103).[3] Accum was followed in 1830 by the anonymous Deadly Adulteration and Slow Poisoning Unmasked; or Disease and Death in the Pot and Bottle, “by an enemy to Fraud and Villainy” (Burnett, Plenty 105), then in 1848 by John Mitchell’s Treatise on the Falsification of Food and the Chemical Means Employed to detect Them that Burnett claims “set a new standard by its original analyses and detached expression” (Plenty 106). Mitchell outlined three primary methods to “sophisticate” food, all determined by the marketplace and all forms of fraud: 1) sellers could make a substance more saleable by improving its appearance by adding something innocuous; 2) they could depreciate its actual quality by adding something “which will diminish its real, without altering its apparent strength”; 3) they could depreciate a product’s quality by adding a “simple substance” such as water (vii). In 1855, James F. W. Johnston published The Chemistry of Common Life that encouraged readers to understand the chemical content and processes of their daily diet.

Analytic chemistry became a heroic tool for exposing food adulteration in the laboratory of Dr. Arthur Hill Hassall. Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had publically claimed that there was “no foolproof method” to tell whether or not coffee contained chicory (Paulus 22). Hassall applied his microscope to prove otherwise and sent an essay refuting Wood’s contention to Thomas Wakley, the editor of The Lancet, who published the essay and then set up a Lancet Sanitary Commission, headed by Dr. Hassall, to investigate all varieties of food adulteration. The Commission performed more than 2400 chemical analyses of food; The Lancet not only published their findings but Wakley took the daring step of publishing the names and addresses of manufacturers and traders “whose samples were reported as impure” (Burnett, Plenty 241). The series of articles in The Lancet appeared between 1851 and 1854 and were published in book form as Hassall’s Food and its Adulterations in 1855, in which he defined adulteration as “the intentional addition to an article, for purposes of gain or deception, of any substance or substances the presence of which is not acknowledged in the name under which an article is sold” (1-2). Hassall expanded his study in Adulterations Detected; or, Plain Instructions for the Discovery of Frauds in Food and Medicine in 1857. The Lancet’s findings were popularized by The Times, Fraser’s Magazine, Once a Week, the Quarterly Review, and the London Review; they inspired J. D. Burns, The Language of the Walls (1855), the anonymous Tricks of the Trade in the Adulteration of Food and Physic (1855), Dr. Marcet’s On the Composition of Food and How it is Adulterated (1856), and Dr. John Postgate’s A Few Words on Adulteration (1856). Suddenly, Britons found themselves in fear for their lives because of their everyday diet of bread, milk, butter, cheese—and tea.

The Lancet articles and the following furor sparked a Parliamentary investigation in 1855 that concluded that some form of regulation was required—but what kind?  On the one hand, the articles and investigation had determined that, while adulteration was rampant, a distinction should be (could be?) made between the adulteration of products before they reached the retailer—in which case, the retailer might not be held responsible—and the adulterating of their products by retailers themselves, which seemed to demand that the relevant industry regulate itself. At the heart of this issue was moral as well as economic concern. As Burnett and Ingeborg Paulus emphasize, domestic food adulteration (that is, British manufacturers making and British merchants selling fraudulent products) not only threatened public health, but also betrayed the basic moral position of the British merchant (Burnett, Plenty 248; Paulus 50-51). The very middle class that applauded itself for its moral rectitude “was being made to look very like a nation of thieves” (Burnett, Plenty 248). Self regulation might be a way to restore public confidence but the government also felt it had to actually do something—and thus the government was faced with assaulting the sacred cow of Free Trade. In the following years, Parliament passed three anti-adulteration acts: in 1860, 1872, and 1875.  Neither of the two early acts were at all effective because they did not demand analyses of food nor were the penalties very stringent (Filby 195-96; Burnett, Plenty 257, 259). The laws’ laxity was due in part to the influence of the manufacturing community, some of whom were Members of Parliament, who strenuously argued that while there was adulteration, it was neither very “harmful” nor of British origin (Paulus 50). “Trade representatives insisted that the major adulterations constantly decried by the press originated outside the United Kingdom, especially with regard to tea, spices, and drugs. They put the blame firmly onto the Customs and Excise for not checking more thoroughly and keeping adulterated articles outside of the county” (Paulus 50-51). Such assertions were crucial for the debates about the adulteration of tea, as will be shown below. Not until the Act of 1875 was inspection and analysis of imported foodstuffs compulsory; this Act won the support of the trade industries because of its emphasis on “outside” contamination as well as its important distinction between “adulterated foods,” that is, food presenting itself as “pure” although it indeed had additives, and “manufactured” foods, such as Colman’s Mustard that identified additional ingredients such as turmeric which added to the flavor of the mustard. Under the previous acts, all manufactured foods could be found to be “adulterated.”[4] The final development, during the 1880s, was a combination of government enforcement and industry self-regulation in which the food industries “perceived protection of the consumer to be identical to their need to be protected from unfair trade practices”—the newly devised euphemism for food adulteration (Paulus 41, 43, 98). Thus the domestic food industry reclaimed its moral status as purveyors of healthy and pure food while consumers could feel that both government and industry had their best interests at heart. And by the 1890s, such consumer trust was necessary because so much manufactured food crowded the shelves of the grocers that consumers simply could not determine what ingredients their food contained.[5]

The Special Case of Tea

The adulteration of tea was not original to the nineteenth century; Frederick Filby emphasizes that from its introduction into England in the seventeenth century tea was liable to adulteration because of its expense—if only to make it go further (55). The Act of 1730 (4 Geo. II, c.14) noted that terra japonica was used to dye tea that had been previously diluted by addition of other leaves or previously used (Filby 56). Filby also notes that Thomas Short in his 1730 A Dissertation Upon Tea and John Lettsom in his magisterial Natural History of the Tea Tree of 1772 claim that tea was often adulterated by the Chinese (Filby 58, 59), indicating that from the beginning there was a generalized concern with foreign manipulation of “pure” tea. The advent of analytic chemistry, however, allowed analysts to pinpoint specific varieties of adulteration, any of which could be perpetrated by either the Chinese manufacturer or the British wholesaler or retailer.  Four specific varieties of tea adulteration predominated:

  1. Actual fictitious tea  (“Lie tea”) was “the dust of the tea leaves—sometimes of other leaves—and sand, made up by means of starch into little masses, which are afterwards painted so as to resemble either black or green Gunpowder” (Hassall, Food: the Detection of Adulterations qtd. in Crole 41). Burnett describes “Lie tea” as “a mixture of tea-dust with sand and dirt, agglutinated into a mass with a gummy substance probably made from rice, shaped into granules of the desired size, and finally coated with the appropriate colours for black or green” (History 250).
  2. Tea could be reused with mixtures: “[t]he substances generally employed in the adulteration of tea, are the leaves of the elder, hawthorne and sloe, [mixed] together with exhausted tea-leaves, re-rolled, dyed, and dried” (Mitchell 167).
  3. Tea, especially green tea, was often chemically enhanced. In 1844, Robert Warington “for the first time subjected a large number of green tea samples to a searching chemical and microscopic test. His Report to the Chemical Society stated—‘It appears, therefore, from these examinations, that all the green teas that are imported into this country are faced, or covered superficially with a powder consisting of either Prussian blue and sulphate of lime or gypsum. . . . with occasionally a yellow or orange-coloured vegetable substance’” (qtd. in Burnett, History 232).
  4. Tea-leaves were often simply redried and resold (Mitchell 166).

The debates over the adulteration of tea from The Lancet articles of 1851 until the end of the century are a case study of the intertwining of moral, social, and economic interests in the context of British imperial trade and national identity. Tea adulteration was a particularly massive problem because of the universality of its consumption and the impossibility of growing tea domestically; that is, unlike bread or milk, tea had to be purchased from the international market; Britain did not and does not have the climate or soil which would allow domestic cultivation of the tea plant. In 1863, Dr. Edward Smith conducted the first national food survey, on behalf of Sir John Simon, the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, covering “the food of ‘the poorer labouring classes’” (Burnett, Plenty 162). He found that “Tea was by now a necessity, 99 per cent of all the families consuming it at the average rate of ½ oz. per adult weekly, 2 ¼ oz. per family”—this when they often had meat only once a week (Burnett, Plenty 162). And it was often the laboring classes who were subjected to the most adulterated teas.

Significantly, the adulteration of tea was not just the chemical poisoning of a ubiquitous beverage but a moral outrage, in large part because the beverage and its rituals were extolled as physical and social benefits. By the early nineteenth century, tea’s “virtues” were firmly established and these virtues were medicinal (physical), economic (as a food substitute and source of revenue), and social and moral (sobriety and civilizing). One succinct version of this perspective is found in Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health and Longevity (1818):

Were tea deleterious, it is hardly conceivable that it should have been a principle article of diet, from time immemorial, in countries in which the plant is indigenous; and unless it had been found, at least innocent, the use of it would scarcely have extended, as it has done, over the more civilized part of the world, notwithstanding the most violent attacks upon it, by many respectable modern authorities in medicine. (67)

Sinclair listed tea’s benefits as a “valuable addition . . . to solid food,” as “correcting the pernicious qualities which some waters possess,” as an aid to digestion, as “exhilerat[ing] the spirits,” as a medicine to reduce “gravellish complaints” (i.e., stones), and he praised tea-drinking as a way to promote sobriety, “especially among the higher ranks” (67). He concluded with a celebration of the civilizing effects of the entire tea ceremony:

The pleasing occupation which the tea-table furnishes, the beauty of the manufacture in which this preparation of liquid cookery is carried on and circulated, the cheerfulness and lightness of the meal, compared with the solemnity and business-like appearance of a substantial dinner all tend to make tea a favourite beverage. Tea time indeed, is perhaps the most pleasant period of the day, in domestic life. Tea may be regarded, as having been, at least one means of expelling the remains of drunken barbarism from among our countrymen. . . .  (67, italics in the original)

Sinclair’s sentiments were echoed again and again throughout the century: Dr. George Sigmond’s Tea; Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral (1839), Leitch Ritchie’s “The Social Influence of Tea” (1848), Gideon Nye’s Tea and the Tea Trade (1850), Samuel Philips Day’s Tea. Its Mystery and History (1878), Dr. Gordon Stables’ Tea: the Drink of Pleasure and Health (1883), and Arthur Reade’s Tea and Tea Drinking (1884) are just representative examples of the many paeans to the physical and social benefits of tea drinking.

To adulterate tea, then, was to endanger an entire system of “virtues” and behaviors that established and upheld class values and gender ideals. Cassell’s Dictionary (1877-1879) readily defines tea-drinking as specifically female and English: “The use of this beverage amongst English people, and especially amongst English women, has increased in the most extraordinary manner, so that it has been said that if to be an Englishman is to eat beef, to be an English woman is to drink tea” (2:1138). The fight against adulteration thus was a fight to maintain the purity, probity, and authenticity of a way of life, which became through the century a movement to make tea “English,” that is, to make tea, for both practical and ideological reasons, a “domestic” not a foreign product.

The impetus for this “Englishing” of tea derived, paradoxically, from Britain’s laissez-faire trade policy that limited government regulation of commerce. When the East India Company (EIC) lost its monopoly on the map iconChina tea trade in 1833, the number of wholesale tea-dealers exploded, also increasing the number of retail tea-dealers, which created a more anonymous relation between producer/import and retailer/customer (Burnett, Plenty 111-12). This anonymous retailer-consumer relationship allowed competition for profits to supercede the personal trust between seller and buyer (111-12). In fact, Burnett claims that “excessive competition” encouraged domestic adulteration (112-13). While the EIC monopoly enforced artificially high prices, their closed system did maintain “a highly expensive system of inspection at Canton which saw to it that the inferior and adulterated teas were not accepted” (Burnett, History 22-23). Burnett identifies the expansion of the market with the spread of adulteration at home and abroad:

From this time [1833] an immediate deterioration in quality set in. China had until the 1870’s the monopoly of world supply, a rapidly expanding demand to meet, and, for some years at least, a class of inexperienced and ignorant merchants to deal with. After two centuries of careful, detailed regulation, the tea trade was suddenly exposed to the cut-and-thrust of international competition in which English, American and Dutch buyers frantically bid against each other for a supply which was far below the demand. It would perhaps be surprising if the Chinese had failed to take advantage of their monopoly position. (History 229)[6]

Travelers such as Robert Fortune returned from China with horror stories of the Chinese tea-producers habitually coloring their “green” tea with Prussian blue: “Chemists and botanist-explorers . . . were all arguing that their inspection of the Chinese and of tea leaves had revealed a truth about the production of green tea, i.e. that its colour was the product of dangerous pigments added during the manufacturing and not something inherent in the plant” (Rappaport 132). These tales reinforced the tea-dealers’ insistence that the government should inspect tea before it entered the retail market: “The heavy emphasis on all aspects of tea, and the consistently repeated demands that it was a government responsibility to keep adulterated tea from entering the country because it collected the revenue on tea, was one of the tactics used by the manufacturers and wholesalers to defuse the potential threat to their interests” (Paulus 37). In fact, the Tea Dealers’ and Grocers’ Association of Metropolitan London was one of the “most vocal ‘big business’” representatives willing to compromise their free trade liberties by demanding government inspection before wholesalers took possession of their tea, implying that tea adulteration was a foreign practice (Paulus 36). This attitude suggests that the identification of the private consumption of tea not just as a quintessentially British practice but as a morally uplifting custom extended into the market-place, implying that the purveyors of tea had to represent themselves as “worthy” of their product. And, indeed, Erika Rappaport discusses at length how John Horniman, who had begun to sell his tea in packets in 1826, emphatically marketed his tea as “wholesome” and “pure”—to his great financial benefit (Rappaport 133-134). This attitude was evident later in the century, when tea from map iconIndia and then map iconCeylon—both British possessions—was introduced to the British public as “British” tea, therefore wholesome tea.

However, the identification of adulteration as a foreign interference with a British product deftly ignored the evidence of domestic adulteration. For instance, there were 11 convictions for tea adulteration in London between March and July in 1818 (Burnett, Plenty 103):

In one case, the Attorney-General v. Palmer, the defendant, a grocer, had carried on the regular manufacture of fictitious tea at premises in Goldstone St. He employed agents to collect black and white thorn leaves from hedges around London, paying them at the rate of 2d. a pound. Those destined for “black tea” were boiled, baked on iron plates, and when dry, rubbed by hand to produce the necessary curl; the colour was given by adding logwood. “Green tea” was made by pressing and drying the leaves on sheets of copper, and then colouring with Dutch pink and poisonous verdigris to impart the fine green bloom. The teas were then sold at 3s. or 4s. a bound for mixing with genuine tea. Palmer was convicted and fined £840. (Burnett, Plenty 103)

Burnett claims that there were at least eight factories in London in the 1840s “expressly for the purpose of drying used tea leaves and re-selling them to fraudulent dealers” (Plenty 106). And Henry Mayhew documented the London traffic in second-hand tea and treated tea in his series of articles for the Morning Chronicle published in 1851 as London Labour and the London Poor (1.455; 2.133-34). Thus tea, the drink of sober respectability, was in danger of being labeled as a poison created by the British tradesman to sell to his neighbors: “the class [middle-class] which had taken upon itself the moral leadership of society, and the task of exposing the vices alike of the aristocracy and the lower orders—not only practised adulteration but accepted it as a normal agency of commerce” (Burnett, Plenty 120).

The Lancet articles focused attention upon this domestic moral dilemma and encouraged voluntary reform, taken up in particular, as noted earlier, by John Horniman, whose business, according to Burnett, “showed a remarkable expansion about this time (1830s), and by the 1870s was the largest in the country with an annual sale of more than 5,000,000 packets” (History 50).[7] Burnett suggests that the “commercial success [of packeted tea] was one element in a number of factors which contributed greatly to drive adulterated teas out of the market” (History 256). Although in the Adulteration Act of 1872, English retailers could be prosecuted for the first time for selling colored tea (Burnett, History 259), it was not until the 1875 Customs Act that all imported tea was inspected, effectively ending Chinese adulteration—but not necessarily domestic “sophistication.”

The 1875 act coincided with the importation of an increasing amount of Indian tea from Assam and Darjeeling. The EIC began actively exploring for Indian tea after the loss of their monopoly in 1833, when Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India from 1828, “constituted an official Tea Committee in 1834” in order to find appropriate areas in India in which to cultivate tea (Sharma 29). As early as 1823, the brothers Charles and Robert Bruce had found tea plants growing wild on the Assammap iconBurma border, but their discovery was never corroborated by professional botanists (Sharma 30). However, in 1834, Lieutenant Andrew Charlton sent seeds and leaves that he had grown from indigenous plants to the Committee who formally announced the discovery of native tea in map iconAssam in December 1834 (Sharma 30). Charles Bruce first exported Indian tea to London in 1838, where the British consumer welcomed it. The next year, Dr. George Sigmond celebrated this first sale by identifying Indian tea as a naturally British beverage, interpreting the cultivation of Assam tea as a divine justification of the English habit; tea was now an even more British beverage because “the hand of Nature has planted the shrub within the bounds of the wide dominion of Great Britain” (3). The macrocosm of imperial trade merged with the microcosm of the English home:

The social tea-table is like the fireside of our country, a national delight; and, if it be the scene of domestic converse and agreeable relaxation, it should likewise bid us remember that every thing connected with the growth and preparation of this favorite herb should awaken a higher feeling—that of admiration, love, and gratitude to Him “who saw every thing that he had made, and behold it was very high-quality.” (Sigmond 3)

Eventually the Assam Company developed, leading to other companies and a re-creation of much of Assam into one large tea plantation (Sharma 77-78).[8] And Indian tea was almost immediately identified as “pure” tea—as adulteration rapidly became stigmatized as a Chinese imposition on the English market, an insidious invasion by a foreign power. Conversely, tea was being domesticated and rendered “pure” by intellectual colonization as well as by British-Indian agriculture. Julie Fromer points out that it is in the nineteenth century that the English begin to write the history of tea; unlike the tea-treatises of the eighteenth century that debated the moral and physical effects of the beverage, the Victorian non-fiction books and articles subsume the moral-economic arguments into a history of the “herb” and its introduction to the United Kingdom, stressing the spread of the beverage as an indication of the “Englishness” of the drink (ch. 1 passim).  And as these histories define the origin of the plant in ways that make it England’s own, so do tea-planters’ guides define the process of actually making tea.

In 1872, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Money produced a textbook assuring the British public that “[t]here are lands enough in India to grow all the Tea required for England’s use, and, indeed, for all her colonies” (171). By 1873, 75,000 acres of tea in India were producing 15 million pounds and by 1888, 86 million pounds of Indian tea superceded imports from China (Moxham 108). Money’s was one of the first “textbooks” about how to cultivate and evaluate tea; by the 1880s, there were many textbooks about the Indian tea industry, all with details about proper growth, how good tea should infuse, and what it should look like both dry and after infusion. Many of these textbooks simply assume that the Chinese adulterate tea. For example, Claud Bald’s Indian Tea: Its Culture and Manufacture explains dispassionately that the Chinese “long ago recognized the impossibility of making coarse leaves retain their green colour during manufacture, and they resorted to the dodge of adding a colouring matter” (216). He goes on to point out that “[t]he general feeling of planters in India seems to be distinctly opposed to artificial colouring of any kind as being undesirable; the finished greens are made only for certain markets [the United States] where natural greens are not accepted” (216). There are two related conclusions to draw here: First, the emergence of such “textbooks” carried analytic chemistry into the consumer’s living room where he or she could discover how to evaluate tea for themselves. “Tea” is demystified; its cultivation becomes an open process and the textbooks clearly “scientize” their system, identifying their practices as modern and English. Second, and in consequence of the first, this scientific agriculture becomes evidence of the intrinsic purity of Indian tea, increasingly an English commodity.

The place, India (and Ceylon from 1878), is “English,” the process, scientific and modern, is “English,” and so the product, tea, is “English.”  By 1882, Samuel Baildon claims that the Chinese tea plant is actually a “deteriorated specimen of the pure plant,” which happens to be Indian (12). He then “proves” that since China does not have the climate or topography natural for good tea, that they almost must adulterate (23). In contrast, all Indian tea “can be guaranteed as absolutely pure” (30, italics in original). His praise of pure Indian tea merges with his praise of the modern Indian system to become a praise of the moral British tea planter who is responsible for all the stages of production unlike the indifferent Chinese: “it possibly occurs [to the Chinese grower] as he whiffs his evening pipe of opium, that what has been grown in his garden will be put on a ship and go a long distance,” but he does not care about either quality or profits (32-33).

Baildon’s opprobrium of the Chinese grower whiffing on his opium pipe becomes the norm in late-century comparisons of Indian to Chinese tea. Dr. Gordon Stables pronounced in 1883 that “[i]t is an undoubted fact that there is really no adulteration practised on Indian teas abroad. The Chinese on the other hand have elevated the art almost to a science,” and, according to Stables, they have no conscience about it (25). Stables implied that the physical purity of the product was necessary to protect the moral health of the British tea-drinking public: “The Chinese tea men, or tea women, whether planters, cultivators, gatherers, sellers, buyers, re-sellers, or re-buyers, are far from particular . . . in the matter of cleanliness, while manipulating the herb that finally finds its way into the dainty cups and saucers of England’s fair daughters” (26). He called Indian tea “the tea of the future” (33) and joined the British colonial planter to the domestic drinker in their homogenous tea-growing, tea-consuming practices. The Indian planter says to Britain: “We are all one—one sovereignty, one queen or empress. Our interests are identical” (Stables 36). Similar violent jingoism is evident in David Crole’s textbook of 1897:

Many years ago a cry was started about the impurities of some of the Chinese teas, and the epithet ‘lie’ tea was sufficient to damn a certain class of teas, hailing from that country in our market—such stuff differing from tea as widely as ‘hay from Bohea.’ On the other hand, no charge of the admixture of dye or other and more repulsive impurities could be cast upon British-grown teas; added to which was the important fact that these latter teas were manufactured by cleaner and more wholesome processes by the employment of machinery, whereas those from China were known to be only manipulated by hand, which necessitated many filthy and objectionable features, aggravated by the tropical heat. (40)

For Crole, the opposition is clearly the Modern West defeating the Barbaric East—even though his “West” is India. His implicit point is that, wherever the English impose their methods, that is the “West”:

Had the Celestials but taken advantage of and profited by the intelligence, science and research which the “foreign devils” thought it worthwhile to bring to bear on the subject, the ousting of their teas from the market had been a much more difficult, if not impossible, matter. However, they must blame their obstinate barbarism as much as we can thank our civilization and energy for this triumph of the West over the Flowery Land. (42)

Although Crole does suggest that adulteration “has fortunately become a thing of the past” (42), he nonetheless concludes his discussion by hoping that future generations of British tea-drinkers “will not forswear British–grown teas . . . and revert to the filthy trash that I make no doubt the ‘heathen Chinee’ [sic] would be only too glad to ‘doctor’ up to suit the then popular taste, and palm the mixture off under some pagan name or other, to the detriment of Christian nerves and stomachs” (44).

Once British colonial tea was firmly established by the 1880s, perceived to be a strong beverage unadulterated and unsullied, Indian and Ceylonese tea could be seen as the “patriotic” drink of the hygienically minded Briton: “While China tea was still grossly adulterated, grown and manufactured by primitive hand methods, Indian was produced on large, highly capitalised estates, using all the modern apparatus of science, technology and research.  The Victorian mind was greatly reassured by the knowledge that its Indian tea was ‘untouched by human hand’” (Burnett, History 180).[9] For Crole, the spread of “British” tea is synonymous with the spread of the British empire and its values. He consistently calls Chinese tea “foreign,” implying that Indian and Ceylonese teas are domestic, and envisions the future as a victory in a trade war: “The displacement of this foreign tea ought only to be a mere question of time, and I really can see no reason why we should not confidently look forward to a time when we shall be exporting British-grown tea into China itself” (54).

Efforts to identify and control the adulteration of tea by means of the newly developing science of food chemistry were matched by claims of the superiority of technologized cultivation and manufacturing methods. Both attempted to allay the fear that the empire could be contaminating itself by consuming its own products. Fears of adulterated or mishandled tea also spoke to an anxiety in the growing consumer culture where buyers were uncertain how to determine the authenticity of the product. The tea industry’s response was threefold: scientific examination of imports, pre-packaging such as Horniman’s tea, and the “Englishing” of the tea-industry itself. Tea was a focal point for British domesticity and the practice of and debate about the adulteration of tea reveals that the beverage wedded intimate moments of family life to the public world of consumer goods and imperial power.

Judith L. Fisher is Professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She is the editor of William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Adventures of Philip (U of Michigan P, 2010) and author of Thackeray’s Skeptical Narrative and the ‘Perilous Trade’ of Authorship (Ashgate, 2002); she has written and presented on tea as a literary device in British literature.


published December 2012

Fisher, Judith L. “Tea and Food Adulteration, 1834-75.”BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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[1] A distinction needs to be made between “intentional” and “unintentional” adulteration for this essay because Victorian agitation and legislation was certainly directed toward the former, seeing adulteration as moral fraud and economic duplicity.

[2] For a detailed discussion of this shift from farm/local market to an urban setting with its anonymous producer-retailer-consumer triangle, see chapter one of John Burnett’s Plenty and Want, a Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day.

[3] While most historians credit Accum with starting the awareness of adulteration and, indeed, while the first edition of 1000 volumes sold out in less than a month (Burnett, Plenty 104), the book was discredited because Accum was driven out of England after being indicted in 1821 by the Managers of the map iconRoyal Institution for mutilating books. Burnett thinks it might have been a “deliberate conspiracy” on the part of manufacturers to discredit Accum (Plenty 105).

[4] This separation was crucial. French and Philips make the point that the United Kingdom became increasing dependent upon overseas supplies not just of spices, tea, sugar, and coffee, but of grains, meats, and butter; moreover, the development of “manufactured” food (Colman’s mustard, Bird’s custard mix, HP sauce, etc.) “was part of the second industrial revolution” (12, 15).

[5] To this day, HP sauce closely guards its contents as does Pimms’ Cup.

[6] See Ball, 234-43, and Fortune, 2:69-71, for eye-witness accounts of the Chinese adulterating tea.

[7] See Rappaport for an extensive discussion of Horniman.

[8] See Jayeeta Sharma for a detailed discussion of how this explosion in tea cultivation transformed India, not just geographically, but culturally and politically, shaping colonial and post-colonial structures and tension.

[9] For accounts of tea cultivation in India from the British point of view, see Baildon, chs. 2, 3, 4, and Crole, chs. 2 and 3; for modern histories, see John Weatherstone as well as Alan and Iris Macfarlane.