Tea is perhaps the most popular of English drinks and has, since its introduction to the country, become almost a defining mark of United Kingdom. Since tea is so distinctly linked to England, only some know that tea actually is traced back to the Chinese Empire from about 3000 BC.
It didn't require a lot of time for tea to spread from China to Europe, starting in Venice and Portugal during the 16th century. The Dutch and Portuguese brought the tea to other European nations in 1610 with Britain in fact beginning the use of tea fairly late.
As a matter of fact, tea was first sold in Britain in the coffee houses in London. Thomas Garway, the owner of an Exchange Alley coffee shop, was the first one to introduce tea in his establishment. It was sold in both dry and liquid forms from 1657 onwards with the drink being fairly expensive to purchase. It was rumored to assist in keeping the body healthy and young.
Tea quickly became a popular drink within the coffee shops. By the year 1700, it could be purchased in more than 400 coffee places throughout Britain. Funnily enough, tea as a matter of fact contributed to decrease the sales of gin and ale. Thus, the introdution of tea in England antagonized the owners of taverns, who saw their sales dwindle. The politicians were also not happy with the increased sales of tea as it depended highly on the taxes gained from sales of liquor.
In order to prevent the rising tea consumption, Charles II instituted acts which prevented the sale of tea in coffee shops. These restrictions were impossible to sustain and he, therefore, instituted an act in 1676 which taxed the drink and required the coffee houses to have a license before being permitted to sell the drink. It was done so as to find a process for the government to profit from the rapidly rising sales of tea. The tax on tea continued to rise throughout the 18th century. This policy prompted the institution of tea smuggling.
Scandinavian and Dutch ships would bring tea to British coasts where smugglers would transfer tea to the mainland and sell it in the black market. Given that it was a relatively well-paid business, smugglers tend to reuse tea leaves and add other stuff in order to dilute the leaves. In the year 1784, Sir Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act. This decreased the tea tax to 12.5% and stopped smuggling.
Since then, tea became a popular afternoon drink. This ritual has been linked back to the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna, who began the custom in the dawn of the 19th century. Since then, tea has been commonly considered a British pastime.