Is there a single substance the people of this city have not managed to turn into an instrument of excess? Alright: Fanta. I’m not aware of anyone loosening their morals via a few too many cans of Fanta – but since it’s been less than 200 years since Londoners managed to create scenes of debauchery and ill repute with something as adorable as suburban tea gardens let’s never say never.
But Londoners have, over the centuries, repeatedly made themselves extremely merry and quite ill with a variety of different substances.
Gin is the main excess with which the city is associated, and quite deservedly. In the 1700s, gin consumption was so outrageously high in London and Westminster that in St Giles, one in four houses was a gin shop. It sated hunger pangs and warmed them up in the cold.
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But Londoners have never needed excuses as good as that to get way, way too into something. Aside from gin and ale, tea was also considered not only addictive, but life-ruining.
Yes, here in Britain, tea had an image problem.
As with many substances in London, the first problem was association. Tea lost its wholesome reputation because of where it was served: tea gardens, which were suburban retreats where people would drink tea and engage in pastimes such as strolling, games, bowling, cockfighting – and yes, alright, sex.
Unsurprisingly, they soon “acquired a dubious reputation” – and poor old tea got caught in the crossfire.
The tea gardens were, then, considered to be suburban – Spa Fields was a tea garden that is now a park just south of Clerkenwell; Bagnigge Wells was in Battle Bridge, the area now known as Kings Cross; and White Conduit House was in Islington – a place with ‘clean air’ where you could ‘escape the city’. And of course there was good old Sadler’s Wells. You know, those naughty, sinful places outside the city.
In 1786, one writer said of the tea gardens, “The tendency of these cheap enticing places of pleasure just at the the skirts of this vast town is too obvious to need further explanation… They swarm with loose women, and with boys whose morals are thus depraved and their constitution ruined, before they arrive at manhood ”.
The tea gardens were known, apparently, for “the encouragement of luxury, extravagance, idleness and other wicked illegal purposes, which… go on with impunity, to the destruction of many families, to the great dishonor of the kingdom in general, and this county in particular. ” It was supposedly clear and obvious that Londoners simply could not have nice things, because they would take those nice things and get themselves absolutely silly on them until everyone around them was accusing them of wickedness.
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But perhaps it was not just association that tea was being served at places where apparently sex was also happening. In 1762 in A New and Compleat Survey of London the excessive drinking of tea was also blamed for doing harm to “the Stomachs of the Populace, as to render them incapable of performing the offices of Digestion; whereby the Appetite is so much deprav’d ”.
And then, beyond association with the moral tut-tutting, beyond the claim that Londoners had tea-related tummy aches, in 1830 the writer William Hazlitt died in a cheap Soho lodging house, supposedly because of excessive tea consumption.
Specifically, he was said to have died of the excessive tannic acid induced by excessive tea consumption. (But still… is there anything less rock’n’roll than dying of tea? It’s like suffocating on a doily: it’s just embarrassing.)
So even though tea began as an upper-class drink – and even though now it’s so commonplace you’ve probably considered making one three times since you started reading this article – know that it would once have singled you out as someone whose morals are thus depraved.
Go on, make yourself a cup, you filthy debauched wretch.
Erica is a London Stories Writer, and is particularly interested in London history – the stranger the better. She lectures on features writing at various UK universities, has written for the Guardian, BBC and Medium, and is the author of the book This Party’s Dead.
Check out some of her favorite pieces here: