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A royal appointmentFortnum & Mason has long been linked with the Royal Family. Generations of the Fortnum family worked in Royal service, from the reign of Queen Anna onwards. During the long and illustrious reign of Queen Victoria the company received the first of its many Royal Warrants. On 30 August 1867, the company was appointed Grocers and Tea Dealers to her son, Prince Albert, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. Today the world-famous store continues to hold a royal warrant for the Queen for grocers and provisions merchants and as tea merchants and grocers to the Prince of Wales for the regular supply of a range of its products.
A new era in teaBy this date Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, had joined the ranks of tea producers, thanks largely to the coffee crop failing in the 1860s. By the early 1870s, India and Ceylon were jointly acknowledged as the Empire tea growers. China never resumed her preeminence after the Opium Wars, and Chinese tea became the choice of specialist tea drinkers which could only be bought in Fortnum & Mason and other specialist grocers.
The clipper ships and great tea racesIt was the Americans who introduced the streamlined and yacht-like clipper ship to international trade, substantially reducing the time it took to transport goods across the globe. By the early 1850s Britain had its own fleet of fast new ships. They would set off from China for Britain on the same tide and race back to collect a prize for the crew, and the supreme prize for the first tea delivered from the racing vessels.
The opium warsThe early nineteenth century saw the relationship between Britain and China sour, thus jeopardising the ever-growing tea market. Chinese goods were in great demand in Britain, but there was little of British manufacture that the Chinese wanted in return. The East India Company embarked on an illegal trade with the Chinese in Bengal opium, and this in turn led to two Opium Wars between Britain and China in the early years of Victoria’s reign, and again at the end of the 1850s.
The Boston tea partyTea drinking took off in America at the end of the seventeenth century and the fashion for tea gardens became popular there, too. In Boston, a major seaport, tea symbolised wealth and social status. America was a British colony at that time, and much of its tea was imported from Britain, including a good share of it from Fortnum & Mason.
An english beverage of choiceIt took between twelve and fifteen months for precious shipments of tea to travel to Britain by sea. The costs of bringing the tea from halfway across the globe, and heavy taxation, meant that initially only the wealthy enjoyed it in its unadulterated form. By 1707 tea smuggled from Holland was booming on the black market, and much of it was padded out with unmentionable substances. Discerning – and law-abiding – tea drinkers flocked to Fortnum & Mason to buy pure (and purely legal) tea, including strong black teas, that had been created especially to withstand the long journey westwards.
Fortnum & Mason - A relationship with teaIn 1707, livery stables owner Hugh Mason and royal footman William Fortnum set up business together as Fortnum and Mason, grocers and tea merchants. Tea was the commodity on which the two young men built their dreams and grew their business. William Fortnum had family connections that entailed an intimate association with the magical brew; one of his cousins worked for the East India Company, the principal means of import of what was to become the national drink.
The origins of teaTea originated in China but myth and mystery surround the actual discovery of what was to become Fortnum’s finest and most famous offering. One story relates how, in 2737 BC, the learned Emperor Shen Nung was gathering plants. He rested under a tall wild tea bush and boiled some water for refreshment. A few leaves lazily drifted down from the branches and fell into the water. The resulting stimulating and refreshing liquor is what we now call tea. A later legend describes how Dharuma, a Buddhist monk, fell asleep while meditating. He punished himself for this transgression by cutting off his eyelids. They fell to the ground and there the first tea bushes grew. Wild bushes may have been the Emperor’s choice as a source of tea, but the plant has been cultivated for millennia. Connoisseurs during the T’ang dynasty (618 – 906 AD) crushed steamed bound-together leaves to make a sort of tea powder that was then mixed with a variety of flavourings - including plum juice and onions, the latter being arguably an acquired taste.