Britain’s oldest tea merchants

I’m probably biased but I see tea as a growing worldwide market. You have new players like Australian brand T2 bringing a modern vibe to the industry, merchants steeped in tradition like Twinings or everyday brands like Yorkshire Tea.

Everyone has their favourite brand that they swear no one could ever swap without them telling the difference, but this made me think. In a nation so much in love with tea, who were the pioneers that sold it to the public?

Twinings – 1706

I’m happy to be proven wrong but the first ever endeavour to bring tea to the masses seems to be that of Twinings. You can read the full history on their website, which I highly recommend as it is fascinating. But to give you the short story, Thomas Twining actually trained as a weaver before buying a coffee house in 1706 and specialising in tea. Coffee houses didn’t just sell coffee and they were a social meeting place, a bit like a bar nowadays. However, at this point in time, women and especially women of high class would never come to coffee houses, choosing to entertain in their own drawing rooms instead. As Thomas opened the Golden Lyon, ladies would wait in their carriages while their footmen would go inside to purchase tea.

As the shop became so popular, Thomas bought the three houses next to it to expand it to what is still the main shop at 216 Strand, in London.

Other curious facts are that after Thomas and his son died, his daughter-in-law ran the business for 21 years at a time when women didn’t really have jobs, let alone run businesses! Her son Richard became the Chairman of the London Tea Dealers and eventually persuaded the prime minister to lower tea taxation through the Commutation Act of 1784. This made tea more affordable, leading to the British enjoying it as part of their everyday life.

Fortnum and Mason – 1707


Fortnum and Mason brings another story of a career change in the person of William Fortnum. He was a footman in Queen Anne’s household and saw an opportunity in selling half-used candles to earn more money. As his landlord Hugh Mason already had a shop in St James’s Market (now the Piccadilly store), they partnered to form Fortnum & Mason.

Their story is equally as interesting, though quite different. F&M has always been more than a tea shop, starting with groceries. They claim to have invented the Scotch Egg in 1738 and it was the first shop to take all five cases of tinned beans from the American Mr Heinz in 1886, bringing Heinz to Britain for the first time. The store expanded considerably and added many other departments including china, perfumes and menswear but tea and coffee have always been an integral part of it.

I like to call Fortnum’s The Mothership and their Afternoon Tea in unrivalled! You can read more about the tradition of Afternoon Tea and see some pictures in an earlier post.

Jacksons of Piccadilly – 1815


Technically owned by the same group as Twinings now, Jacksons of Piccadilly was founded in 1815 by Robert Jackson. You can start to sense a pattern here. Ah, the good old days when everyone used to name companies after themselves rather than fruit or some clever trickery!

Jacksons of Piccadilly’s unique selling point was that Robert actually started selling pre-blended teas as opposed to different single teas he would have bought at an auction. Although there is no concrete evidence to show it, it’s believed that Jacksons of Piccadilly was the first to sell Earl Grey tea.

Hornimans Tea – 1826

hornimans tea

John Horniman started his company in 1826 in Newport, unlike the above who all started in London. He did eventually relocate to be closer to the London Docks. His credit comes in being one of the first use mechanical devices to speed up the packaging process, using pre-sealed packages. This didn’t come without controversy at the time, but John was on to something as his company became the largest tea trading business in the world by 1891. It’s a shame it lost that popularity throughout the years. I had never heard of it before doing the research for this post.

John was also an avid collector or different objects from his world travels and he eventually opened a museum which you can still visit today.

Tetley – 1837

tetley original

Joseph and Edward Tetley actually begun by selling salt in Yorkshire, but after adding tea to their products, they soon figured out which route was going to be the most popular. In 1856, they moved to London and focused solely on tea, setting up Joseph Tetley & Company, Wholesale Tea Dealers.

Although John Horniman had some ideas of packaging tea differently and making the process more efficient, it was actually Tetley (the company, not the founder) who first sold tea in teabags in England in 1940 and the first to launch the rounded teabag later on in 1990.

Whittard – 1886

whittard logo

Aged just 25 and born in a successful leather merchant family, Walter Whittard decided to stray away from the family business and instead opened a tea shop. Similarly to Robert Jackson, Walter had a talent for blending teas. And when Britain’s taste for tea finally boomed with imports from India overtaking those of China and a decreasing prices, Walter was there to reap the benefits and produce tea to suit the public’s different tastes. His blends became a must-have for afternoon teas and daily use and he showed his talent not just in tea, but also coffee and cocoa purchasing.

Business boomed until the war, when the Whittard warehouse was bombed in the London Blitz, forcing the sons of Walter to move to Chelsea (the company is now known as Whittard of Chelsea). But after war rationing ended, the company continued growing for many years and is still known for its great blends today.

Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea & Betty’s) – 1886

yorkshire tea

The second tea merchant to be set up in Yorkshire is Taylors which has under its umbrella Yorkshire Tea, Betty’s (a local tea room in Harrogate) and the Taylors coffee and tisanes brand. Unlike the Tetley brothers, Charles Taylor and his two sons kept the location of the company as a big part of the heritage. Even today, the roots to Yorkshire are a key part of their marketing.

In 1919, Betty’s was founded and it turned the flagship store of Yorkshire Tea in Harrogate into a tea room as it had already become a popular destination for tea lovers across England.

With an unmistakable red packaging showing the rolling hills of Yorkshire, Yorkshire Tea is one of the most beloved tea brands in England. But as you know, tea bags are not really my thing so I’m not really their customer.

What about you, what is your favourite tea merchant? Or which one was your favourite story?

Until next time,



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