The Regency had the Lord, but not the Tea

Earl Grey, that is.

In the last several months, I have read at least three novels set in the English Regency in which the characters are depicted drinking Earl Grey tea. Which was completely impossible, since Earl Grey tea was not introduced in England until the reign of William IV. The tea was named after King William’s Prime Minister, who had been instrumental in the abolition of slavery, the restriction of child labor and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, which finally brought sweeping changes to the British electoral system.

The legend and the facts behind Earl Grey Tea …

Earl Grey tea is not a species of tea, but a blend. Originally, black tea from India and Ceylon was blended with the aromatic citrus oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot, a tart Seville orange/Pear lemon hybrid. This fragrant oil has a strong scent which was often used from the seventeenth century in perfumes and in flavoring snuff from the eighteenth century, well into the nineteenth century. But the use of bergamot oil was not applied to the flavoring of black tea until the third decade of the nineteenth century. It is now also used to flavor green and oolong teas, but that is a twentieth century development.

The namesake of Earl Grey tea was Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister of England from 1830 to 1834. He was a staunch Whig, as a young man an associate of Charles James Fox, one-time lover of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and father of her natural daughter, Eliza Courtney. He became the second earl in 1807, on the passing of his father, the first earl, and took his seat in the House of Lords. His most significant political achievements were the passage of the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire.

There are several versions of the legend behind the origins of the recipe for Earl Grey tea. The most common one is that Charles, Earl Grey received the recipe as a diplomatic gift on a mission to China. According to another, while in China, he received the recipe from a Chinese mandarin out of gratitude when one of the earl’s men saved the mandarin’s son from drowning. There are two insurmountable impediments to the veracity of either story. First, Charles Grey never went to China and second, the Chinese were not drinkers of black tea, so no Chinese diplomat or grateful mandarin would have had a recipe which used black tea with which to gift Lord Grey.

There is another story that Lord Grey developed the recipe himself sometime around 1800, then in the 1830s he gave it to one of the partners of the tea merchants, Jacksons of Piccadilly. This seems to be the most suspect of all the stories about the origin of the tea. Lord Grey had never shown much interest in such things at any time in his life. And why, in the first year he became Prime Minister of England, would he feel the need to give a thirty year old tea recipe to a London tea merchant? It seems much more likely that Jacksons concocted this story to help to ensure strong sales for their new tea blend, as Lord Grey was a very popular prime minister in the year the new flavored tea was introduced.

Personally, I adore Earl Grey tea. In fact, it is practically the only tea I drink. Nor would I begrudge anyone, even a character in a Regency novel, their own moments of pleasure sipping a hot cup of Earl Grey. But those who lived in the Regency were denied this small pleasure since the Earl Grey tea blend had yet to be invented. So, dear authors, enjoy as many cups of Earl Grey as you like while you write your next Regency romance, but please, however much you are tempted, do not share it with your characters. Or, if you characters simply demand to be allowed their fair share of Earl Grey tea, then set your story in the Victorian era, when it was readily available.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The Regency had the Lord, but not the Tea

  1. I was just about to have my hero drinking a cup of Earl Grey and thought I’d check it on wikipedia before using it, and found it hadn’t been invented. Rats. I’ve been trying to find what tea blend would have been in use? At the minute I’m just referencing China black tea. But all the ones I can think of (Assam, Darjeeling etc) all seem to be 1830s or later. Any ideas? It doesn’t really matter to be honest, I write romantic comedy and thought an actual blend would be funnier for the line, so hardly life or death, but if you do know I’d appreciate any pointers.
    Thanks

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for stopping by! I know the feeling, with regard to using Earl Grey tea in a novel with a Regency setting. I love it, too, and wish all those Regency characters could enjoy it. But all is not lost!

      I cross-posted this articleat the Beau Monde blog earlier this month, where one reader, Grace Burrows, commented that she had seen references to the use of bergamot in the flavoring of teas, even before the Regency. I replied to her comment regarding my theory on the use of bergamot in the flavoring of snuff by Lord Petersham, who also collected and blended his own teas. It is quite possible that he did flavor tea with bergamot and might have shared that blend with his friends.

      So, you could say “Lord Petersham’s” blend, or perhaps make it the blend of one of your characters, if they are known to be a connoisseur of such things.

      Hope that helps!

      Kat

      • I’m not sure that would work in the context, but thanks for the tip, I might use it in another story. It makes a lot of sense that people would be interested in making their own blends in snuff and would experiment elsewhere, coffee for example. My husband is a coffee buff and enjoys roasting his own blend. (Distressingly, a quarter of my kitchen is taken over by coffee making equipment!)

        Again, thanks for replying.

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    Sorry my first suggestion did not fit the bill (thought you wanted a bergamot-flavored tea), but maybe this next one will help. I did a biography of Lord Petersham here sometime ago, and I found a list of some of the tea in his collection, which he began at the end of the eighteenth century. They were all from China, as the English did not really start importing tea from India, such as Assam or Darjeeling, until after the Regency was over.

    Here is the list of the named teas in Lord Petersham’s collection:
    Pekoe
    Souchong
    Congou
    Russian
    Gunpowder
    Bohea

    All of those teas would have been known by those names in the Regency. I checked the OED to be sure the names all date to, or pre-date, the beginning of the Regency. However, be careful with Bohea, since from what I have read, that was one of the lesser quality teas, so it might not be something your character would want to serve to guests, unless they deserved it. 😉

    Good Luck with your book!

    Regards,

    Kat

  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    For those of you who would like more information on the real Earl Grey, you might want to take a look a blog post at the Georgian Gentleman. Sadly, the fellow who posted the article appears to have swallowed the mythical tale of the origins of Earl Grey tea hook, line and sinker. But one hopes the information in the rest of the article is accurate.

    Regards,

    Kat

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