Tea discovered in museum dates back to 17th century

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 10:36pm


The oldest tea in Britain, a box of leaves and flowers neatly labelled "a sort of tea from China" more than 300 years ago, has turned up in the stores of the Natural History Museum in London.

When it was brought back by James Cuninghame, a Scottish surgeon and amateur naturalist in the late 17th century, tea was still a fabulous rarity, sold at between six and 60 shillings a pound, 10 times the price of even the best coffee.

Cuninghame was a passionate plant hunter, and may have collected his samples at Amoy in Fujian province, or on the island of Chusan where he described tea growing wild and the local farmers preparing the leaves for the drink.

Academics from Queen Mary's University London uncovered his samples while researching the history of the exotic import which rapidly became the British national drink, for a book to be published this summer. They yearned to taste it but were not even allowed to touch the tea. Instead, the glass lid of the small box was lifted, and they were permitted to sniff the contents.

"It had a very, very faint scent of hay," one of the academics, Matthew Mauger, said.

"In the 18th century, writers struggling to describe this exotic new drink do refer to the smell of hay," his co-author Richard Coulton said. "Fresh tea really doesn't last very long - I doubt it would be drinkable."

Cuninghame corresponded with an even more passionate and far wealthier medicine man and plant collector, Hans Sloane. Sloane had introduced England to another exotic brew. By adding milk to ground cocoa beans from Jamaica he reduced the bitterness, and gave birth to drinking chocolate.

Sloane acquired Cuninghame's samples both of wild tea leaves on the branch, which were added to the thousands of pressed plants in his herbarium, and the small box of processed and prepared tea, which became item 857 in his "vegetable substances" collection.

His collections grew so vast that they became the basis of both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, which is where the tea ended up, rediscovered with its original label only when the 18th-century catalogue was finally digitised.