Van Millingen assemblage from Spitalfields (c) MOLA

A perfect storm in a tea cup: Archaeology and Britain’s favourite drink

MOLA team

Today is National Tea Day, where the nation joins together to celebrate the beloved cuppa. But where did our love of tea come from? And what does it have to do with archaeology? Our work is helping to provide some of the answers.

Believe it or not, tea hasn’t always been a British institution, nor has it always been enjoyed in the type of handled tea cup we know and love. Wealthy elites began enjoying the tasty brew in the 16th century. However, historical and archaeological evidence has shown that by the later 17th century you would have been much more likely to enjoy your tea in a handle-free tea bowl than a cup!

Although we know that handled cups were made and used for tea, coffee and chocolate drinking at this time, tea bowls dominate this period in the archaeological record. Popular bowl styles included Delftware, and later English white glazed stoneware and porcelain, as well as imported Chinese porcelain.

By the turn of the 19th century, thanks to a perfect storm in a tea cup, the game changed and tea drinking culture hit the British mainstream. In 1791 the East India Company decided to abandon the Chinese porcelain trade, instead filling their cargo ships with tea to act as ballast and make the most of a recent lowering in tea duties. As a result, tea supply became suddenly plentiful and tea became far more accessible and cheaper, meaning that the demand for vessels to serve tea in exploded.

This, combined with technological innovations of the time such as the ability to apply fashionable, chinoiserie-style blue transfer-prints to crockery unlocked a whole world of possibilities in shape and design. The first two decades of the 19th century saw makers such as Wedgwood and Spode develop many distinctive styles of cup, the names of which we know thanks to the few surviving illustrated catalogues and the most common of which were the Bute or Common shape, and the London shape.

These developments are neatly encapsulated in the collection above from our excavations at 5 Spital Square, once home to the Van Millingen family. Charles Van Millingen, the patriarch of the family, was a London-born Jew of Dutch Ashkenazi descent. He is listed in the 1851 census as an umbrella-maker – which was confirmed by the recovery of many umbrella parts at the site.

When the family left the house in the late 1850s, the crockery was dumped in the backyard privy, along with a range of household items. Each of the main British made tea cup and saucer styles is represented, giving us a fantastic window into the tea drinking habits of this Victorian family. Clockwise from left, the items pictured at the top of this page are:

  • Bone china ‘4643’ tea cup
  • ‘Flow blue’ saucer in ‘Temple’ pattern
  • ‘Flow blue’ saucer depicting a group of musicians
  • Blue sponged tea cup
  • Bone china ‘Etruscan shape’ tea cup
  • Painted ‘Dresden shape’ tea cup

So, as you raise a cup in celebration of National Tea Day, make sure you spare a thought for those who had to wait more patiently for their handle-free brew to cool.

You can read more about the Van Millingen family in our blog about the excavations, and in The Spitalfields suburb 1539-c1880: Excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991-2007.


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