London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Buyers of Tea-Leaves.

AN extensive trade, but less extensive, I am informed, than it was a few years ago, is carried on in tea-leaves, or in the leaves of the herb after their having been subjected, in the usual way, to decoction. These leaves are, so to speak, remanufactured, in spite of great risk and frequent exposure, and in defiance of the law. The Geo. III., c. , is positive and stringent on the subject:—

Every person, whether a dealer in or seller of tea, or not, who shall dye or fabricate any sloeleaves, liquorice-leaves or the leaves of tea that have been used, or the leaves of the ash, elder or other tree, shrub or plant, in imitation of tea, or who shall mix or colour such leaves with terra Japonica, copperas, sugar, molasses, clay, logwood or other ingredient, or who shall sell or expose to sale, or have in custody, any such adulterations in imitation of tea, shall for every pound forfeit, on conviction, by the oath of one witness, before one justice, 5l.; or, on non-payment, be committed to the House of Correction for not more than twelve or less than six months.

The same act also authorizes a magistrate, on the oath of an excise officer, or any , by whom he suspects this illicit trade to be carried on, to seize the herbs, or spurious teas, and the whole apparatus that may be found on the premises, the herbs to be burnt and the other articles sold, the proceeds of such a sale, after the payment of expenses, going half to the informer and half to the poor of the parish.

It appears evident, from the words of this act which I have , that the use of tea-leaves for the robbery of the public and the defrauding of the revenue has been long in practice. The extract also shows what other cheats were formerly resorted to—the substitutes most popular with the tea-manufacturers at time being sloe-leaves. If, however, - of the statements touching the applications of the leaves of the sloe-tree, and of the juice of its sour, astringent fruit, during the wartime, had any foundation in truth, the sloe must have been regarded commercially as of the most valuable of our native productions, supplying our ladies with their tea, and our gentlemen with their port-wine.

Women and men, -fourths of the number being women, go about buying tea-leaves of the female servants in the larger, and of the shopkeepers' wives in the smaller, houses. But the great purveyors of these things are the charwomen. In the houses where they char the tealeaves are often reserved for them to be thrown on the carpets when swept, as a means of allaying the dust, or else they form a part of their perquisites, and are often asked for if not offered. The mistress of a coffee-shop told me that her charwoman, employed in cleaning every other morning, had the tea-leaves as a part of her remuneration, or as a matter of course. What the charwoman did with them her employer never inquired, although she was always anxious to obtain them, and she referred me to the poor woman in question. I found her in a very clean apartment on the floor of a decent house in Somers-town; a strong hale woman, with what may be called an industrious look. She was middle-aged, and a widow, with daughter, then a nursemaid in the neighbourhood, and had regular employment.

Yes," she said, "I get the tea-leaves whenever I can, and the most at two coffee-shops that I work at, but neither of them have so many as they used to have. I think it's because cocoa's come so much to be asked for in them, and so they sell less tea. I buy tea-leaves only at one place. It's a very large family, and I give the servant 4d. and sometimes 3d. or 2d. a fortnight for them, but I'm nothing in pocket, for the young girl is a bit of a relation of mine, and it's like a trifle of pocket-money for her. She gives a penny every time she goes to her chapel, and so do I; there's a box for it fixed near the door. O yes, her mistress knows I buy them, for her mistress knew me before she was married, and that's about 15 or 16 years since. When I've got this basin (producing it) full I sell it, generally for 4d. I don't know what the leaves in it will weigh, and I have never sold them by weight, but I believe some have. Perhaps they might weigh, as damp as some of them are, about a pound. I sell them to a chandler now. I have sold them to a rag-and-bottle-shop. I've had men and women call upon me and offer to buy them, but not lately, and I never liked the looks of them, and never sold them any. I don't know what they're wanted for, but I've heard that they're mixed with new tea. I have nothing to do with that. I get them honestly and sell them honestly, and that's all I can say about it. Every little helps, and if rich people won't pay poor people properly, then poor people can't be expected to be very nice. But I don't complain, and that's all I know about it.

The chandler in question knew nothing of the trade in tea-leaves, he said; he bought none, and he did not know that any of the shopkeepers did, and he could not form a notion what they could be wanted for, if it wasn't to sweep carpets!

This mode of buying or collecting is, I am told the commonest mode of any, and it certainly presents some peculiarities. The leaves which are to form the spurious tea are collected, in great measure, by a class who are perhaps more likely than any other to have themselves to buy and drink the stuff which they have helped to produce! By charwomen and washer-women a "nice cup of tea" in the afternoon during their work is generally classed among the comforts of existence, yet they are the very persons who sell the tea-leaves which are to make their "much prized beverage." It is curious to reflect also, that as tea-leaves are used indiscriminately for being re-made into what is considered new tea, what must be the strength of our tea in a few years. Now all housewives complain that twice the quantity of tea is required to make the infusion of the same strength as formerly, and if the collection of old tea-leaves continues, and the refuse leaves are to be dried and re-dried perpetually, surely we must get to use pounds where we now do ounces.

A man formerly in the tea-leaf business, and very anxious not to be known—but upon whose information, I am assured from a respectable source, full reliance may be placed—gave me the following account:—

My father kept a little shop in the general line, and I helped him; so I was partly brought up to the small way. But I was adrift by myself when I was quite young—18 or so perhaps. I can read and write well enough, but I was rather of too gay a turn to be steady. Besides, father was very poor at times, and could seldom pay me anything, if I worked ever so. He was very fond of his belly too, and I've known him, when he's had a bit of luck, or a run of business, go and stuff hisself with fat roast pork at a cook-shop till he could hardly waddle, and then come home and lock hisself upstairs in his bedroom and sleep three parts of the afternoon. (My mother was dead.) But father was a kind-hearted man for all that, and for all his roast pork, was as thin as a whipping-post. I kept myself when I left him, just off and on like, by collecting grease, and all that; it can't be done so easy now, I fancy; so I got into the tea-leaf business, but father had nothing to do with it. An elderly sort of a woman who I met with in my collecting, and who seemed to take a sort of fancy to me, put me up to the leaves. She was an out-and-out hand at anything that way herself. Then I bought tea-leaves with other things, for I suppose for four or five years. How long ago is it? O, never mind, sir, a few years. I bought them at many sorts of houses, and carried a box of needles, and odds and ends, as a sort of introduction. There wasn't much of that wanted though, for I called, when I could, soon in the mornings before the family was up, and some ladies don't get up till 10 or 11 you know. The masters wasn't much; it was the mistresses I cared about, because they are often such Tartars to the maids and always a-poking in the way.

I've tried to do business in the great lords' houses in the squares and about the parks, but there was mostly somebody about there to hinder you. Besides, the servants in such places are often on board wages, and often, when they're not on board wages, find their own tea and sugar, and little of the tea-leaves is saved when every one has a separate pot of tea; so there's no good to be done there. Large houses in trade where a number of young men is boarded, drapers or grocers, is among the best places, as there is often a housekeeper there to deal with, and no mistress to bother. I always bought by the lot. If you offered to weigh you would not be able to clear anything, as they'd be sure to give the leaves a extra wetting. I put handfulls of the leaves to my nose, and could tell from the smell whether they were hard drawn or not. When they isn't hard drawn they answer best, and them I put to one side. I had a bag like a lawyer's blue bag, with three divisions in it, to put my leaves into, and so keep them 'sunder. Yes, I've bought of charwomen, but somehow I think they did'nt much admire selling to me. I hardly know how I made them out, but one told me of another. They like the shops better for their leaves, I think; because they can get a bit of cheese, or snuff, or candles for them there; though I don't know much about the shop-work in this line. I've often been tried to be took in by the servants. I've found leaves in the lot offered to me to buy what was all dusty, and had been used for sweeping; and if I'd sold them with my stock they'd have been stopped out of the next money. I've had tea-leaves given me by servants oft enough, for I used to sweetheart them a bit, just to get over them; and they've laughed, and asked me whatever I could want with them. As for price, why, I judged what a lot was worth, and gave accordingly—from 1d. to 1s. I never gave more than 1s. for any one lot at a time, and that had been put to one side for me in a large concern, for about a fortnight I suppose. I can't say how many people had been tea'd on them. If it was a housekeeper, or anybody that way, that I bought of, there was never anything said about what they was wanted for. What did I want them for? Why, to sell again; and though him as I sold them to never said so, I knew they was to dry over again. I know nothing about who he was, or where he lived. The woman I told you of sent him to me. I suppose I cleared about 10s. a week on them, and did a little in other things beside; perhaps I cleared rather more than 10s. on leaves some weeks, and 5s. at others. The party as called upon me once a week to buy my leaves was a very polite man, and seemed quite the gentleman. There was no weighing. He examined the lot, and said 'so much.' He wouldn't stand 'bating, or be kept haggling; and his money was down, and no nonsense. What cost me 5s. I very likely got three half-crowns for. It was no great trade, if you consider the trouble. I've sometimes carried the leaves that he'd packed in papers, and put into a carpet-bag, where there was others, to a coffee-shop; they always had 'till called for' marked on a card then. I asked no questions, but just left them. There was two, and sometimes four boys, as used to bring me leaves on Saturday nights. I think they was charwomen's sons, but I don't know for a positive, and I don't know how they made me out. I think I was one of the tip-tops of the trade at one time; some weeks I've laid out a sov. (sovereign) in leaves. I haven't a notion how many's in the line, or what's doing now; but much the same I've no doubt. I'm glad I've done with it.

I am told by those who are as well-informed on the subject as is perhaps possible, when a surreptitious and dishonest traffic is the subject of inquiry, that although less spurious tea is sold, there are more makers of it. of the principal manufacturers have of late, however, been prevented carrying on the business by the intervention of the excise officers. The spurious tea-men are also the buyers of "wrecked tea," that is, of tea which has been part of the salvage of a wrecked vessel, and is damaged or spoiled entirely by the salt water. This is re-dried and dyed, so as to appear fresh and new. It is dyed with Prussian blue, which gives it what an extensive tea-dealer described to me as an "intensely fine green." It is then mixed with the commonest Gunpowder teas and with the strongest Young Hysons, and has always a kind of "metallic" smell, somewhat like that of a copper vessel after friction in its cleaning. These teas are usually sold at the pound.

Sloe-leaves for spurious tea, as I have before stated, were in extensive use, but this manufacture ceased to exist about years ago. Now the spurious material consists only of the old tealeaves, at least so far as experienced tradesmen know. The adulteration is, however, I am assured, more skilfully conducted than it used to be, and its staple is of far easier procuration. The law, though it makes the use of old tealeaves, as components of what is called tea, punishable, is nevertheless silent as to their sale or purchase; they can be collected, therefore, with a comparative impunity.

The tea-leaves are dried, dyed (or re-dyed), and shrivelled on plates of hot metal, carefully tended. The dyes used are those I have mentioned. These teas, when mixed, are hawked in the country, but not in town, and are sold to the hawkers at lbs. for The quarters of pounds are retailed at A tea-dealer told me that he could recognise this adulterated commodity, but it was only a person skilled in teas who could do so, by its look. For green tea— the mixture to which the prepared leaves are mostly devoted—the old tea is blended with the commonest Gunpowders and Hysons. No dye, I am told, is required when black tea is thus re-made; but I know that plumbago is often used to simulate the bloom. The inferior shopkeepers sell this adulterated tea, especially in neighbourhoods where the poor Irish congregate, or any of the lowest class of the poor English.

To obtain the statistics of a trade which exists in spite not only of the vigilance of the excise and police officers but of public reprobation, and which is essentially a secret trade, is not possible. I heard some, who were likely to be wellin- formed, conjecture—for it cannot honestly be called more than a conjecture—that between and lbs., perhaps lbs., of old tea-leaves were made up weekly in London; but of this he thought that about an was spoilt by burning in the process of drying.

Another gentleman, however, thought that, at the very least, double the above quantity of old tea-leaves was weekly manufactured into new tea. According to his estimate, and he was no mean authority, no less than lbs. weekly, or lbs. per annum of this trash are yearly poured into the London market. The average consumption of tea is about lb. per annum for each man, woman, or child in the kingdom; coffee being the unfermented beverage of the poor. Those, however, of the poorest who drink tea consume about ounces per week (half an ounce serving them twice), or in the course of every months. This makes the annual consumption of the adult tea-drinking poor amount to lbs., and it is upon this class the spurious tea is chiefly foisted.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work