London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
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:—
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.
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:—
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.