The Longest Tea Party the World’s Ever Seen! Part 1

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The tea clipper Loudoun Castle is unloading at the East India Dock in London on Dec. 8, 1877. The tea trade was essential in developing the market for Chinese Export Silver.

My research has long made me aware of the inextricable links between The China Trade period and Chinese Export Silver; without the former, Chinese Export Silver simply would not have existed. Although the official period of the trade with China is 1757-1842, the reality was the trade continued and flourished until the end of the era of sailing ships towards the latter part of the 19th century. It is also more correct to say it began in 1700, when the “Canton System” evolved. The end of the monopoly of the Chinese hong merchant system in Canton came in 1842, hence the perception by some historians this spelled the end of the trade as it was formerly known. It didn’t; it just changed the dynamics in favor of the “barbarians.”

China, for hundreds of years, had chosen to adopt an isolationist mentality inasmuch as it refused entry to its interior to foreigners. As far as the Chinese were concerned, China was the Celestial Empire; the center of the world. All other countries were inferior and considered barbaric. Having eventually compromised by allowing foreign merchants limited and highly controlled access to Shameen Island at Canton, the Chinese name for the merchants was the “fan-qui” (foreign devils/barbarians).

While I say the China Trade was responsible for the phenomenon of Chinese Export Silver, it would be far more correct to say it was the tea trade from China to the West that allowed all the peripheral exports trades to exist; silk, lacquerware, jade, porcelain, ivory, silk and glass painting, furniture and silver wares being the more significant. As the tea trade grew to phenomenal levels, so did most of the peripheral exports; it was only porcelain that began to decline with the rise of the English potteries.

To tell this tale, even in a very concise précis version, I have to create a double-episode article for the first time. It is in reality a story of epic proportions.

The illustration at the top of this article says it all; the tea clipper Loudoun Castle is unloading at the East India Dock in London on Dec. 8, 1877. Its main cargo is a staggering 40,000 “packages” of China teas, amounting to an equally staggering two million pounds in weight; a “package” being a large wooden tea crate that the older reader will remember as being the packing cases we once used for moving house. We know this not simply from the ship’s manifest, but it was the lead feature article in that day’s London Illustrated News because it had created a record in being the fastest tea clipper to make the journey from Canton to London in 88 and a half days. The Loudoun Castle was a contemporary of the famous Cutty Sark that is now moored in dry dock in historic Greenwich in London.

“The Tea Clipper Cutty Sark” by Gregory Robinson. (Photo: National Maritime Museum, London)

A train of 19th-century Chinese porters with carrying poles (biãn dãn) setting out with tea chests to the shipper in Canton; the colorfully decorated tea chests often became valuable collectibles in themselves after the tea reached its intended market.

Cutty Sark’s name derives from the famous poem “Tam O’ Shanter” by Robert Burns. It is about a farmer called Tam who is chased by the scantily-clad witch “Nannie,” dressed only in a “cutty sark”—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. She was built on the east coast of Scotland; the lion’s share of the many British sailing ships that were built in the 19th-century being built in Scottish shipyards. The afore-mentioned Nannie graced the Cutty Sark as the carved wooden masthead.

At the time of Cutty Sark, Scotland’s population was a mere 3.3 million, yet it wielded a majority influence among the movers and shakers of The China Trade with merchants and bankers such as William Jardine, James Matheson, Thomas Sutherland and John Hutchison being among the most influential and prominent.

But what has a tea clipper got to do with Chinese Export Silver? The answer is “an awful lot.” The highly decorated tea chests are obviously rectangular in shape; the hull of a tea clipper does not have straight sides. With the tea chests meticulously stacked within the ship’s hold, the “spare” space at the sides was where all the peripheral export goods were placed. This not only made the shipping space for these goods highly economical but it created and acted as vital ballast for the ship. This, then, is one of the fundamental reasons that made it economically viable to have silver made in China; that, and the fact the labor was relatively cheap, the quality of workmanship was extremely high, that silver as a raw commodity was cheaper, the manufacturing time was significantly faster and the output was far in excess of the capabilities of most European and American silver manufactories.

From this cross-section drawing we not only see how much ballast space there was on a large clipper ship, but we can also see how the boxes are clearly stacked with the better quality and more valuable teas placed on the upper rows.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bohea (black tea) was the most popular; the name being an anglicized derivation of the Chinese wuyi. Gradually, as it became the drink of the masses, true connoisseurs took to drinking high quality teas and more exotic teas; what was exotic to the British upper classes was commonplace to the Chinese, since they had for centuries highly developed tea palates. In the early 18th century, Thomas Twining was selling Pekoe tea, another anglicized-derivative word for an Amoy word for a tea that had white flower properties—bai meaning “white” and ho meaning “fine feathers.” Pekoe is now usually used to describe a Sri Lankan tea.

Above we have a remarkable tea chest that somehow survived a shipwreck in the Millecoquins River in Michigan. It tells us the importer was Foster and Company (F&Co), the tea it contains is Young Hyson Tea, the Hong merchant in Canton was Hipqua and it is marked box number 9270. It obviously pre-dates the so-called Boston Tea Party of some 40 years later.

Today, the British obsession with tea is the brunt of many a joke, but in the 19th century it was considered inconceivable by the government of the time that the supply of tea could be jeopardized by any Chinese restrictions on trade. We have seen that the tea cargo of just one clipper ship was 40,000 chests. Jardine Matheson alone, the largest China Trade merchant, had 19 clipper ships and hundreds of other ships. The British Crown was imposing duty of five shillings per pound, regardless of the quality, which meant that even the cheapest variety available cost seven shillings per pound—almost a whole week’s wages for a laborer (5 shillings had the spending capacity equivalent to approx. $20 today). This punitive level of taxation meant that huge profits were available, which gave rise to widespread smuggling to avoid the payment of duty. To profit in the China trade participants had to be ahead of all competition, both legitimate and otherwise. Each year, fast ships from Britain, Europe and America lay ready at the Chinese ports to load the first of the new season’s teas. The ships raced home with their precious cargoes, each attempting to be the first to reach the consumer markets, thereby obtaining the premium prices offered for the early deliveries. Not only would there have been civil unrest in Britain if tea had been threatened, but the government simply could not afford to lose this lucrative source of taxation revenue.

Applying this knowledge into the context of Chinese Export Silver, we are talking of a huge amount of “ballast space” on ships of which a considerable proportion was taken up with silver. We know that across China there was a network of silver workshops that probably numbered more than 10,000 and, in addition, there were the retail silversmiths, many of whom commissioned the silver items and many of whom were owned or co-owned by hong merchants, foreign merchants or a complicated partnership that could even include the wily compradores.

It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe, with regular shipments by 1610. Britain was a relative latecomer to the tea trade, as the East India Company did not capitalize on tea’s popularity until the mid-18th century and it was actually the Scottish tea merchants who became the pioneers of tea packaging and marketing—Melrose of Edinburgh dates back to 1812 and still excises today.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver coffee pot made circa 1670 that is in the Royal Collection in the U.K. and is to be found today in Queen Victoria’s former private seaside residence on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House. What makes this coffee pot particularly unique is that it was only in 1652 that the first coffee house in London was opened. As with almost all Chinese silver of this period, it does not carry a maker’s mark. The accompanying stand (left), although Chinese, is believed not to belong to the pot. (Photo: Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Perversely, it was the London coffee houses that were responsible for introducing tea to England. One of the first coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley in the city of London, at the side of the Stock Exchange. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea, touting its virtues as “it maketh the body active and lusty” and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age” as well as “It vanquisheth heavy Dreams, easeth the Brain, and strengtheneth the memory.”

Tea gained popularity quickly in the coffee houses and, by 1700, more than 500 coffee houses sold it. This distressed the tavern owners, as tea cut their sales of ale and gin, and it was bad news for the government, which depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales. By 1784, tea had become the favored drink of Britain’s lower classes when William Pitt reduced the tax from a stupendous 119 percent down to 12.5 percent. We should also remind ourselves that ale and gin were consumed in vast quantities because the water supply was not reliably drinkable; but because tea was made with boiled water, it became a reliable and less inebriating alternative.

King Charles II married the Portuguese Catharine of Branganza in 1662. On coming to England she brought with her a casket of tea and quickly became known as the tea-drinking queen. She took to inviting her friends into her bed chamber to share tea with her. Tea was generally consumed within a lady’s closet or bedchamber and for a mainly female gathering and a tea “equipage” was at that time kept within a lady’s closet rather than in a kitchen or salon. Catharine was known to have favored using a silver tea pot.

Here is one of the earliest Chinese Export Silver tea pots, dating to around 1680, and is of globular hexagonal form on a conforming rim foot. The body has six shaped oval panels cast and chased with a scene, three symbolic of spring with a scholar on a horseback with servant behind in search of plum blossom, crossing a bridge within plum blossom, pine and bamboo with a bird above, all on matted ground, and three alternate panels almost identically cast but with pagoda to the left and fu dogs above, the hexagonal neck and spout cast and chased with birds on floral sprays, the flat chained cover with similar scene within plain hexagonal border and surmounted by a spherical finial with flower spray, the angular handle with later inserted ivory insulators. As with almost all Chinese silver of this period, it carries no maker’s mark; it weighs a very hefty 882 grams (28.36 Troy ounces).

From the identical period, we have this Chinese Zhangzhou white ware porcelain tea pot that has had silver mounts added to it that appear to be Chinese rather than applied by an English silversmith. Zhangzhou ware is also known as Swatow ware; Swatow being the port where porcelain from several counties in Guangdong province was shipped from. This is considered a rather iconic tea pot. It was owned by Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart to become, through marriage, Duchess of Lauderdale, who was a huge political supporter of Charles II—highly unusual for a woman at that time. As with Catharine of Braganza, this teapot lived in splendor in the Duchess’s private closet in Ham House, where it is still to be found today! Note the chain linking the handle to the lid, a common practice employed by Chinese silversmiths of the 17th and 18th centuries. At Ham the Lauderdales created grand suites of apartments with sumptuous furnishings sourced from across Europe and from the Far East. I think one can tell from the portrait below the Duchess was of a somewhat discerning nature.

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House.

At the time, China sets was already a must-have source for any über-wealthy aristocrat who wanted to display that wealth to full effect, after all, few aristocrats or even royalty could afford to send agents to China to acquire objets d’art. At the same period, as we have the previously seen, items displaying quite incredible feats of the art of Chinese silversmithing were appearing in Britain.

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver lidded urn and stand of intricately woven filigree silver and silver gilt, decorated with applied garlands, flowers and foliage. Such decorative pieces were obviously made for a very specific market. We know they existed among Catherine the Great’s collection of Chinese silver just as we know that few Chinese silversmiths were actually capable of creating them due to the highly skilled techniques they required. There is beginning to be a school of thought that the Canton retail silversmith Cutshing may have actually existed prior to the first known recorded date of 1825, however, since 18th-century Chinese silver rarely carried a mark, it will be quite difficult to verify.

This tea pot, created at the cusp of the 17th and 18th centuries, demonstrates yet again the high level of craftsmanship. It carries an engraved inscription on the inside rim “Martha Putland 1753.” It is believed the pot was originally purchased in China by a Colonel Putland at the end of the 17th century. The pot carries several engraved inscriptions ,demonstrating the item was passed from generation to generation of the Putland family.

It is at the height of the Georgian era that the tea trade burgeoned considerably and with it we see a noticeable change in style of Chinese Export Silver, as well as a tangible increase in the amount of silver coming to England and America. The style tends to favor copying the Georgian neo-classical style and it is clear this is the time when Western merchants now operating in Canton have consolidated considerably, have realized the capabilities of the Chinese silversmiths as well as the commercial benefits of having silver made in China. Ballast space is again very much crucial to optimizing the viability of this equation.

The style of Chinese Export Silver of this period demonstrates the shift from supplying elitist connoisseurs, who were at the forefront of creating fashion, to feeding the demand created by the already burgeoning industrialists of the 18th century. The latter were of the new aspiring class who, today, we would probably classify simply as being nouveau riche, so the style of silver was now best described as elitist-popularist—the late 18th/early 19th century equivalent of “bling,” strictly for the followers of fashion rather than the creators. That said, some of the industrialists, or should we call them entrepreneurs, included Josiah Wedgwood and the largest silver manufacturer of the period, Matthew Boulton, who had established his enormous silver manufactory in Birmingham, England. Wedgewood and Bulton were both creating fashion for the masses with their porcelain and silver wares.

A Cutshing tea set, circa 1845.

Cutshing entree dishes, circa 1840.

A Khe Cheong tea urn, circa 1835.

A Linchong lidded sugar bowl, circa 1820.

A WE WE WC jug, circa 1825.

The shift in gear was changed to focus on supplying the upper middle class, the upper class and the aristocracy. The mass market now existed and was growing, and the Chinese silversmiths were ready to grow with that market. The China tea trade was nearing its peak and the ballast space on the sailing ships had to be filled—and it was!

In Part 2, we shall be exploring the 19th-century heyday of Chinese Export Silver, the China tea trade and how, by the end of the 19th century, change was clearly in the air for both

”Hail, Queen of Plants, Pride of Elysian Bow’rs!
How shall we speak thy complicated Powr’s?
Thou wondrous Panacea, to asswage
The Calentures of Youth’s fermenting rage,
And animate the freezing veins of age.”

— “A Poem Upon Tea” by Nahum Tate, from Panacea (1700)

Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills. Acknowledgments: Royal Collection Trust—Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Birmingham City Council, U.K.; Bonhams, London; Christie’s, New York; Christie’s, London; Museum of London; National Maritime Museum, London; Harvard Business School Archive; Supershrink’s Storehouse of Silver

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at

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