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A brief history of tea smuggling



Have you ever smuggled a cup of tea into an important meeting at work? Well if you have you are continuing, in a small way, a tradition that dates back centuries that of tea smuggling.

It’s hard to believe today with supermarkets overflowing with a myriad of different types, flavours and sizes of tea that at one time it was the most heavily taxed product in the country. The first tax on leaf tea was introduced in 1689 and it was set at an astonishing 25 pence in the pound, making it extremely expensive to purchase. The tax almost immediately nearly stopped tea sales completely. After three years at this high figure, the government of the time realised that the tax was too high as they were not getting any revenue at all, so they reduced it to 5 pence in the pound. Unfortunately for the government by this time smugglers had started to bring illicit cargoes of tea into the country under cover of darkness.


The laws of supply and demand meant that enterprising individuals and criminals found a wide variety of, sometimes, inventive ways to bring tea into the country or to make what supplies they had go further and also to avoid taxation.  Kent and Sussex were among the counties where smuggling was riff and you can learn more about these criminal gangs in places such as Rye Museum where a wonderful display has been established. Other gangs had bases in Goudhurst, Cranbrook and across the Weald of Kent.  The smugglers may have been brutal and even occasionally killed people, but the British appetite for tea was insatiable and when the Customs Men got close smugglers were sometimes hidden by the tea lovers themselves.

At one point in the history of tea smuggling, 7 million pounds annually were being brought into the country illegally by organised crime networks. But a great deal of this product had been adulterated with other compounds to make it go further. Some of these additions were extremely unpleasant with sheep’s dung being one such extra flavour. Other times leaves from other plants were added to try and convince the buyers of its ‘tea’ heritage. Sometimes truly harmful additions were added such as poisonous copper carbonate.



While the smugglers smuggled tea successive Governments continued to raise taxation on tea until it had reached 119 percent. William Pitt the Younger in 1784, however, decided to drop the tax level down to 12.5 percent. Suddenly tea had become affordable again and the smuggling industry that had dominated the last fifty plus years stopped virtually overnight.

Today tea is not a taxable commodity, but you may be surprised to learn that it was until as recently as 1964 when the tax was finally repealed.

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