Everything Stops For Tea

Every nation in creation has its favourite drink

France is famous for its wine, it’s beer in Germany

Turkey has its coffee and they serve it blacker than ink

Russians go for vodka and England loves its tea

Oh, the factories may be roaring

With a booma-a-lacka zoom-a-lacka wee,

But there isn’t any roar when the clock strikes four

Everything stops for tea.

Come out of the Pantry/(Everything Stops For Tea)

Jack Buchanan 1934.[1]

The ‘tea break’ was a familiar and comforting practice across British industry during the nineteenth and throughout most of the twentieth-century, particularly when Britain still had a robust industrial manufacturing base. The tea break sanctioned the orderly downing of tools to enjoy a reviving cup of tea which would fortify the worker until lunch time or the end of the working day. Legislation now ensures that employees are entitled to a ‘rest break’ when the working day exceeds six hours.[2] In the mid-nineteenth century it was common for factory workers to put in 12-14 hours work a day so tea drinking was an important fortifier particularly as it was often taken with milk and sugar so gave workers a much-needed boost.

Tea not only offered an important alternative to alcohol (as the Buchanan song suggests) it played a role in regulating workers’ behaviour and shaping the nation’s identity.[3] Tea gradually became assimilated into British culture from the seventeenth century. However, it was during the nineteenth century and the British temperance movement’s championing of the drink that accelerated the establishment of tea as the nation’s favoured beverage and sealed the link between tea and British culture. The temperance publisher John Cassell (1817-1865) established a major tea and coffee import business as a result of his conviction that there was no use offering the ‘ubiquitous beer drinker’ only ‘water or damnation’ cheap alternative beverages were required.[4] Printing tea labels and advertisements alongside temperance tracts were reportedly the genesis of his famous publishing house.[5]

Mass tea parties were organised across the country by local temperance societies, to raise funds, recruit new members and provide an alternative leisure offer for their members. [6]The vision of a sober workforce became a reality in the mass tea parties which employers and temperance leaders alike recognised would bring social and economic benefits in the creation of a sober and productive workforce.

Read What Was Temperance? What has Temperance got to do with work? The role of the British Workman in the demise of Saint Monday, and The Broader Temperance Aims of the British Workman and the British Workwoman.

[1] Kurt Gänzi The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre: Gi-N Schirmer Books 2001, 938.

[2] Trade Union Congress https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/working-time-rights  accessed 06.08.20.

[3] Erika Rappaport A Thirst for Empire : How Tea Shaped the Modern World. Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2017, 96.

[4] Simon Nowell-Smith The House of Cassell 1848-1958. London: Cassell. 1958, 10.

[5] (Rappaport (2017) 82.

[6] Rappaport (2017) 113.