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Earl Grey tea

For the most part, etymology isn’t a flashy subject. It needs care and patience rather than academic brilliance and is rarely rewarded by moments of breathtaking insight. But at times a search for the provenance of a term turns into an intriguing detective story with an unexpected dénouement.

In October 2012, the Oxford English Dictionary issued an appeal for information about the term Earl Grey tea.

This is a blend of black China teas flavoured with bergamot, an oil derived from a citrus fruit native to the Far East but widely grown in Italy. Various stories link it to the second Earl Grey, who was British prime minister between 1830 and 1834 and largely responsible for the Great Reform Act of 1832 as well as removing the monopoly of the East India Company on importing tea from China. One legend says that the tea was a reward for his (or an envoy of his) rescuing the son of a Chinese mandarin; another, that a Chinese diplomat gave him a gift of it while he was prime minister. The website of the family home, Howick Hall, says that it was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin to offset the lime taste of the water from the local well and that Lady Grey used it when she was entertaining in London. (A version of Earl Grey tea called Lady Grey tea with a less pungent flavour, created in the early 1990s by the tea merchants Twinings, is named after her.)

The etymological problem for the OED was that the first example of the term Earl Grey tea it had on record was dated 1929, though they knew of Earl Grey’s mixture from 1891.

Various contributors progressively took the story back. An advert from about 1928 by Jacksons of Piccadilly claimed to have introduced it at the request of Earl Grey in 1836. A tale appeared in several versions in the decade after 1891 claiming that Earl Grey’s mixture was so named because the earl had introduced it to Her Majesty. But he had retired to Howick after leaving office, aged 70, and may not even have met Queen Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837. A further advertisement for Earl Grey’s mixture, in the Morning Post in 1884, announced that “this choice Tea can only be obtained of the Introducers and Sole Proprietors, Charlton and Co” of Piccadilly.

The story took a surprising twist when researchers on the Foods of England site found that Charlton and Co had advertised a tea in 1867 as the rather expensive “celebrated Grey mixture”, with no reference to any aristocratic connection, though it did boast of its “most distinguished patronage”. Might the business have added a noble association later on as a marketing ploy, one that was to be copied by others? It could well have done. Victorian advertisers weren’t renowned for their strict adherence to truth.

The search for the name runs into the sand at this point. But it’s not the end of the story. The use of bergamot as a flavouring and scent long predates any connection with Earl Grey — for example, it was added to snuff early in the eighteenth century. But its early associations with tea are disreputable. A newspaper report in 1824 was ominously headed, “To render Tea at 5s a Pound equal to Tea at 12s”. It explained:

If we can discover any fine-flavoured substance, and add it to the tea in a proper manner, so as to make it agree and harmonize with the original flavour, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless teas, into a high-priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea, is the oil of bergamot, by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured Bloom, Hyson, Gunpowder, and Cowslip.

Lancaster Gazette, 22 May 1824.

While this would better be described as adulteration, it has to be viewed against the background of the shocking “improvements” that were made to many foodstuffs at the time, such as adding alum to bread to make it more fashionably white and colouring sweets with poisonous compounds of copper and arsenic. Tea, being expensive, was subject more than most to adulteration, including adding Prussian blue to green tea or graphite to black to make them look better (facing them was the trade term) or variously adding black lead, copper carbonate, lead chromate and turmeric to used tea leaves to tart them up and sell them as fresh. In this context, flavouring cheap tea with bergamot was a trivial offence, though in 1837 an injunction was awarded against a London grocer to prevent it selling its tea:

Brocksopp and Co.’s Mowqua’s small-leaf gunpowder was so inferior a tea, that deponents could not set any price upon it ... it was artificially scented, and appeared to have been drugged with bergamot in this country.

The Bristol Mercury, 13 May 1837.

It’s hardly likely that an aristocrat such as Earl Grey would have lent his name to a mixture that had such unsavoury undertones. The absence of any contemporary evidence of a link means that we have to look elsewhere for the origin of the name. Perhaps the Grey mixture sold by Charlton and Co later in the century was named after some other Grey? The Foods of England site identified a candidate in William Grey & Co of Morpeth, which advertised in 1852 (it may be merely a coincidence that its shop was only about 25 miles from Howick Hall).

As always, there are loose ends. But the stories that connect Earl Grey tea to a nineteenth-century aristocrat have been debunked. Earl Grey never drank Earl Grey.

Page created 18 May 2013

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Last modified: 18 May 2013.