If, like me, you enjoy history and a good cup of tea, there’s a place in London you shouldn’t miss: Twinings tea shop at 216 Strand has it all – wrapped up in one tidy little rectangle of a retail space.
The Twinings (rhymes with signings) shop is easy to miss. It’s a pint-sized place squeezed between two ample edifices, and its facade is basically no wider than its double-door entry. Tea has been continuously sold out of this skinny store for 300 years, by ten generations of the Twining family.
Tale of Twinings Tea
But the tale of Twinings tea goes back even more than 300 years, and it actually starts with coffee. By the mid 1600s, coffee shops were all the rage in London. They were a bit like gentlemen’s clubs: men went there to discuss the news and politics while drinking their coffee – no women were allowed. By 1700 there were at least 500 of these coffee houses in London. When a new drink, called tea, arrived from China, the coffee shops began to sell it as well – both by the cup and in dry form.
Tea was new and exotic, and the public had to be educated about the benefits of drinking it. So, the coffee houses published pamphlets explaining tea’s many merits. They included: preserving perfect health until extreme old age, making the body active and lusty, relieving headaches, easing the brain and strengthening the memory… Who wouldn’t want a cup of that?
Thomas Twining Trades in Tea… I Mean Coffee
It was during this time, in 1706, when coffee houses were all the rage and tea was just being introduced, that thirty-one-year-old Thomas Twining was ready to set himself up in business. And he knew exactly what business he wanted to be in. He opened up Tom’s Coffee House, which was located just behind the current Twinings shop. Later, he expanded into the present-day building which, at that time, was called the Golden Lyon.
Before opening his coffee house, Tom had worked for a merchant of the East India Company where he had learned quite a lot about tea. Soon his special blends were the talk of the town and Tom’s Coffee House was the place to go for a cup of tea. As his reputation spread, the other coffee shops started buying tea from Mr. Twining. The upper-class men who came to the coffee house to talk politics raved about his tea, and soon the ladies wanted to get their hands on Tom’s teas as well. Since proper ladies wouldn’t dare set foot in the masculine domain of a coffee house, they would line up outside in their carriages, sending their male servants inside to fetch the blends they fancied.
Tea for the Rich
Tea was growing in popularity, but only the wealthy could enjoy this new drink: it was incredibly expensive and highly taxed. At one point, the tea tax reached 119%. Such exorbitant taxes made tea smuggling a profitable enterprise.
In 1771, Richard Twining (Tom’s grandson) took over the business and campaigned for a lower tea tax. He argued that it would stop smuggling and result in more sales and higher revenue for the government. Finally, in 1784, an act was passed that dropped the tea tax from 119% to 12.5%. This put an end to smuggling and tea became affordable for the masses.
A Lion, Two Chinamen, and a Queen
Richard, was also the Twining who was responsible for redoing the façade of the little building on the Strand that still exists today. He kept the golden lion in homage to his grandfather’s shop called the Golden Lyon. Then he added the eighteenth-century stereotypical figueres of Chinese men: one seated on each side of the lion to represent China, the land of tea.
Also on the shopfront, you will see the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth II, indicating that she granted Twinings a royal warrant. This means that Twinings provides tea to the royal family. The first royal to grant a warrant to Twinings was Queen Victoria in 1837, and every monarch since has continued this association. You can also see the queen’s coat of arms on packets of Twinings tea you buy in the UK.
For the tea aficionado, this shop is a little slice of heaven. It’s probably one of the narrowest stores in London, but luckily, packages of tea don’t take up much space. Wooden shelves, that line each wall, display all the tea blends offered by Twinings as well as a small selection of coffees. There’s an area in the back of the shop where you can sample some tea blends and have a look at the collection of tea memorabilia which makes up a little museum of Twinings history.
One of the most popular sections in the store is the pick-and-mix wall where you buy a container and fill it up with your favorites flavors. I just couldn’t leave the shop without one of those mahogany-colored wooden boxes filled with my personal preferences: Earl Grey, Rooibos, Spicy Chai, and Mint.
I quite like taking a sip of my tea and looking over at my wooden box bearing the Queen’s golden Royal Warrant. I can close my eyes and imagine that I’m drinking the same brew as Her Majesty the Queen…
Address: 216 Strand, London
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