Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The custom of the good Aussie cuppa

Billy Tea advertisement: Advertising always reflects current tropes. This ad plays to national themes in a way intended to present the brand as uniquely Australian.This is the fifth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians love of meat, tea and tobacco.

Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

By 1893, Australians had become the world’s largest per capita consumer of tea with their own tea culture. .This love emerged in the early period of European settlement and for very practical reasons.

The East India Company ships that carried first convicts and later free settlers to NSW went on to China to load tea for the British market. Some of that tea was left behind in Sydney on the return journey to meet local demand.

Unlike England where high taxes on tea limited consumption, tea was a freely available relatively cheap product in NSW. 
"'Would you like a cuppa' or 'I will put the kettle on' continue as Australian welcoming phrases."
Its low bulk and high value allowed it to be distributed easily across an increasingly dispersed settlement. It disguised the taste of often muddy water and replenished fluids lost in heavy work in high temperatures.

Green tea was initially popular. Then came black Chinese tea. Later still, came black tea from India and Ceylon.

Green tea was largely drunk unsweetened. Sweetened tea became popular with black tea. The rations provided to agricultural workers came to include a mix of meat, flour, sugar, tea and salt.

Today, we are used to tea made in pots. However, while teapots appear to date back to the Chinese Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in the 13th Century, they were not common for ordinary people until later in the Industrial Revolution when cheap mass produced versions became available.

Initially, tea was brewed in quart pots and then in that universal Australian icon, the billy.

The billy offered several advantages. It was lighter, you could fit a smaller billy inside a larger one and attach both to your swag via the metal loop at the top. That loop also made it easier to place the billy on or remove it from the fire. You could also carry water in the billy for later use.

In 1883, Alfred Bushell established what is claimed to be Australia’s first teahouse in Queensland. It is no coincidence that when his sons took the business to Sydney in 1899, they created Billy Tea as the new firm’s central brand.

Today coffee has replaced tea as the dominant Australian drink. However, tea’s dominance survives in morning tea, afternoon tea or just tea for the evening meal.

“Would you like a cuppa” or “I will put the kettle on” continue as Australian welcoming phrases. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 


Hels said...

"Today coffee has replaced tea as the dominant Australian drink. However, tea’s dominance survives in morning tea, afternoon tea or just tea for the evening meal."

My father was the filtration engineer in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and a couple of months before the athletes arrived, the Italian team said it would not be coming because there were no restaurants/coffee shops with espresso machines in Victoria. My father negotiated with Leo's and Pelligrini's, and both places did buy large espresso machines! Crisis averted... the Italians arrived in time.

Coffee then became popular.

Johnb said...

For Novocastrians in the late 1950’s the height of cool was an cappuccino at the Brown Derby in King Street not far from Nock and Kirby’s store. I was working as a Junior in Paynters, a local hardware and decorator, also in King Street at the time. Joe the Gadget Man was a frequent visitor to N & K’s. Nice to hear some of the secrets of the Olympics Hels.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an absolutely wonderful story, Hels!

Nice story too, JB. Good to have a Newcastle perspective. I was trying to remember when I first had a cappuccino. For the life of me, I can't.

Johnb said...

The richness of ‘People’s History’ Jim. For all history tends to be a record and understanding of the great and powerful the record is actually made by both the ordinary and the extraordinary folk at the coal face. So often it is the ordinary person achieving extraordinary things that gifts us our culture and community.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a good comment John. I am reminded of a hymn that we sang at school:
Let us now praise famous men
and our fathers that begat us
such as did bear rule
in their kingdoms
men renowned for their power
leaders of the people
by their counsel
and by their knowledge
such as found out
musical tunes and
recited verses in writing
All these were honoured
in their generation
and for the glory of our times
but some there be
which have no memorial
who have perished as though
they have never been
Their bodies are
buried in peace
but their name liveth
for evermore.