The ‘Riotous’ Affair

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Drinking tea was always an incredibly serious matter in England. I’m sure, there have been times when our love for the tea experience has seemed alien to those less unfortunate and oblivious to our world. These stories from the London Tea Auction, however, prove that we are not alone and that tea inspires passion and sometimes insanity in all of the people who love it. The London Tea Auction was started in the year 1679, for the next 300 years it would be the niche of every tea enthusiast and merchants in Britain who didn’t mind spending that extra pound for a few cups of perfection.

It all started with the good ol’ East India Company that (at the time) held monopoly over trade of goods from India and China. They were held at the headquarters of the Company on Leadenhall Street which soon came to be known as the East India House. Auctions were held on a quarterly basis, and bidding was done ‘By the Candle’. This was an interesting custom where a candle would be lit at the beginning of the auction and once an inch of it had burnt away, the sale of a lot would come to an end with the drop of a hammer. Unlike long, tedious sales, this auction had a sense of urgency, you either bid fast or you lose out. Of course it took tea some time to rob the spotlight. In the early seventeenth century other goods were sold as well, but by the early eighteenth century, the London Tea Auction was the main event. An anonymous tea dealer wrote in 1826 that the noise and confusion before the auction started made it seem like it was a platform dedicated to the sole purpose of comparing and testing the strength of the lungs of the people of England. For an outsider the nature of the business remained a mystery. Who knew that tea could cause such a riot?

Things changed in 1834 when the East India Company lost its commercial status. Tea became a free trade commodity and was moved from the East India House to the newly constructed London Commercial Salerooms on Mincing Lane. This led to several tea merchants establishing offices on Mincing Lane and the place came to be known as the ‘Street of Tea’. By the middle of the nineteenth century, tea had grown so popular that the sales went gradually from being a quarterly affair to weekly one and the ‘by the candle’ method was replaced by practical ones. Tea was imported from British colonies India, China, Ceylon and some African countries for sale. Soon certain days of the week were dedicated to the sale of teas from individual countries. A third of the world’s tea was bought through auction by the 1950s. The purchased teas would either be sent to warehouses where they would be packaged or they would be sold loose. The custom was a consistent one, except for the breaks taken during the World Wars. However, after the independence of Britain’s colonies, tea estate owners preferred to sell their teas as soon as possible. Auctions were now set up in places like Calcutta, Colombo and Mombasa. This led to the decline of the sales of the London Tea Auction which made its last sale on 29th June, 1998. It was the end of an incredible tradition.

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