216 The Strand London WC2R 1AP
Wednesday March 19th 2014
This visit came as an unplanned afterthought to our first visit of the new project, the National Portrait Gallery.
Jo was headed further west to Oxford Street for a birthday present and Linda to Borough Market for a (last) Christmas present (I know) so we Googled the address and walked wheeling Jo’s bike along the Strand past Aldwych – it’s safe to say that the Twinings Shop, for such it is, is almost in Fleet Street positioned just opposite the Royal Courts of Justice. This must be why it has endured so well providing tea to all those lawyers, criminals and newspaper employees – a slightly interchangeable community you might say – for the shop and museum are the original premises dating from….1717.
Thomas Twining actually started with a coffee shop (Tom’s Coffee Shop) but when he started offering tea as an alternative not just for coffee but also for alcohol his customers increased and like many successful entrepreneurs, he opened a shop to sell the products.
The 18th century saw a huge boom in tea drinking; partly this was fuelled by the middle class Georgian ladies who were able to entertain – tea after all requires little more than some boiling water – but by the end of the century it was being consumed in more modest homes.
“’Tea-time’ had entered common parlance by the 1780s, as shorthand for that otherwise cheerless interlude between late afternoon and early evening. Tea was a universal habit by 1760.” The tea ceremony was endlessly repeatable and versatile. It could be performed as cheerfully in a weaver’s kitchen with earthenware pot ....as in a noblewoman’s dressing room….or a spinster’s chamber..” ** No wonder Mr Twining made his fortune selling tea.
The museum consists of about eight glass cases some with a brief history of Mr Twining’s enterprise, one illustrated poster on tea production in Assam and some artefacts associated with tea drinking – a few tea cups, some lovely old caddies and one whole cabinet of Twinings brand tea tins. Rather mysteriously there was a beribboned invitation to an event at King’s College Hospital London but it took some cross-referencing to find out that one of the later Twinings had been on the board of the hospital amongst other goodly works. It was a very much a firm that stayed in the family, also winning a royal warrant.
The rest of the ground floor premises is a shop displaying a very large range of tea (and a little coffee) with a large emphasis on speciality and ‘fruit teas’ whose flavours mingled in the air. Fond though I am of a fruit tea I sometimes wonder if the same effect could not be gained by having hot Ribena say as opposed to Red Berries blend?? The shop was immensely popular with Americans who were buying all sorts of products but I suppose they cannot just pick them up in their local stores, as we can. We encountered a rather forlorn couple whose large format 50p pieces had been rejected at the till, ‘Go to a bank’ advised Jo.
(I am always amazed when going into foreign supermarkets that they seem to stock makes you have scarcely heard of the in the UK like ‘Windsor’ or Liptons ). Twinings are now owned by Associated British Foods, but are still essentially a UK based company and boast having had the same logo since the company was founded.
I love a tin or two and the cabinet with the packaging pleased me greatly. Jo was more tickled by AP Herbert’s poetic tribute to the generations of tea purveyors.
The chances are that you will find something to please you in this modest and historic emporium devoted to what is still, in the face of increasing competition from coffee, considered our national drink.
** Amanda Vickery: Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale UP, 2009, pp 272 and 3)