“The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters ..

(The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, ..

In 1757 the philanthropist Jonas Hanway published an essay on the effects of tea drinking, 'considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation'. Published in the form of 25 letters written to two wealthy female friends, Hanway dismissed the claim that tea could cure scurvy, and claimed instead, like Wesley, that it caused 'paralytic and nervous disorders'. He was particularly concerned about its effect on women: 'How many sweet creatures of your sex, languish with weak digestion, low spirits, lassitudes, melancholy, and... nervous complaints? Tell them to change their diet, and among other articles leave off drinking tea, it is more than probable the greatest part of them will be restored to health.' He also appealed to their vanity - insisting that due to women drinking tea 'there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was'. But more than just injurious to women,Hanway believed that tea-drinking risked ruining the nation, because of its increasing prevalence among the working classes, and associated the drinking of tea with the drinking of gin. He argued that the poor could ill-afford to spend their money on tea, claiming that 'those will have tea who have not bread', and that children born to poor mothers were dying because their mothers were spending all their money on tea, and drinking this 'liquid fire' while breast-feeding. This, he claimed, had led to a decline in numbers in the workforce, which he believed was obstructing agriculture and manufacturing, and would leave the country open to attack because there would not be enough fit men for the army. Thus Hanway urged the rich to give up tea drinking, in the hope that their example would be followed by the poor, on whose labour Britain depended. Much of Hanway's essay is then based on the assumption that the injurious habits of the poor must be controlled, not for the sake of poor themselves, but because a decline in their numbers or would ultimately be damaging to the interests of the rich.

But not everybody followed Hanway's argument. The eminent intellectual Dr Samuel Johnson, a devotee of tea, so disagreed with Hanway's 1757 essay that he published a hilariously satirical review of it in the Literary Magazine, a monthly journal. Johnson started of by admitting that Hanway should expect little justice, since Johnson himself was 'a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning'. He then poured scorn on Hanway's suggestion that women are less beautiful than they once were, before considering the claim that tea-drinking has led to an increase in nervous disorders. Johnson suggested that rather than blaming tea, one ought to blame the 'general langour [that] is theeffect of general luxury, of general idleness', because those who are idle get no exercise, and are thus susceptible to nervous disorders. He argued that there is only a link with tea-drinking because tea-drinking is common among those who are already 'idle and luxurious'. Johnson was also perceptive enough to note that often tea-drinking was just an excuse for bringing people together: 'a pretence for assembling to prattle, for interrupting business' - but unlike tea's critics, who saw such gatherings as dangerous (particularly among the working classes), Johnson saw no harm in it. Thus he has much in common with many modern tea-drinkers, who delight in getting together with a cuppa for a gossip and a giggle.

Certainly for much of the twentieth century, methods of preparing tea were still the subject of some snobbery: in a letter to Nancy Mitford (a social commentator and great satirist of upper class behaviour), the author Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression 'rather milk in first' to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Nowadays the 'milk in first or tea in first' debate is altogether more light-hearted, but nonetheless everyone has his or her preferred method of making tea. Tea has for centuries been a beverage at the very heart of social life in Britain - for millions of people today, just for Dr Johnson nearly 250 years ago, tea amuses the evenings, solaces the midnights and welcomes the mornings.

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