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First Earl Grey tea

Earl Grey tea has always been considered a bit posh. The name imbues it with a certain blue-blooded refinement but has it really got true aristocratic connections?

Earl Grey tea blend

No one is exactly sure when the first Earl Grey blend was invented but it was sometime between the 1790s and 1880s depending on which origin story you buy into.


But let’s start with what it is. Earl Grey is a flavoured tea blend – just ordinary black Chinese tea leaves with a fancy makeover and a dab of perfume. It’s scented with essential oils from the peel of a bergamot orange to give it a distinctive floral, zesty and citrus flavour. Deliciously refreshing black, with milk or with a squeeze of lemon.


But what the hell’s bergamot? Before we dive deep into when and how the first Earl Grey blend was created, let’s dig the dirt on bergamot – as it’s an important ‘plot point’ for the story to come.


A bergamot orange is a smallish citrus fruit that’s absurdly sharp in taste – famed more for the oil in its rind than its flesh. It’s basically a hybrid of a lime and a bitter orange – and can be green or yellow depending on ripeness (but not orange strangely!).

Bergamot fruit

The trees grow almost exclusively in Calabria, southern Italy, a small province that grows over 80% of the world’s supply today.

Yet bergamot has been around for centuries, its oils used for medicinal, scenting and seasoning in many cultures. In 1704, it was famously used by an Italian inventor called Giovanni Paolo Feminis (who moved to Cologne, Germany) to create a ‘herbal infusion’ that we now know as Eau de Cologne, a fragrance composed of thirty essences with bergamot as its main base note.

“My perfume is just like an Italian spring morning after the rain: it reminds of the oranges, the lemons, the grapefruits, the bergamots, the citrons, the flowers and the aromatic herbs of my land. It is refreshing, it stimulates the senses and inspires fantasy.” 

Giovanni Maria Farina, 1708, a relative of Feminis, who promoted the new ‘scent’.

Bergamot illustrations from Histoire Naturelle des Orangers

Bergamot was first written about in detail in 1818 when it appeared in the French volume Histoire Naturelle des Orangers (Natural History of Orange Trees) by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Joseph Antoine Risso, complete with stunning botanical illustrations.

But let’s get back to the tea. It is almost certainly named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, also known as Viscount Howick. He was a famous aristocrat in the 19th century, a zealous and popular ‘whig’ (liberal) politician, who eventually served as Prime Minister of the UK from November 1830 to July 1834. Strongly principled, he is genuinely regarded as one of the UK’s great reformers.

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, inspiration of Earl Grey tea

Under his political watch, the 1832 Reform Act (which stamped out electoral corruption and increased the number of people eligible to vote) and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act (which put an end to slavery in British colonies) were passed. These were massive, career-defining achievements that bettered the lives of many in the 19th century.


(There is a monument to Earl Grey in the heart of Newcastle, in the northeast of England, not far from his family Howick estate, honouring his achievements. Designed by Edward Hodges Baily, who also sculpted Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, it stands 134 feet high and was erected in August 1838. It looks proudly down Grey Street, voted ‘Best Street’ in the UK by BBC Radio 4 listeners in 2010!)

Earl Grey statue, Newcastle, Grey Street

Incidentally, during his political career, Charles Grey also stopped the East India Company’s monopoly on importing tea from China, which lowered the price and increased its popularity. Perhaps this was what got his name written into tea immortality?


OK, here are some of the main theories about the Earl Grey origin story. The first states that while on a trip to China, Charles Grey saved the life of a lord (or an ordinary mandarin or a farmer depending on the source) and as a thank you was gifted the recipe for the blend. This almost certainly isn’t true as there are no family records that show Charles had ever travelled to China. A slight variation says that when he was Prime Minister, his envoy saved the man. But in the 1830s, China and the UK were not on the best of diplomatic terms (putting it mildly), on the verge of the Opium Wars that flared into bloodshed from 1839, so this is dubious.


Another story states that Charles added bergamot oil to his tea leaves to counteract the lime-rich tap water at Howick Hall, the Grey family seat in Northumberland. Essentially to neutralise the hard alkaline tap water that was full of limescale with the acidic bergamot. Twinings, who claim to have invented the blend, say the same but have moved the story to Westminster, when the Earl was in residence – and add that Lady Grey loved the tea so much she served it at every soiree, establishing it in London’s high society – and later named a spin-off blend after her.    


I mean, all these tales feel a bit tenuous and unsubstantial, don’t they? It’s not many Prime Ministers that have the time to experiment with making their tap water taste better whilst in office.


There are two other possibilities that are much more likely.  


The first is proposed by the East India Company on their site, written from and supported by records found in their archives, which feels more tidy and truthful.


They insist that the original Earl Grey recipe was created by Sir Joseph Banks, an eminent botanist at Kew Gardens and advisor to King George III and the East India Company. He is an impressive individual. He was on Captain Cook’s first great voyage on HMS Endeavour, President of the Royal Society for 41 years and has been credited with documenting over 30,000 new plant species.


He worked with an Irish botanist (and physician, judge and slave owner) called George Staunton. In 1793, George was Secretary to an important British trade mission to the Chinese Imperial court for the Easy India Company. They claim Banks asked him to observe Chinese tea cultivation and production while he was there and supply detailed botanical drawings wherever possible. It was an important request, as Banks had been exploring the possibility of growing tea in India and/or West Indies for some time – which would effectively break the monopoly.   

“Will it be possible by proper Premiums and Wise instructions to encourage the growth of the Tea Plant, and the Manufacture of its Leaves in some Part of the British Dominions in the East or West Indies, so as to be supplied from thence with a part of the Tea consumed in this country, and not with the whole as at present from China.”

Extract from a letter to Joseph Banks from both Francis Baring, Deputy Chairman of the East India Company, and Lord Hawkesbury, President of the Board of Trade, 1788.


In terms of securing trade, the mission was a failure. But Staunton collected many plant specimens and wrote a book on Chinese life, customs and culture called An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China in 1797, which was a hit in the UK. 

Chinese tea plantation

Staunton’s notes also showed that the Chinese sometimes grew tea bushes next to bitter orange trees and would frequently scent their tea with the flowers, which were regarded as a symbol of purity, innocence and fertility. Armed with this new information, Banks started experimenting with these flavours back in the UK using bergamot oil (which was common in Europe) rather than the rarer neroli oil, which was extracted from the blossom.


If true, he had effectively created the Earl Grey blend we know today. It’s said Banks named his new invention after his friend Charles Grey, who apparently loved the tea, and whose populist (and posh sounding) name guaranteed its success. 


But there’s another potential and credible story too. As we’ve established, bergamot was being used to flavour all sorts of luxury items in Europe, like cologne. So, entrepreneurial merchants in the late 18th century used to add the oil to tobacco and snuff (which was popular at the time, believed to relieve common colds and stop snoring) to give it a more attractive aroma. And in the early 19th century, bergamot was also used to give low-quality tea a degree of sophistication and a higher price, as confirmed in The Lancaster Gazette in 1824:

“To render Tea at 5s. a Pound equal to Tea at 12s. - The cheapest and most expensive teas are all the leaves of the same tree, at least they should be so. The high flavour, therefore, of some of the sorts of tea and the want of flavour in others, must arise from the manner of preparing them, and must, consequently be in some measure artificial. It follows if we can discover any fine flavoured substance and add it to the tea in a proper manner, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless tea into a high-priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea is the oil of bergamot, by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured Bloom, Hyson, Gunpowder and Cowslip. ... When it is thus improved, it is often sold at 18s and a guinea a pound. Cowslip tea has been as high as 32s.” 

The Lancaster Gazette, Saturday 22nd May 1824


So, tea was being flavoured with bergamot but there is still no written evidence of the name Earl Grey being widely used.


This is where the story takes an interesting turn – with a Morpeth merchant and tea dealer called William Grey entering as a later contender. Just 25 miles from the aristocratic Grey’s family seat in Howick, Morpeth is a thriving historic market town – with William’s shop at 32 Bridge Street. We have evidence that his Grey’s Teas were advertised from 1852, with the early written jingle:    

If your pockets and palates you both want to please, Buy William Grey's finest of Teas, His, at Four Shillings, is unequale'd they say, Then come with your money, and purchase of Grey.

Grey continued to advertise his teas in the Morpeth Herald in the 1860s. He was obviously doing well as records show that he employed seven men and one boy at his shop and was a Morpeth Town Councillor by 1871. But that’s where the story goes cold.


Interestingly, a new ‘Grey Mixture’ then starts being shouted about in John Bull, a Sunday newspaper in London, from 1867 by a company called Charlton & Co in Duke Street, Mayfair. (In the 1843 London Street Directory, the company was previously listed as Charlton & Easton and based at 48 Charing Cross). While there’s no mention of it being scented with bergamot, they made it sound more alluring by adding the adjective ‘celebrated’ before it and referring to a ‘most distinguished patronage’ which might hint at an aristocratic connection.

John Bull advert 1867

From 1884, Charlton & Co are now calling their blend ‘Earl Grey’s Mixture’, which is the very first mention of the current name, as seen in the Morning Post on 19th June. (The date actually might suggest that the name was inspired by the third Earl Grey, Henry, who was Queen Victoria’s Secretary for State – but let’s not go down that rabbit hole). It might have been an early bit of marketing genius to justify the luxury price, or a genuine nod to the Grey family, but we’ll never know for sure.

Earl Grey's Mixture advert Morning Post, 19th June 1884

Since then, more famous tea merchants Twinings and Jackson’s of Piccadilly have both tried to claim Earl Grey as their own, but there is no real hard evidence to support their claims.


All we know is that from the late 19th century, Earl Grey tea was firmly established in the English tea-drinking psyche – and had become one of the famous and celebrated tea recipes. Of course, due to its name, it was always associated with the upper classes, so it’s no surprise that authors, playwrights and scriptwriters had their characters sipping it to signify a certain well-bred style, like Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, Batman, Artemis Fowl, Piglet and Sir Leigh Teabing from The Da Vinci Code.


And it’s also said to be the favourite tea blend of the late Queen Elizabeth II. An Earl good enough for a Queen. Posh indeed.  

Earl Grey blend



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