I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief.
He robs nothing but the revenue – an abstraction I never cared
greatly about. I could go out with him in his mackerel boat, or about
his less ostensible business, with some satisfaction.

~ John Company clerk Charles Lamb (1775 – 1834)

Tea had become England’s national drink by 1800 and she was importing an average of twenty-four million pounds a year, it is said. It is now time for me to admit that all figures relating to earlier tea consumption in England are merely official, which is to say, misleading. The English drank vastly more tea than any John Company records before 1784 reveal, thanks to a nationwide network of “free traders” or – from the government’s viewpoint – smugglers.

About a decade after the Company began importing tea on a regular basis, the Crown slapped a duty of five shillings on each pound irrespective of quality. This did not much affect the price of the most expensive teas, but it served to knock the cheap right out of the market, or rather, to create a black market for it. The cheapest sort one could legally buy then cost seven shillings a pound – almost a laborer’s whole week’s wages – while just across the Channel or across the North Sea in Holland tea of this same quality could be had for two shillings.

With a 350 percent profit to play with, “free traders” were not long in multiplying along the whole length of England’s coastline. Mr. J. M. Scott, to whose grand book The Great Tea Venture these pages are much indebted, has written: “The trouble and talk which resulted publicized tea as nothing else could have done, and as the illegal industry spread and prospered it carried the new commodity to every door. It was calculated that at the height of this illegal campaign, two-thirds of the tea drunk in England had been smuggled.”

To be continued in Tuesdays With Norwood: Bootleg Tea – Part 2