Guest Contributor, Lou Berkley, is an avid tea historian who delights in discovering and sharing unexpected gems about Camellia sinensis and the people who are part of the global adventure.

Intro: Tea follows Us

As Humankind made its way out of prehistory, exploring and learning about the bounty of their surroundings, both wondrous and dangerous, they developed their own ‘tastes’ along the way; this animal was yummy but ran away when we tried to catch (and eat) it; that plant had those colorful, sweet balloons hanging from it, but only during certain times of the year. 

Gradually we developed favorites, and early among those was the tea plant, for its energy-producing leaves and eventually, we learned, for its pleasant effects when added to water. As our ancient ancestors wandered further afield, they sought out this plant and collected their harvests from the ancient forests; we followed tea.

There is something singular in the relationship between humans and tea. Several other plants were encountered and utilized to create drinks prior to the tea plant; both beer and wine predate historical evidence of tea’s use by millennia. And yet tea seems to have developed a deeper connection with humans, more akin to friendship, as a colleague accompanying us on the journey (or perhaps simply that we could enjoy quite a lot of it without finding ourselves incapacitated!). In any case, humans became so enamored of this plant that tea would become our favorite prepared beverage on the globe, we did not wish to be without it, and in due course … tea followed us. 

A chance encounter led me to an auction house listing for a century-old tea artifact – an unusual tea that the famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had apparently taken with him on his voyages to the South Pole. It led me on a circuitous trail of breadcrumbs that encompassed much more than just polar exploration – or even just tea.

Here follows a tale of teas who journeyed along with the Earth’s most curious and restless creature to the very bottom of the planet: Antarctica.

“What the Ice Gets, the Ice Keeps.”

During the age of polar exploration, an unwritten camaraderie developed somewhat organically among those chosen to lead; it was not a big club. There were, of course, disputes; competition for expedition funding, the best ships, the best crews, the most favorable plans, etc. Yet, with few exceptions the explorers of all nations recognized a bond due to their usually harrowing (or at least heart-breaking) experiences and, at the minimum, shared grudging respect. It was not at all unusual for expedition leaders to acknowledge those in their cohort with praise. They understood the depth of a saying that pertains to ships, as well as to souls: “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.”

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott seemed predestined for success as a naval officer. Raised in a prosperous family with a history in the armed services, he was sent to a naval Prep school and then to a top-tier, prestigious naval training ship (HMS Britannia), of the sort where royalty sends their young men. At age 13, Scott began his maritime career as a midshipman and enjoyed success and advancement for a decade, when his father and only brother died.

As the only male in his family, Scott was seeking a better paying naval promotion to support his recently widowed Mother and orphaned Sisters, and so he volunteered to lead the expedition to the South Pole for the Royal Geographical Society. Of that period he later wrote, “I may as well confess that I had no predilection for polar exploration.”[1]

Robert Falcon Scott – 1905

But that changed by the time he would return, and a knowing friend of Scott’s recognized this in him after his first polar expedition; “He’s bitten by the Pole mania.”

Sir Clements Markham – with cinchona painting
and polar explorer statue, 1913

That knowing friend supporting Scott’s bid to lead the expedition was, in fact the president of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Clements Robert Markham. Markham viewed the importance of any scientific aspects which may accompany exploration to be secondary. Markham wanted a Navy man to head the expedition, not a scientist – and Scott was his man. Scott was appointed in 1900 and promoted to Commander Royal Navy. And with such a small talent pool, it may not be surprising to learn that Markham also chose another to-be-famous polar explorer to accompany Scott to the Pole on that first expedition. 

Markham’s choice was Ernest Henry Shackleton, who sailed under Commander Scott as Third Lieutenant in charge of stores, holds, and provisions aboard the expedition ship Discovery. It was Shackleton’s first polar expedition as well – and he also came back ‘bitten.’

Ernest Henry Shackelton

Shackleton was born in Ireland to a family of English origin. His father was a farmer but switched to study medicine, and after graduating, he moved the family to London as a doctor. The young Shackleton was not keen on the expectations imposed by school but loved reading books and poetry.

He left school at 16 and not having the wherewithal to pursue the same HMS Britannia path that Scott did; his first job was on a three-masted square-rigger sailing ship bound for the Horn. He traveled the world on many different ships, working with all kinds of men, and in eight years he had certified as a Master Mariner – qualifying him to command any British ship on the water.

Ernest Shackleton – 1901

Shackleton was sent home early from that first Discovery mission due to ill health and the onset of scurvy. When he returned to London he found that his views and experience were of value to the Admiralty, who were planning a relief operation to re-stock Scott’s expedition.

His role in the Discovery expedition was already leading to a degree of fame as well; the ‘roving commission’ he was granted (broadening his range of roles), allowed him to make business contacts, which would lead to funding for his own expedition south.

Shackleton became a hero during the age of polar exploration; a decisive and inspiring leader who rejected the pervasive model of the top-down, authoritarian ship’s captains of the day. Shackleton instead treated his men with respect, eating with his crew, building a spirit of camaraderie, and fostering morale; he set a high bar for performance but recognized each man’s limits. He instilled courage in his men in leading by example and would do any job that he expected of them. There was no question as to who was in charge and not to elevate themselves but rather, in their respect and regard for him, Shackleton was seen as “first among equals.” His crew referred to him not by name or rank, but simply as “Boss”.

“Tabloid Tea” Tin Box

The West’s First Instant Tea

In October of 2012, Christie’s Auction House in London listed at auction an artifact once owned by Ernest Shackleton; a small, empty tin box, with printed artwork on the lid of a feminine hand dropping a small pill into a teacup and the words ‘Tabloid Tea’, Made in England by Burroughs, Wellcome, & Co.’ Christie’s described the piece as coming from the Shackleton estate and that “the bottom of the tin [is] marked from usage as a striker for [wooden matches].” It was likely with Shackleton during his most famous voyage and among his possessions when he died during his final expedition.

Both in Tang dynasty China and the 12th-century’ tencha’ (ground tea) practice which led to the development of Chanoyu in Japan, Asian cultures had enjoyed powdered tea for many generations before it began to come off production lines in the West. During the 1880s, BW developed and filed patent protection for the West’s first instant tea to go into production: Tabloid Tea. Theirs was not the first patent granted for an instant tea; that honor goes to Mr. John William Brown of Huddersfield, England and his 1885 patent for a concentrated tea extract mixed with sugar and evaporated milk into a paste. [2]

But Mr. Brown seems not to have brought his patent to market until later, and by the early 1890s BW was already in production and winning sales and recognition for their Tabloid Tea; a Blue Ribbon and Certificate of Merit at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893), a Certification of Merit from the Sanitary Institute Exhibition at Liverpool (1894), the Gold Medal at the Yorkshire Trades Industrial Exhibition in Sheffield (1895), and the Bronze Medal at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville (1897).

Lipton – Not to be Left Behind!

Tea was considered a staple on polar explorations (along with cocoa). In addition to the Tabloid Tea on Endurance, Shackleton’s companion vessel, the Aurora, would land on the other side of Antarctica and create a series of restocking depots for the second half of the journey across the continent. Aurora was equipped with Lipton Tea, who also thoughtfully sent along two “Show Cards” and a note asking “…when the expedition has reached some place of historic interest, and when the Staff are together enjoying a cup of tea to hang these cards in a conspicuous place, then snap a photo, which would be immensely appreciated by our Company.” 

There was no doubt as to where “some place of historic interest” should be.

Silas M. Burroughs – 1880

Burroughs Wellcome – All things Tabloid

Begun by two Americans who had early success in selling pharmaceutical exports directly to British druggists, Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs founded their company in London in 1880. At that time, “medicine” was an amorphous concept, sold by nearly unregulated purveyors who often made dubious claims of efficacy. Nor were they scrupulous about insuring accuracy with their weights and measures.

Burroughs Wellcome brought a scientific rigor and ethical philosophy to the new business of scientific medicine and pharmacology. Indeed, the company was instrumental in wresting the market from the hands of quacks and charlatans and setting the model for the entire industry’s future.

Adding to the difficulty in ensuring weights and standardizing dosages, most medicines were sold as liquids or powders; dosing errors arose from the “thumb on the scale” measuring practices that were rampant. Wellcome hit upon the solution “…at half-past four one morning in 1884 by combining the word tablet and alkaloid, and he at once sent for his secretary to dictate, even at that early hour, a memorandum on the subject.” [3]

Pharmaceutical quality control and Marketing strategy all in one stroke: the “Tabloid” was born. (Breakthrough discoveries of alkaloids in the 19th century identified a new class of chemicals from plant sources and are used to refine, characterize, and categorize their chemical components and their efficacy in potential medicines).

Henry S. Wellcome – 1880

BW was smitten by their new concept (rightly), immediately registering its trademark protection and applying it not only to their pharmaceuticals but to many other types of their products as well: any product which had the character of solving a problem with a “compressed” solution (as in a small, compact, or efficient version), made its appearance in the BW catalog as a “Tabloid”: from photographic chemicals (in liquid form) to bandages, to the “Tabloid Cow-hide saddle case.”

The public loved the new buzzword also (as did BW’s competition), and BW went to great pains to protect their interests globally when it came to any use of the word “tabloid”. The company insisted that the term belonged exclusively to BW, and they litigated pharmaceutical companies and others whose ads appeared in trade magazines, newspapers, and anywhere else that ‘tabloid’ appeared without the BW trademark right next to it. Some competitors were even compelled in losing their court verdict to print an apology in the same trade magazines where they’d earlier run their offending advertisements. To understand BW’s vexation, how often, when slicing onions or watching a good tearjerker, does one ask for a “Kleenex” rather than a tissue? 

Scott’s Tea 

On April 1st, 1946, a certain Mrs. Watson gifted an unusual tea box to the Australia Technological Museum in Sydney. Made of tin and wrapped in a crimson red paper wrap with gold lettering, the unopened box measured to a 115mm cube, contained a half kilo of “Choice blend fine Indian and Ceylon tea”, and was made by Tower Tea, Ltd. of London. 

As the museum website (now the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences) relates: 

“A label stuck onto the bottom of the tin reads, ‘This Tin of Tea was cached by Commander R.F. Scott during his journey towards the South Pole in 1902. It was recovered and brought to New Zealand by the Shackleton expedition in 1908, and was given to my brother-in-law H.D. Aclands.”

Tower Tea was established in 1876 by Thomas and William Lough, dealing wholesale in tea, coffee, and cocoa. [4]  It was initially named (not coincidentally) “The Great Tower Street Tea Co.” no doubt to clarify its location and bona fides; Great Tower Street was one of London’s well-known wholesale tea crossroads. This commercial neighborhood which sits between the Tower Bridge and London Bridge, is just a fifteen-minute walk from the Thames wharves, and is met in the middle by Mincing Lane. Numerous tea firms rose, fell, and were consumed by their brethren along Great Tower Street: Harrison and Crosfield, Twinnings, Horniman, Lyons, and Lipton, among others. 

“Tower Tea” Box

The Great Tower Street Tea Company

Tower Tea has been credited as one of the originators of the wholesale packet tea trade, running “packet ships”: regularly scheduled transport of often higher-value goods that were generally oriented with a particular route or cargo focus, such as tea, coffee, and cocoa. Many other types of packet ships were also run during this time, and also those with mixed cargo, including mail, produce, passengers, etc.

Tower was also one of the early purveyors of teas from the new plantations in Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka), who by the 1880s had developed a quality product and reliable harvests, after turning away from coffee (due to the 1869 blight) and away from cinchona for quinine (beginning in 1884, due to a self-imposed market crash caused by Ceylon’s over-production). By then, Ceylon tea was well on its way, and Tower even won multiple awards in London and Paris, at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1889 – the same Exposition that had gifted the Eiffel Tower to the world. 

A Basketweave Tea Tale…

… In which we find that the theft of cinchona seeds became the agricultural Golden Goose to replace a failed coffee industry and then succumbed to the Goose’s usual fate, thus paving the way for a new tea industry, and while chemists were trying to discover a way to purify cinchona’s quinine they accidentally invented a synthetic color that was fit for a Queen, so as color became all the rage, an entire industry of synthetic chemists created a permanent rainbow of too many to choose from, leading the chemists to search for a new gig, when they turned themselves into pharmacologists who created the first instant tea, leading explorers at the South Pole to share a spot of tea.

Or – the whole story…

Mr. Clements Markham (pre-‘Sir’) was the lynchpin for more of this story than is apparent. In 1860 he essentially launched the cinchona industry in Ceylon in “obtaining by questionable means” seeds from Peru – the source of the cinchona plant – after Peru and the other South American countries had made all cinchona exports illegal to protect their forests – punishable by death. Both the Spanish and the Dutch had earlier blocked England out of that market, which simply could not be tolerated. Is this beginning to sound familiar? (see: Robert Fortune, disguise and all). 

Chemists working on the newly evolving study of ‘scientific medicines’ and pharmacology (remember Burroughs Wellcome?) had identified and purified the alkaloid responsible for the healing properties within the cinchona plant. While they were trying to find a way to synthesize it, England’s successful cinchona plantations in Ceylon combined with the already impressive Dutch production in the East Indies (Indonesia), which resulted in overproduction, tanking the selling price of cinchona, thus prompting the farms to (literally) pull their trees out of the ground to sell every last shred of bark before the whole market collapsed.

One of those new chemists seeking synthetic quinine, 18-year-old chemistry student, William Perkin, created… something else, which stained his white apron with an indelible color. As nearly all fabric colorants of the time were made with plant-based dyes, the very concept of “indelible color” was, well, stunning! In refining his accidental discovery Perkin created one of the first synthetic dyes, which he called ‘Mauveine’ – a shade of purple which ignited a purple haze (sorry!) among all the women of Europe, including Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie of France. 

William Perkin’s new synthetic dye process resulted in much better pigments, and as a result, there were a lot more vibrant new colorants, not just for cloth, but also for printing inks and paper – hence the colorful crimson Tower Tea wrapper! And because Perkin’s process proved the way to achieve better dyes chemically rather than the traditional plant sources, that launched a gigantic industry in the development and manufacture of chemical dyes, propelled by an army of new (former quinine) chemists. By the end of the 19th century the dye industry had become oversaturated with more capacity than demand so, those chemists (and their employer companies) sought new horizons. What they turned to was the industrialization of medicines formulated with synthetic drugs – AKA pharmacology – which our old friend Henry Wellcome must have appreciated very much!  

A Long, Strange Tea Trip

These two teas, brought along on Antarctic expeditions, have much in common. In both cases, I believe these were given to the expedition Commanders for their enjoyment and not meant as the sustaining type of “builders tea” that was expected by the crews; stout black teas required in the leaf by kilos and brewed in bulk with boiling water out of 8-liter copper kettles. 

In the case of Tabloid Tea, the evidence is that it was gifted directly by Wellcome to Shackleton, along with other items of utility and importance. The Commander might have appreciated Tabloid Tea during the thoughtful period when daily notes are logged, but the crew would have had little time either at meals or if drinking tea during duties, when that was even possible. The daily 4 p.m. “tea service” aboard ship was most likely relegated to the Cook’s chores, and it’s difficult to imagine that it included fussing over single-order teas for one; Starbucks would not come into being for nearly three-quarters of a century. 

A similar characterization applies to Scott’s Tower Tea. It’s unknown how he obtained it, but I surmise it was not purchased in quantity. The (then) new Ceylon tea, in intentionally ostentatious packaging (which by itself must have been rather costly), and only holding half a kilo seems an anomaly on a working ship, thus rendering the Tower Tea as ungainly for the ship’s galley or the mess. Whatever the actual amount, it’s likely that both teas were obtained in small quantities and for the same reasons; captain’s prerogative.

Scott’s red tin of Tower Tea was never drunk, or even opened. He could well have been saving it for a celebratory moment that never materialized; we’ll never know. Shackleton not only consumed Wellcome’s Tabloid Tea but also retained the tin box, carrying it with him as a match safe. His recovery of the Tower Tea from Scott’s provisions may simply have been as a remembrance of the man he once served under on their first polar exploration – and a fallen comrade.

In researching this article, I wondered just how far that box of Tower Tea had travelled across the globe. A sea routes calculator provided the answers:

Tower Tea from Ceylon to the Great Tower Street Tea Co., London = 10,273 nautical mi.

Tower Tea, London to the Isle of Wight (southern coast of England), where the final stores were taken aboard = 10 mi.

Discovery to Cape Town, S. Africa = 5,924 nautical mi.

Cape Town to Lyttelton, New Zealand = 6,710 nautical mi.

Lyttelton to McMurdo Station, Antarctica = 2,355 nautical mi.

Return trip: Nimrod, McMurdo Station to Lyttelton =  2,355 nautical mi. 

Total miles travelled? 27,627 nautical miles. That’s farther than the distance all the way around the planet at the Equator!

Tea follows us!

In the next episode, I will sit down with Babette Donaldson of the International Tea Sippers Society, and we’ll drink the tea that Ernest Shackleton enjoyed over a hundred years ago!

Thanks, and a Tip o’ the Hat to The Powerhouse Collection at MAAS: The Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, NSW, Australia.


Image Attributions:

Robert Falcon Scott – 1905, Wikimeida Commons, PD

Sir Clements Markham – with cinchona painting and polar explorer statue, 1913 Wikimeida Commons, PD

Ernest Shackleton – 1901 Wikimeida Commons, PD

Scott’s Box of TeaAuthor’s collection

Silas M. Burroughs – 1880 Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons, PD

Henry S. Wellcome – 1880 Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons. PD

Tower Tea box, circa, 1900, courtesy of Powerhouse Collection, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, NSW, Australia 

Enamel Tower Tea sign, circa 1920’s, artist unknown

Tower Tea journey Map, courtesy of 

[1]  Robert Falcon Scott, The Voyage of the Discovery, 1905
[2]  Wilson, K.C., Tea: Cultivation to Consumption, pg 535.
[3]  Gilbert Macdonald, One hundred years: Wellcome: in pursuit of excellence, The Wellcome Foundation
Limited – London, 1980
[4]  Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History –

Lou Berkeley, Tea Writer

Lou Berkley

Lou Berkley is a tea writer and researcher whose past careers are as a line cook, print manager, college professor, patent contributor,  copywriter, book editor, and grocer.
He lives in San Francisco.