Tea History: Tea Processing Machines 

It was an industry off and running by the time George Williamson retired from Assam in 1859. Scores of private entrepreneurs had learned the best tea to plant and the right way to grow and harvest it. The Honorable East India Company had surrendered its Indian prerequisites to the Crown the year before, forcing all manner of subalterns and junior officials to look for something better than poverty or an office job back in England.

Many decided tea planting would be the simplest, pleasantest, most lucrative and gentlemanly possible alternative. One wrote at the time: “To those (and the class is numerous in England), who, possessing but a moderate sum of money, wish nevertheless to maintain the position in life to which they have been educated, to whom trade and the professions are obnoxious, who having no military tastes or nautical tendencies are still anxious to use the energy and enterprise which are said to belong to the British – to such tea-planting offers particular inducements.”

Historic sepia image of tea pluckers in Assam, India in the 1800's

Inducement enough that vast new acreage was planted, mostly in Assam but also around Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas and around Ootacamund, a similar hill station in the Nilgiri mountain area of the south. Everyone was sure of getting rich – the estate managers who didn’t know a tea plant from a cabbage, the highly paid boards of directors in Calcutta and London with their still more highly paid secretaries, and, of course, all the investors – rich as Croesus!

As a doctor in Assam was later to diagnose the mania: “Although tea has the reputation as a beverage that cheers but does not inebriate, its cultivation in new districts exercises the most strangely intoxicating influences on those engaged in it, equaled only by the sanguine dreams of gold explorers.”

Greed and tea had met once again to produce a repetition of the youthful follies of the Assam Company, but on a vastly greater scale. Millions of pounds sterling were squandered in the name of tea, and by 1865 the very word had become a stench in the nostrils of the investing public. It took another five years for the young industry to recover from the tea mania and the resulting financial disasters. By then the tea men who survived had learned their business and the old established estates that had escaped the speculative blight were flourishing. The future was, in fact, rosier than any of them suspected.

John and William Jackson Modernize the Ancient Tea Industry

One day in 1871, a side-paddle riverboat steaming lazily down the Brahmaputra slid to a stop in midstream. It had run aground on one of the shifting sandbars for which the river is notorious, forcing the captain to tell his passengers it would be some while before they could go further, as the boat would require rather extensive repairs. Why didn’t they explore the countryside while they waited – and stay out of the way?

Two of the passengers who clambered ashore were the brothers John and William Jackson, who were on their way home to England from a tea estate in Upper Assam.

Somewhere in the vicinity they came across a portable steam engine that still showed no signs of breaking down after ten years’ nonstop performance. William, who had a head for machinery, liked the design so well he made a note of the maker’s address. The English firm of Marshall Sons & Company, Ltd. owes its extensive tea machinery business to this happy accident.

William Jackson (29 June 1849 – 15 June 1915) was a British mechanical engineer and inventor of tea-rolling machines, tea driers, tea leaf sorters, and other machinery used in the processing of tea for shipment and final use by consumers. His inventions revolutionized the tea industry in Assam and Ceylon and allowed those regions to compete successfully with China in the economical production of tea.  Wikipedia

The brothers Jackson – for they worked together at first – finally got off the sandbar and, once home, asked the steam engine firm to produce a tea-rolling machine of their design. It was the first to do the job faster and better than it could be done by hand. Up until then all the tea on earth had always been made entirely by hand. The leaf was hand-rolled, dried over charcoal fires, and trampled into the chests by barefoot workers. Eventually, William Jackson was to invent and patent machines for everyone of these procedures. He and his competitors introduced “scientific preparation of the leaf under hygienic condition,” as detractors of China tea liked to say.

Machinery brought enormous savings in labor, especially in rolling the leaf in order to bruise it and expose the juices to oxygen. The procedure was slow and tedious; rolling eighty pounds of leaf by hand represented a good day’s work for one man. Jackson’s machine could do the work of sixty men. The Chinese method of firing the leaf over charcoal was likewise very slow and costly. It took about eight pounds of good-quality wood turned into charcoal to dry a pound of tea.

The Jackson machine produced the same results with anything that could be burned; only one-quarter pound of Assam coal was required per pound of finished dry tea. And a single large dryer did the work of thirty-five men. The Jacksons revolutionized the manufacture of tea to the same extent that Williamson had to its cultivation. In 1872, when Jackson began inventing, the cost of tea production in India was elevenpence a pound, but by 1913, improved machinery had reduced the cost to about threepence a pound. Eight thousand Jackson rolling machines were performing work which would have required half a million people in China.

The Jackson brothers had returned to England the year of the last tea clipper race. In a short time their machines were to multiply India’s tea output manyfold, just as steamships using the Suez Canal made its transport many times cheaper. By 1880 annual per capita tea consumption in Britain had risen to 4.57 pounds, almost exactly four times what it had been sixty years previously in 1820. The speculators of earlier days had been foolish but not wrong: India was on the way to capturing the giant’s share of the world tea market.

This articlc has been updated since the original publication, May 20, 2009

More about tea rollers from the 1800s