In 1662, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) married Charles II (1630-85), bringing with her a tea-drinking habit that changed the course of British history. After serving the beverage to members of the English Royal court, tea became a fashionable drink amongst the aristocracy. For a while, only the rich and privileged drank tea, but in the 18th century, one particular family introduced the drink to the nation. Three hundred years later, the same company, Twinings, continues to supply Britain with teas of several varieties, making it one of the oldest companies in the country. The company also holds the record for the world’s oldest continually-used logo.
The Twining family moved to London from Gloucestershire in 1684. They originally worked as millers in the countryside, but a recession forced them to try their luck in the city. Nine-year-old Thomas Twining (1675-1741) moved with his parents, expecting to follow in their footsteps. He took up an apprenticeship as a weaver and worked hard to become a Freeman of the City of London in 1701. Aged 26, Thomas Twining turned his back on weaving and joined the East India Company under Thomas D’Aeth (1678-1745), who introduced him to the early shipments of tea from Asia.
After working in the tea trade for a few years, Twining saw the money-making potentials of the leaves and drink, so decided to set out on his own. In 1706, Twining purchased Tom’s Coffee House from Thomas D’Aeth, which stood at No. 216 Strand, London. Coffee houses were a popular location for men of all classes throughout the city. One notable frequenter was the artist William Hogarth (1697-1764), who painted a portrait of Twining in lieu of payment. Coffee shops did not only sell coffee, but they also provided customers with alcoholic beverages, such as gin and ale. Twining saw a place in the market for tea and quickly grew a reputation for having the finest blends in the capital.
As tea grew in popularity, the British government placed high taxes on the product. Only the rich could afford to drink tea, and it quickly became a status symbol. Customers began requesting dry tea leaves to take home to share with their wives and friends since women were not allowed in coffee houses. In 1707, 100g of Twinings Gunpowder Green Tea cost £160 in today’s money. To put this into perspective, in 2022, Twinings sell 100g of the same blend for around £7.
In 1717, Thomas Twining purchased the three adjacent buildings and expanded his coffee house into a shop called the Golden Lyon. Three hundred years later, the shop still exists. By 1722, Twining had enough money to buy Dial House in Twickenham, which remained the family home until 1889. The tea business provided a significant income and appealed to royalty as well as upper-class tea drinkers. By 1734, the coffee shop sold tea almost exclusively.
When Thomas Twining passed away in 1741, his son Daniel (d.1762) inherited the business and family home. At the time, Daniel was married to Ann March, but she passed away two years later. In 1745, Daniel married his second wife, Mary Little (1726-1804), who became a mother to Daniel’s son Thomas and produced three more sons, Daniel, Richard, and John. Daniel Twining expanded the business, attracting attention across the Atlantic. The Governor of Boston in the United States became a regular customer, so Twining began to export tea to America.
In 1753, Twining took on his nephew, Nathaniel Carter, as his business partner. They worked together for almost ten years before Twining’s death in 1762. His children were far too young to take on the Golden Lyon, by then known as Twining’s (with an apostrophe), and Carter no longer wanted to look after the shop and exports. Despite women’s lower status in society, Mary Twining took over the running of the business, increasing the number of exports.
Mary intended to run the tea business until her eldest son came of age. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1765 after receiving a blow to the head from a cricket ball. Her second son, Richard (1749-1824), left Eton College at 14 to help run the company. Trade was difficult due to increasing taxes, the American Revolution and the Boston Tea Party protest, but Mary and Richard managed to keep Twining’s afloat. Mary refused to purchase any tea smuggled in from France or Holland, which were cheaper but typically diluted and of poorer quality. Before her death in 1804, Mary officially made Richard head of the family business.
By the time Richard Twining took over as head of Twining’s, he had extensive knowledge of the tea trade. As well as running the business, Richard had expert negotiating skills and joined in political debates about trading. In 1784, the London Tea Dealers elected Twining as chairman, meaning Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) came to him for advice on tea taxes. Twining convinced Pitt that lower taxes on tea would increase sales and reduce smuggling. Following Twining’s advice, Pitt signed the Commutation Act of 1784, reducing the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%.
In 1787, Twining commissioned a logo for his tea business, settling on a simple typeface and opting to remove the apostrophe from the name. The logo first appeared above the entrance to the shop on the Strand, along with figurines of a golden lion and two Chinese men. The lion, which is lying down (lion couchant), is a sign of respect towards Thomas Twining, the founder of the business. The two Chinese men represent the tea trade. To begin with, only China produced and traded tea with the western world. The logo is used on all Twinings‘ products today, and the figurines still sit above the entranceway in London.
Richard Twining frequently travelled around Europe, leaving his brother John in charge of the business. He wrote several letters about his trips to his half-brother Thomas, which were published after his death by his grandson in 1887, who titled the books Selections from Papers of the Twining Family. Richard Twining also wrote three papers about the tea trade and Twinings, and in 1793, the East India Company elected him as a director. He continued working until his resignation in 1816 due to poor health.
Before inheriting Twinings, Richard Twining married Mary Aldred in 1771 and had six sons and four daughters. His eldest son, Richard (1772-1857), joined the business in 1794 and took over from Richard Twining Senior following his death on 23rd April 1824. During the 1830s, Richard Junior developed bespoke blends for his customers, and in 1837, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) granted Twinings its first Royal Warrant for tea. Since then, Twinings has supplied British monarchs and their royal households with tea.
Richard Twining was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 5th June 1834. The society provided “substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science.” Twining also followed in his father’s footsteps in the role of director of the East India Company, demonstrating his in-depth knowledge of the tea trade.
Richard Twining was married to Elizabeth Mary Smythies, with whom he had nine children. The eldest boy, also called Richard, was trained to continue the family’s famous business, yet two of the daughters made names for themselves, too. Louisa Twining (1820-1912) devoted herself to helping the poor. She initially aspired to be an art historian, writing books such as Symbols and Emblems of Mediaeval Christian Art (1852) and Types and Figures of the Bible (1854), but in her 30s, she changed her focus to alleviating poverty in Britain.
As children, the Twinings had a nurse who came from one of the poorest districts in London. With these conditions in mind, Louisa helped establish a home for workhouse girls and set up the Workhouse Visiting Society. With Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Louisa formed the Workhouse Infirmary Nursing Association, helping to train poor women as nurses. Louisa also joined the Association for the Improvement of the Infirmaries of London Workhouses, chaired by Charles Dickens (1812-70). The Poor Law Inspector, Uvedale Corbett, said Louisa was “the most practical woman I have ever known amongst the many who have taken an interest in the subject.”
Louisa’s older sister, Elizabeth (1805-99), also contributed to the treatment of the poor. She established “mothers’ meetings” and published Readings for Mothers’ Meetings and Ten Years in a Ragged School. Elizabeth also worked as a botanical illustrator under her father’s patronage. Her observations of flowers and plants at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew feature in the two-volume Illustrations of the Natural Order of Plants published in 1849 and 1855.
Following her father’s death, Elizabeth remained at Dial House until her death on Christmas day in 1899. In her will, she left the house to the people of Twickenham for use as the vicarage.
Twinings continued to flourish under successive members of the family. In 1910, the much sought after tea company opened its first shop in France and continued making different blends. In 1933, they marketed their famous English Breakfast tea, which blended a combination of Assam, Ceylon, and Kenyan leaves.
Despite the rationing of tea during the Second World War, Twinings continued to flourish. To keep up morale in British troops, Twinings supplied tea parcels for Red Cross prisoners-of-war, the Women’s Voluntary Service, and YMCA wartime canteens. As a whole, Britain purchased more tea than weapons during the war. The Royal Air Force dropped 75,000 tea bombs into the occupied Netherlands, which contained packets of tea and uplifting messages from the British.
In 1956, Twinings began selling their tea in teabags for the first time. Teabags were not a new invention, but the war years and lack of materials prevented Twinings from jumping on the bandwagon earlier. The first teabag was accidentally invented by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan, who wanted to send samples of tea to customers in small silken bags. Sullivan intended the recipients to cut open the bag and pour out the tea leaves, but many people assumed the bag was some sort of infuser and put the entire bag into the teapot.
In response to his customers’ reaction to his sample bags of tea, Sullivan developed the first purpose-made tea bags, using gauze rather than silk. The invention was quickly accepted by America, but it took a while for the British to come on board. Eventually, Twinings’ rivals, Tetley, introduced teabags to Britain. Britain was slow to adapt and, by the 1960s, only 3% of tea was sold in teabags. Yet by 2007, this had risen to 96%.
In 1964, the British food processing and retailing company Associated British Foods plc (ABF) acquired Twinings. ABF oversees several private and branded British labels, including Ryvita, Silver Spoon, Kingsmill and Jordans cereal. In the past, customers visited the Twinings store on the Strand to purchase tea, but with the growth of supermarkets and convenience shops, Twinings products became widely available.
In 1972, Twinings were the first company to win the Queen’s Award for Export. Established in 1965, the award recognises the outstanding achievement of UK businesses and allows them to use the award’s emblem on marketing materials, such as packaging and adverts.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Twinings continue to thrive as one of Britain’s popular tea brands. In 2007, the company celebrated its 300th birthday, just three years after releasing their world-famous Everyday Tea. Twinings describe their Everyday Tea as “well-rounded” and “invigorating”. It contains a blend of tea from Yunnan (China), Assam (India) and Africa.
In 2010, green tea grew in popularity, so Twinings relaunched the green tea range, adding flavours such as Mango & Lychee and Orange & Lotus Flower. They also relaunched their Earl Grey tea, inviting the 6th Earl Grey, Richard Grey (1939-2013), to add his signature to the packaging. Twinings first produced Earl Grey tea in 1831 by blending bergamot oil into their tea leaves. They named the product after the British Prime Minister, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), although the reasons for this remain apocryphal.
Following the success of their green and Earl Grey ranges, Twinings relaunched their Infusions range in 2012. This brought twenty new flavours of tea onto the market, including strawberry & raspberry, lemon & ginger, blackcurrant & blueberry, buttermint, liquorice and cranberry. Infusions are caffeine- and sugar-free and can be drunk hot or cold, making them popular all year round.
In 2013, Twinings expanded the 216 Strand shop to include a tea tasting bar so that customers could try it before they buy. This led to the launch of Twinings’ luxury Signature Range, which is personally created by members of the team. Andrew Whittingham, for instance, took inspiration from spice markets in Zanzibar to create “an unusual blend of Rwandan black tea and Rooibos”. Michael Wright, on the other hand, was inspired by “the lowlands of Assam with the humid rainy season, the highlands of Darjeeling, and the gardens of Ceylon” to produce the “Perfect Afternoon Loose Leaf Tea”. For the upcoming Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, Stephen Twinings produced a luxury tea based on the original blends the company sold in its early years. Twinings is also the only person allowed to deal with royal customers.
To celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, the Royal Warrant Holders requested a commemorative blend of tea in a limited edition illustrated tin. The design incorporates symbols to represent the Queen’s status as Head of State and Church, her love of horse racing, and the style of hat she often wears in public. Unfortunately, the tea is no longer available to purchase.
The year 2017 marked the 300th anniversary of the Golden Lyon shop in the Strand. To mark the occasion, Twinings released yet another new range of tea. Known as SuperBlends, the teas aim to promote health and wellbeing and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Each blend aims to benefit at least one aspect of the customer’s wellbeing, for example, metabolism, digestion, sleep, immunity, energy, relaxation and the heart.
Most of Twinings’ fruity flavoured teas are drinkable hot or cold, but until 2018, all teas required brewing in hot water before being drunk or cooled. Seeing a gap in the market, Twinings launched their Cold In’fuse range, which used cold water instead of hot. Dehydration is becoming a problem in Britain, with only 1 in 10 adults drinking an adequate amount of water. Many people claim they struggle to remain hydrated because they do not like water. Twinings’ Cold In’fuse essentially infuses the water with their much-loved flavours of herbal and fruit teas, allowing consumers to enjoy a healthy drink without needing to put the kettle on. Two years later, Twinings launched a Wellness version of their Cold In’fuse containing added vitamins and minerals.
Today, 216 Strand London provides wellbeing information and support, as well as Twinings’ extensive range of tea. With tasting experiences and masterclasses, Twinings aims to move with the times and supply teas to suit its customer’s needs. Of course, the more traditional teas remain some of Twinings’ best-selling products.
As of 2019, Twinings is Britain’s best-selling tea brand, with PG Tips and Yorkshire following in second and third place. Twinings may charge more for their tea than other companies, but only they supply such an extensive range. From humble beginnings to Queen’s favourite, Twinings has a history of success and has made Britain a stereotypical tea-drinking nation.
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