Dangerous and Insane – Tea drinking in the 19th century
You won't, you won't, you won't


ladies drinking tea 19th century

In the 19th century, tea drinking was regarded as reckless, uncontrollable and a waste of precious time for poor women in Great Britain and Ireland.

The tea habit

The habit spread quickly during the 1870s and 1880s. Nurses, female pupils and ward maids at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin were allowed 4 ounces of tea a week in 1883. That’s roughly 2 gallons a week: more than 70 cups a week, or 10 cups a day.

Dr. Charles Brown complained about “the abuse of tea” in Ireland and England. Not only was the amount being consumed alarming, the usually stewed or overdrawn beverage was “far from wholesome”.

The medical profession blamed this over stewing  for many ailments:

“Much of the anemia, dyspepsia, and gastric derangement a doctor sees in hospital and dispensary practice chiefly amongst young women and very often children is a result of this pernicious tea drinking habit”.

While the Inspectors of Lunatics (1894) named excessive use of tea as a contributor to insanity, Browne himself was more inclined to blame whiskey. Other thought that tea was the new gin.

Tea and The Chambers of Death

John Wesley, founding father of Methodism, became a tea-totaller in 1746, after observing that the nerves of the the London poor were “all unstrung, bodily Strength quite decayed”. As an alternative beverage, he recommended “small” (weak) beer.

He wasn’t alone on recommending beer. William Cobbett pointed out in his “Cottage Economy” that beer is much cheaper than tea, and “suitable for all except the youngest child”. He recommends five quarts a day (just over a pint) as sufficient for all “except drunkards”.

In Wesley’s “Primitive Physick”, he clearly states that “coffee and tea are extremely hurtful to Persons who have weak nerves”. He warned a friend in “A letter to a friend on concerning Tea” in 1748 that “when you drink tea it has brought you near the chambers of death”. In his talks, he even counsels abstainers on how to politely refuse a cup. One wonders how many listened!

Eventually, Wesley changed his mind on the cuppa, and began using it as a weapon in his battle for temperance.

So relieved was Josiah Wedgwood that he presented Wesley with the (then) largest teapot in the world, able to hold a gallon-worth (Sufficient for even a Dublin nurse for half a week!).


The Queen and The Duke

In 1699, John Ovington, Chaplin to William III, advised Queen Mary that tea was a universal cure for everything from “gravel [to] vertigo” to “nauseous humours that offend the stomach”.

Perhaps what really won over Queen Mary was the notion that the brew “reconciles men to sobriety”, “changing the beast into man”.

The Duke of Wellington liked to drink tea from a Wedgwood teapot during his battles, because it kept is head clear. His traveling canteen includes plates and serving dishes, beakers and tumblers, knives and spoons – and a silver tea set.

He wrote that whilst planning the [Spanish] Battle of Salamanca, “Tea cleared my head and left me with no misapprehensions.”

For the upper classes, tea didn’t pose a danger to their time or money.

Death by Tea

One argument was that an excess of hot drinks caused the blood and insides to heat up. This excess of Heat was even claimed to be the most “common cause of sickness and death’. Dr. Daniel Duncan in “Wholesome Advice against the abuse of hot liquors” (1706) pointed to Methuselah as an example : he never drank hot liquors and lived to be a thousand years. Hot-tempered Rachel of Bible fame took years to conceive – because hot liquors overheat the womb.

The Quaker,John Lettsom, believed that a steaming brew had its good and bad points. He relates a story about an eminent tea-broker, a Mr. Marsh, who after sniffing one hundred chests of tea, suffers from giddiness, headache, spasms, loss of memory, and speech. Listed cause of death was “effluvia of tea”. In a similar case, the patient was bled and electrified, but still died. Lettsom granted that it may have been the shocks (“directed through his head”) that killed him.

In “An essay on tea”, the author whips himself into a frenzy about addicted nurses putting their charges in danger. I’ll leave this one to steep with you:



If you like this, you might enjoy reading about the everyday things that could get you thrown into a lunatic asylum in the 18th century, including drinking tea.


All interspersed quotes are from “An essay on tea : considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry, and impoverishing the nation : with a short account of its growth, and great consumption in these kingdoms : with several political reflections : in twenty-five letters addressed to two ladies / [H*****].” The full text is digitised online here.

Other Sources:

Tea: A Very British Beverage

By Paul Chrystal

Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920

by Leslie Clarkson, Margaret Crawford

The Irish Times: A history of Irish lunacy: inter-marriage, tea-drinking and eating potatoes

Leave a Reply