There was a time in Ireland when tea drinkers were considered to be as irresponsible as whiskey drinkers. But only if you were poor.
Rich people have blamed poor people for their poverty pretty much since the beginning of time. So why would 19th Century Ireland be any different? As Ireland lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis during this time, blame was needed. And it was poor, working class women who copped it.
Poor women who drank tea were viewed as a problem for society, research by Durham University has unearthed. Tea was expensive for poor people. So rich ladies felt the need to lecture poor women about drinking it. Firstly, the rich ladies whelped on that poor women couldn’t afford tea, and they were becoming damn addicted to it. Secondly, they put sugar in it: another luxury poor women could not afford. And thirdly, they were taking breaks from laborious works to consume it. The laziness! And fourthly, this was time taken away from doing household chores that would please their hard-working husbands. And no one wanted to upset these guys: they were doing all of the graft that the rich people weren’t.
Ah do-gooders. Lecturing people never seems to get old for these types.
Only middle class and rich ladies should drink tea apparently, as they could afford both the tea and the breaks that came with it. After all, they didn’t have to go to the shop to get it. Their servants (who shouldn’t drink it) did this for them.
According to the Durham University paper, reformers singled out tea drinking amongst peasant women as a practice which needed to be stamped out to improve the Irish economy and society.
These self-righteous critics at the time declared that the practice of tea drinking – viewed as a harmless pastime in other societies – was contributing to the stifling of Ireland’s economic growth, and was clearly presented as reckless and uncontrollable. These women (and some men) sat around producing “pamphlets” which they then distributed to poorer women, telling them to finish up being tea sluts.
Women who drank tea wasted their time and money, it was said, drawing them away from their duty to care for their husbands and home. And this state of emergency was affecting the national economy.
Pamphlets suggested that the concerns about tea drinking were also felt widely outside Ireland. Some believed it threatened the wholesome diet of British peasants and symbolised damage to the social order and hierarchies.
Author Dr Helen O’Connell, Lecturer in English Studies at Durham University, who analysed pamphlets and literature from that time, said, “Peasant women were condemned for putting their feet up with a cup of tea when they should be getting a hearty evening meal ready for their hard-working husbands. The reformers, who were middle to upper-class, were trying to get the peasant women to change their ways, in a somewhat patronising way, for the greater good of the country. The reformers made it clear they saw tea-drinking as reckless and uncontrollable.”
The pamphlets distributed to peasant households lambasted tea drinking as a luxury poor women could not afford and which could even cause addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies. Revolutionary sympathies!!! Yes the poor may rise up BECAUSE OF TEA! (And not because rich ladies were telling them what to do with hot water).
It was also said that tea drinking could even be akin to being a member of a secret society, a belief which heightened political anxieties at a time of counter revolution within the Union of Britain and Ireland.
English reformers were equally worried about sugar. Dr Helen O’Connell said, “The prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women. If that wasn’t enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.”
Here are some of the self-righteous quotes from the “improvement pamphlets” of the time:
Mary Leadbeater, The Landlord’s Friend, 1813
Lady Seraphine, the improving landowner, comments on the absence of tea cups in the kitchen of a peasant cabin, to which the woman of the house replies, “We never were used to tea, and would not choose that our little girl should get a notion of any such thing. The hankering after a drop of tea keeps many poor all their lives. So I would not have any things in the cabin which would put us in mind of it.”
(I suspect she was hiding it in the cow shed along with the poitín.)
Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, 1811
In response to her friend Nancy complaining about not being allowed a cup of tea by her mistress, her friend Rose replies: “I think you are very much obliged to your mistress for not giving you such a bad fashion. What would you do in a house on your own? And you could not afford to drink tea, and you would be hankering after it, when you got the way of it.”
I think Rose wants all of that addictive tea for herself, the junkie.
Abigail Roberts, The Cottage Fireside, 1826
“…you know Nanny will have it twice a day, if she can; and you are also to take into account the time spent about it. A poor person’s time is his treasure; how much is lost at it, how much is lost running to the grocer’s for it: and now you may see whether such a one as Nanny Ward is not able to beggar her family.”
I think she needs a servants to get her tea for her, like many of the woman who had the time to write these feckin’ pamphlets!
Rise up women of Ireland, and drink your feckin tea, because you deserve it!