Tea, Sir Joseph Banks, and Spring Grove House

Conservatory at Spring Grove House

If you have read my story about this blog, you know that the longer I live in England and the more I see and do, the more I discover that almost  every place and every thing here has a tea connection. Some are obvious, but others are obscure and I need to do a bit of research before I can make the association. Today’s post is a perfect illustration.

I hope you read about the Royal Albert Afternoon Tea at Kew Green I went to a few weeks ago on a Saturday; it was also Open House London 2012 that week-end. Open House London happens once a year when over 750 buildings in London and the surrounding area throw open their doors with free entry all week-end. Most of the buildings are well-known and not generally accessible by the public throughout the year; a few places are less familiar.

When we left Kew that Saturday, I thought we were going straight home but Mr. Tea, who thinks he is the best driver in the world does most of the driving in our family, took a slight detour and followed the Open House London signs until we ended up at a place called Spring Grove House. Except we weren’t just at Spring Grove House – we were also on the campus of West Thames College*, of which Spring Grove House is a part.

 

Spring Grove House, West Thames College campus

Spring Grove House

The exterior of Spring Grove House, built in 1779, was pleasant enough, but there certainly wasn’t any kind of  Wow! factor going on for me, so I couldn’t figure out why we were there. I had never even heard of the place.

We walked in the front door and as Mr. Tea was signing the Guest Register, the docent enquired of him, “Alumni or visitor?” to which he replied, “Alumni.”

Huh?

Apparently, Mr. Tea studied here in his late teens. (Married to the man for almost ten years, and I’m still learning things about him!)

 

Stained glass window, Spring Grove House

Spring Grove House was quite lovely inside, with beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood panelling, plaster ceilings, and beautiful fireplaces. In 1886, the house was owned by Andrew Pears, great grandson of the famous soap manufacturer. But before that, in 1808, it was the country residence of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) of London.

I was not familiar with Joseph Banks but during the brief house tour, learned that he was an eminent English botanist and explorer who collected plant specimens from all over the world. He traveled on the Endeavour with Captain Cook, and was instrumental in the development of the now world-renowned plant collections at Kew Gardens.  It was Banks who introduced us to the likes of eucalyptus and mimosa, and he even had a genus named after him: Banksia.

 

Stained glass window detail, Spring Grove House

Walking around Spring Grove House, I started thinking about Sir Joseph Banks.  As a botanist in the late 18th century, surely he must have a tea connection, in turn giving Spring Grove House a tea connection as well. At that time in England, tea was in great demand and tea drinking was prevalent and fashionable. Still a somewhat ‘new’ commodity, it was studied and discussed by all the great movers and shakers of the day.

I returned to a room where books and papers about Banks were laid out, and picked up a large volume on the life of Sir Joseph Banks. I flipped to the index at the back of the book, turned the pages until I reached the letter in the alphabet I was looking for, and ran my finger down the page hoping to find the word tea.  And find the word tea I did – together with page after page after page of tea-related references. I couldn’t wait to get home and start reading!

 

Sir Joseph Banks, Blue Plaque, Spring Grove House

My research revealed that Sir Joseph Banks was a man passionate about tea – and a man of influence upon its history.

▪ He was the first to identify the potential for growing tea in India, and in 1788 suggested it to the East India Company.

▪ He and his wife Lady Banks were avid collectors of china tea ware, and regularly served tea to visitors at their London home.

▪ He had a tea house in the basement of his home where he would experiment adding different flavourings to tea and in so doing, created the Earl Grey tea blend!

Or did he?

There are several theories about the history of Earl Grey tea,  but a very recent one is that  Sir George Staunton, an officer of The East India Company, sent a sample of Chinese tea scented with Neroli oil to Banks. In an attempt to re-create the blend  – can’t you just visualise Banks the mad tea scientist in his London basement, adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that to his cauldron of black tea leaves? - Banks realised he did not have Neroli but he did have a [experimental] Bergamot tree growing in his garden, so he used the similarly flavoured Bergamot oil as a substitute.

Whatever its true provenance, the pleasing tea-with-Bergamot blend was named after the popular politician Earl Grey, and marketed first by both Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly.

 

Proudly bearing a Blue Plaque to botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks, the innocuous Spring Grove House sits quietly within the campus of West Thames College, London Road, Isleworth. Of all the teachers, students, and visitors who have ever had a cup of tea there, how many knew just how much that cup of tea connected them to the man whose name is on that plaque?

 

 

*In this instance, the word “college” means post-high school but not at degree level.

 

See the Tea in England Facebook page for more pictures of Spring Grove House, and some fun and interesting things related to the content of this post.