New England history: The custom of the good Aussie cuppa

Billy Tea advertisement: Advertising always reflects current tropes. This ad plays to national themes in a way intended to present the brand as uniquely Australian.
Billy Tea advertisement: Advertising always reflects current tropes. This ad plays to national themes in a way intended to present the brand as uniquely Australian.

In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E. Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians’ love of meat, tea and tobacco.

Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

By 1893, Australians had become the world’s largest per capita consumer of tea with their own tea culture. This love emerged in the early period of European settlement and for very practical reasons.

The East India Company ships that carried first convicts and later free settlers to NSW went on to China to load tea for the British market. Some of that tea was left behind in Sydney on the return journey to meet local demand.

Unlike England where high taxes on tea limited consumption, tea was a freely available relatively cheap product in NSW.

'Would you like a cuppa' or 'I will put the kettle on' continue as Australian welcoming phrases.

Its low bulk and high value allowed it to be distributed easily across an increasingly dispersed settlement. It disguised the taste of often muddy water and replenished fluids lost in heavy work in high temperatures.

Green tea was initially popular. Then came black Chinese tea. Later still came black tea from India and Ceylon.

Green tea was largely drunk unsweetened. Sweetened tea became popular with black tea.

The rations provided to agricultural workers came to include a mix of meat, flour, sugar, tea and salt.

Today, we are used to tea made in pots. However, while teapots appear to date back to the Chinese Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, they were not common for ordinary people until later in the Industrial Revolution when cheap mass-produced versions became available.

Initially, tea was brewed in quart pots and then in that universal Australian icon, the billy.

The billy offered several advantages. It was lighter, you could fit a smaller billy inside a larger one and attach both to your swag via the metal loop at the top. That loop also made it easier to place the billy on or remove it from the fire.

You could also carry water in the billy for later use.

In 1883, Alfred Bushell established what is claimed to be Australia’s first teahouse in Queensland. It is no coincidence that when his sons took the business to Sydney in 1899, they created Billy Tea as the new firm’s central brand.

Today, coffee has replaced tea as the dominant Australian drink. However, tea’s dominance survives in morning tea, afternoon tea or just tea for the evening meal.

“Would you like a cuppa” or “I will put the kettle on” continue as Australian welcoming phrases.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at http://newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au/ (New England life) and http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au/ (New England history)