Although metropolitan Australians have become passionate, discriminating coffee drinkers, tea has been the traditional hot beverage of Anglo-Celtic Australians since British settlement in 1788.
An iconic image of Australian outback life is of settlers, drovers or a swagman sitting around a fire with a “billy” on the boil for tea. Perhaps the most famous mention of the billy is in Banjo Paterson’s 1895 poem Waltzing Matilda that has become Australia’s most recognised bush ballad:
“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
‘You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me’
So what tea was being boiled in the billy?”
Before the 1880s it would usually have been low-grade Chinese green tea known as “common green tea”. If times were hard or Chinese tea unobtainable, the leaves of the Australian tea tree –Leptospermum species – and the sweet tea vine – Smilax glycophylla – were used as tea substitutes.
If you were settled in early Sydney and had some money there was a surprising range of Chinese teas available. As well as “common green tea” you could buy Hyson, Hyson skin, Oolong, Pekoe, Twankay and Souchong teas. These teas were regularly advertised for sale in the The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser from its first issue in 1803.
Commercial growing of tea in India developed rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. In the 1880s, there was a dramatic switch in Australian buying habits from Chinese green tea to Indian black tea. Before the 1880s, Chinese green tea had 90% of the Australian market. By 1900, the proportions were reversed and Indian tea dominated the market.
The colonial link
The Calcutta Tea Syndicate promoted Indian tea at Australian international exhibitions. Its Australian agent, James “Rajah” Inglis, wrote a report on the 1880-1881 Melbourne International Exhibition for the Government of India. Promotion of Indian tea emphasised its superior quality over the –sometimes adulterated and inconsistent quality of – common green tea from China.
Indian suppliers also played on empire loyalties, emphasising British Indian tea over “foreign” Chinese tea. By the 1890s, Inglis’ company was selling over 600,000 pounds of “Billy Tea” and over 1,000,000 pounds of packaged Indian teas a year in Australia.
It was also fortuitous that the Australian dairy industry expanded at this time, making fresh milk available, so black tea with milk and sugar became the national beverage.
The end of transportation of convicts meant an end to a demand for cheap Chinese green teas, as convicts were often paid in green tea. Green tea was associated with Australia’s convict past, and late 19th century and early 20th century Australia was keen to erase associations with its convict legacy.
By the early 20th century Australia was a major market for Indian and Ceylon teas and by 1929 Australia had become the world’s premier tea-drinking nation, with Australia’s per capita tea consumption briefly eclipsing that of the United Kingdom.
For much of the 20th century until today Australian tea brands such as Bushells – “Our cuppa since 1883” – and Tuckfields Teas were household names. Green tea has returned to Australia as a niche market and Australians are keen coffee drinkers, yet a strong brew of tea with milk – and often sugar – remains the hot beverage of choice for most Australians.
This article first appeared on The British Library’s Untold Lives blog.