It’s very easy to get a cup of tea in England. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1700s, tea was so expensive that only aristocrats could afford it. Prices ran so steep thanks to an exorbitant government tax on the import and the East India Company’s monopoly on the good. The EIC could charge high prices, the government could stick a giant tax on top, and people who wanted tea were forced to shell out top dollar, making the import a luxury item that only elite citizens could afford. But the lower classes needed their fix, too. To their rescue came a band of heroes: tea smugglers.

These smugglers transported non-EIC tea across the seas but didn’t pass through customs, avoiding the tax. At first, tea smugglers sold reduced-price tea to personal contacts near the coasts. But soon, tea smuggling became a sophisticated operation with large, armed ships dropping anchor before tea would be transported farther and farther inland.

Tea smugglers enjoyed popular support in Great Britain for a number of reasons. First, the covert industry supplied jobs. Second, people loved to drink tea. And third, the British were fed up with taxes. As the 1790 cartoon below illustrates, British citizens felt heavily burdened by taxes, and circumventing the sky-high tea tax was one way to stick it to the man.

William Dent's 18th Century Britain Cartoon

A 1790 cartoon by William Dent illustrated the public sentiment about taxes: there were too many! | The British Museuem via CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

But when a prominent group of smugglers known as the Hawkhurt Gang got violent, the public began to turn against them:

In 1747, the government seized one of the Hawkhurt Gang’s illegal shipments. The gang responded by raiding the customs house in Poole where their goods were being stored, as depicted below:

Hawkhurt Gang smugglers break open King's Custom House

Hawkhurt Gang smugglers break open the King’s Custom House at Poole in October 1747 to retake their confiscated goods (Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain)

The government learned that one of the locals who witnessed the ordeal, shoemaker Daniel Chater, had worked on a farm alongside Hawkhurt gangster Joe Diamond in the past. When the government arrested Diamond in Chichester months later, they needed someone to confirm Diamond’s identity, and summoned Chater. Chater and a customs officer started their journey to Chicester, but never made it. Along the way, tea smugglers barbarically tortured and killed them.

The brutal murders of Chater and the customs officer incited public outcry and a swift government response. The government issued rewards for gang members and many faced arrest or execution.

Still, tea smuggling continued for another forty years, thanks to the nation’s insatiable thirst for tea.

In 1783, the government conducted a study that found 13 million pounds of tea were consumed in England each year, but that only 6 million had been imported by the East India Company—the only company that could legally bring tea into the country. That meant that most of the tea in England was coming from smugglers. Something had to be done.

And so, the very next year, Parliament introduced the Commutation Act of 1784.

The Act reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%. Smugglers could no longer offer a better price for the same good, so they became obsolete.

And so ended a century of covert tea operations, and the beginning of accessible, enthusiastic tea drinking that continues today.