Cafe owner pours tea in a London street.

As German bombs fell on London in September 1939, the British tea industry faced a dilemma they had feared for some time. How would they protect the commodity that fueled an empire?  

That fuel was tea.

Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, recounted the tumultuous time: “When London was being persistently bombed, I had to tell the tea blenders to remove their stocks to less vulnerable positions – a scheme drawn up by the Tea Buyers’ Association in 1937 at the request of the Food Defense Department.”

30,000 tons of tea had already been sent to a variety of safe warehouses far from London while 40,000 tons remained in the city. The tea auctions in London halted on September 5 and the Ministry of Food became the owners of all tea stocks. The 280 tea wholesalers based in London were allotted leaf in only three grades: high, medium, and low. 

Mincing Lane, the center of London’s tea trade, was bombed on May 11, 1941, and half of the brokers’ offices and records were destroyed. Over 8000 tons of tea were damaged that year. The removal of tea from the danger area proceeded with haste and, by 1942, most of the contents of 30 warehouses on the Thames had been dispersed to 500 locations across the country.

Wounded soldier with a cuppa tea.
Attempts at rationing took place but somehow there was always tea to be had. The Rationing Division went so far as to dictate that a pound of tea had to serve 260 cups of beverage. They refused to define the size of a cup except that a ‘pot of tea for one’ counted as two cups.  

Tea was the great ‘cheerer-upper’ of the war. Everyone from the Throne downward can attest that civilians and military alike turned instinctively to the solace of the kitchen teapot, mobile canteen urn, or an improvised trench-built billy-can.

The water burners were lit in mobile tea canteens even before the flames of burning buildings were extinguished so that fire brigades and ambulance drivers might have a cup of tea as they completed their horrific tasks. 

Tea Canteens were spotted not only in the bombed out streets of London but also on the back lines of the war’s battlegrounds. Canteens followed the Allied troops as they crossed France and marched into Germany. Grateful communities from Wisconsin to Ceylon raised funds to sponsor these rolling tea wagons that brought a bit of home comfort to battle-weary soldiers.
 A mobile canteen serves tea while antiaircraft guns fire away during a nighttime attack on London.
The workers aboard these mobile units were most often greeted with “That was a lovely cup of tea.” 

But the British have strong feelings about their national beverage. Novice tea makers were likely to be scolded with “Bring me another cuppa tea like this and I’ll report you to the Council!” 

Clean water was hard to come by which prompted some wags to say: “Not so bad. Got a bit of a funny taste, though.” 

Never mind that these workers were trying to cobble together a proper pot of tea in a war zone! 

There was nothing they could do but keep calm and carry on.

Read more about the history of tea in England and The United States in A Social History of Tea.

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