The London Tea Auction
The London Tea Auction was a grand tradition that lasted 300 years. From the very first event in 1679, until the last sale on 29 June 1998, the London Tea Auction was a regular event that made London the centre of the international tea trade. The first auctions were held by the East India Company, which at the time held the monopoly for the import of tea (and other goods) from China and India. They were held at the headquarters of the Company on Leadenhall Street. The building was decorated with reliefs of ships, sailors, fish and a large coat of arms, and swiftly became known as East India House.
Auctions were held roughly quarterly, and tea was sold 'by the candle'. This meant that rather than allowing bidding to go on for an unlimited length of time, a candle was lit at the beginning of the sale of each lot, and when an inch of the candle had burnt away, the hammer fell and the sale was ended. In the late seventeenth century tea was not always the star of the show, as the auctions sold other goods, primarily fabrics, which the Company had brought back from the East. But by the early eighteenth century, tea was so popular that the London Tea Auction came into its own.
It was something of a riotous affair. An anonymous tea dealer, writing in 1826, described the noise and confusion of an auction taking place at East India House: 'To the uninitiated a Tea sale appears to be a mere arena in which the comparative strength of the lungs of a portion of his Majesty´s subjects are to be tried. No one could for an instant suspect the real nature of the business for which the assemblage was congregated...'
Things changed in 1834, when the East India Company ceased to be a commercial enterprise, and tea became a 'free trade' commodity. The tea auction had to find a new home - and it was moved from the splendour of East India House, via a brief sojourn at a dance studio, to the newly built London Commercial Salerooms on Mincing Lane. Within a few years, various tea merchants followed the auction and established offices of Mincing Lane, earning it the nickname the 'Street of Tea'.
By the middle of the nineteenth century tea was such a popular beverage that auctions took place monthly, and then weekly, and the tradition of selling 'by the candle' was replaced by more practical methods. Tea was sent from India, China, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) and Africa for sale at the auction, and as the Auction grew busier and busier, a practice developed of devoting particular days of the week to the sale of teas from each individual country. By the 1950s, a third of all the world's tea was bought through the auction. Once purchased, the tea was sent from the London warehouses either direct to retailers where it was sold loose, or to companies which specialised in blending and packaging. These companies then sold the tea ready packed under various brand names, offering a wide range of choice to tea-drinkers.
Except for breaks necessitated by the First and Second World Wars, the London Tea Auction continued to be held regularly until almost the end of the twentieth century, though its location moved first to Plantation House, then to Sir John Lyon House, and finally in 1990 to the London Chamber of Commerce. Yet its business gradually declined, particularly after India, Sri Lanka and Kenya became independent states in 1947, 1948 and 1963 respectively. The owners of many tea estates preferred to sell their teas as soon as possible after manufacture, rather than go through the costly and timely process of shipping them to England for auction.
To meet this demand auctions were set up in locations including Calcutta, Colombo and Mombassa, and they gradually eroded sales in London. The decline of the London auction was further hastened by new methods of international trading, such as sales via the telephone and the internet. The methods of the auction became increasingly outdated, and it was decided that the sale on 29 June 1998 would be the last. The proceeds of the final auction went to charity, and a grand City tradition came to an end.