Timeline: A short history of Australian tea

Australians are determined tea consumers.
By Angela Heathcote July 14, 2017 Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page

WHILE WE MIGHT be considered late to the tea party, Australians have no doubt regained ground as we steadily increase the national average number of cups consumed each year. Going from 9.1 cups per person in 2015, to 9.5 cups in 2016. But how far exactly have we come? 


Aboriginal Australians historically drank tea infused with various native plant species but did not have access to what we know as black tea or the leaves from the shrub that’s normally associated with it, Camellia sinensis. 

Peter Griggs, a human geographer, told Australian Geographic that evidence does, however, suggest that Aboriginal people drank an infusion from tea tree or paperbark leaves.  “Australia’s first convicts created a tea from a creeper native to eastern Australia,” he added. “It was Smilax glyciphylla, also known as sweet sarsaparilla, and it is possible that they learnt about this plant from the Aboriginal people,”

First Fleet

Contrary to popular belief, tea was not part of the official rations of the First Fleet. Instead, Governor Arthur Phillip brought his own tea to New South Wales that, Peter said, was served at Government House.

Much of the tea transported to Australia on the First Fleet was part of a personal collection. “Lieutenant Ralph Clark also brought his own tea with him on the long sea voyage to Australia,” Peter said. “The first tea imported into the new colony occurred probably in 1794. Tea eventually joined the official convict rations in 1819.”

A growing industry

Many of Australia’s early colonists grew their own tea bushes. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Australia’s first tea plantation was established, by the Cutten Brothers at Bingil Bay near Innisfail in Far North Queensland. However there is no evidence this produce was the first to be used commercially.

Newly discovered historical evidence suggests Australian tea merchant James Griffiths was the first to advertise his tea in local newspapers, in Melbourne and Adelaide.

“James Griffiths was a partner of the Melbourne-based firm Griffiths Brothers Tea.  Advertisements announcing the availability of Australian-produced tea at the Griffith Brothers outlet in Adelaide appeared for the first time in 1901,” Peter explained, adding, “James Griffiths continued to produce tea until at least 1923, when he presented two pounds of his tea to the editors of the newspaper known as The Queenslander to show tea could be commercially produced in Australia.”

Before this, Australia mostly imported its tea. The first person to open an official tea shop was Alfred Bushell, who in 1884 opened a grocery store in inner Brisbane that, Peter explained, sold tea and other grocery items. By the early 1960s, Bushells dominated the Australian tea market in all states.

By 1970, Allan Maruff was producing tea commercially on his estate at Nerada, near Innisfail. Nerada Estates is now the largest commercial producer of tea in Australia.

Wartime tea rationing

By mid-1941 supplies from the Dutch East Indies, then occupied by Japan, India and Ceylon were interrupted by the war. Tea rationing was formally introduced in late February 1942 and by July a coupon system had been arranged. Australians were forced to survive off roughly three cups of weak tea each day, until 1950.

“Initially there were lots of complaints about this ration, but over time, most Australians coped by just drinking weaker brews,” Peter said, adding that not all Australians coped well. “There was an upsurge in petty crime involving the theft of chests or packages of tea at the wharves or on trains.”

Eventually a black market emerged.

“The black market in tea coupons thrived. People swapped other coupons for tea coupons.  Or Australians who did not drink much tea, surrendered their tea coupons for other services,” Peter said.

Indian and Ceylonese tea

James Inglis pioneered the introduction of Indian and Ceylonese teas into the Australian colonies during the 1880s.  Before this, Australians typically drank green tea or other common Chinese teas. After Inglis’ successful promotion of Indian black tea, Australians quickly made this transition.

Inglis had quite a talent for the promotion and advertisement of tea. In reference to the Billy Tea advertisement from the early 1900s Peter said, “Inglis, or whoever advised him, was quite clever at advertising as this advertisement for Billy Tea became quite iconic in the period pre-1945.  Inglis also acquired the music for Waltzing Matilda and used the music in his tea advertisements for a period.”

While today, green tea is part of a niche market, Inglis’ promotion of Indian and Ceylon black tea, with a small pour of milk, has had a lasting impact, as this continues to be the nation’s preference.