Winston Churchill and Tea

November 16, 2012

Question: I work for an independent production company where we are making documentary series about TEA! The series looks into the history of tea and it’s relationship with British culture. I have heard about a quote from Winston Churchill in which he said that tea was as important as ammunition to the war effort. I wondered if this is something you knew of documentary evidence for it?

Answer:  We are going to assume you mean the drink and not the custom. We know he said “We must have a policy of ‘utmost fish,’” but there is no well-known remark about tea, which he avoided. After searching the 15 million published words for “tea war” and “tea ammunition,” we came to no result.  We did look up “afternoon tea” and can offer you this comment by his Life editor, Walter Graebner, from My Dear Mr Churchill (London: Michael Joseph, 1965), 52…. Churchill never bothered with the English rite of afternoon tea. Even when guests had stayed over from lunch, he usually sent them off to the dining-room with Mrs Churchill, and dropped in himself only at the very end of the meal. Tea at Chartwell in any event was somewhat of a nursery affair, and more often than not consisted of assorted grandchildren in high chairs, a bevy of nannies, the usual number of dogs and only one or two stray adults. When Churchill did turn up it was usually with a whisky and soda in hand and a cigar in his mouth. He would arrange himself in a comfortable chair and watch the proceedings from the sidelines.

Churchill’s attitude toward tea is perhaps best summarized by his friend Hilaire Belloc:

“Is there no Latin word for Tea? Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone.” 

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