A Brief History of Earl Grey

Earl Grey is a black tea that is flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, a fruit mostly grown in Italy. Variations on the traditional blend include Lady Grey (a blend of Earl Grey with blue cornflower blossoms), Russian Earl Grey (Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel) and Red Earl Grey (rooibos and bergamot).

Charles Grey
Responsible for the name is Charles Grey (1764-1845). Charles was an English aristocrat who was educated in Eton and Cambridge and elected to Parliament at the age of 22. He married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby (daughter of Baron Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork, Ireland) and had six daughters (1 stillborn) and ten sons. Before he was married, he had an illegitimate daughter with the Duchess of Devonshire, which is the subject of the 2008 movie, “The Duchess”. He was a member of the Whig party and became foreign secretary in 1806 but a dispute over the rights of Catholics ended that appointment. He inherited the title of Earl when his father passed away in 1807 and became a member of the House of Lords. Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 22 November, 1830 to 9 July, 1834. He was noted for advocating parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. Two of his most notable reforms were the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 but interestingly, the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain’s trade with China ended while he was prime minister. He is commemorated through a statue at the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Grey College in Durham.

Grey was respected but rarely loved. His achievements were few, but they were significant…. In character he was a man of contradictions, headstrong but easily discouraged by failure, imperious but indecisive, cautious and introspective.

E. A. Smith (2004), ‘Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey (1764–1845)’

How he became associated with the tea is unclear. There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of minerals in the water at his home (Howick Hall, Northumberland, England). In reality, it is not absolutely clear why the tea was named after Charles. Jackson’s of Piccadilly say that they introduced the blend in 1836 “to meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey”. Researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) issued an appeal in 2012 to find the earliest evidence of Earl Grey referring to tea. The first reference to bergamot-flavoured tea was found in 1824.  In contrast to later associations, it seems that at that time it was used unfavourably to enhance the taste of low-quality tea. This led the OED to conclude that it was “rather unlikely” that Charles Grey, the second Earl championed or recommended the tea. Article by Breda Desplat @BredaDesplat Further reading:
  • Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey, (1890), London: R. Bentley
  • Early Grey: The results of the OED appeal on Earl Grey tea, (2012), Oxford English Dictionary [http://public.oed.com/early-grey-the-results-of-the-oed-appeal-on-earl-grey-tea/, accessed 26 Oct 2013]
  • Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey (1764–1845), (2004) E. A. Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, being the life of Charles, second Earl Grey, (1920), G. M. Trevelyan, London: Longmans, Green
Image 1: Charles Grey (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/history/past-prime-ministers/charles-grey-2nd-earl-grey) Image 2: Earl Grey with Flowers (source: www.pouringtea.com)