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24th May 1998

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‘Care for a cup of Mazawattee?’

In this article, I shall re late the unusual story behind Mazawattee Tea, a once-famous English brand whose somewhat bizarre name surprisingly incorporated a Sinhala word. Unfortunately, although there was a time when Mazawattee Tea was known throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, the brand has been discontinued for thirty years or more and is now mostly forgotten.

The humble beginnings of the business which became Mazawattee Tea can be traced back to the early 1850s, when John Boon Densham, a chemist in Plymouth, started selling (as chemists did in those days) loose leaf teas from India and China. The temperance movement was gaining momentum, and many considered tea to be an alternative to alcohol. The slogan, “The cup that cheers but does not inebriate”, became fashionable.

The upsurge in tea consumption was due to another factor. Previously tea had been an expensive luxury available only to the rich and privileged few, who considered it to be too good and refined for the working classes. But with the lowering of the punitive tea duty, this beverage rightly became available to everyone.

By 1865 the family business had blossomed into an important tea firm by the name of Lees and Densham. However, by 1873 the firm had been reborn as Densham and Sons, and had been relocated at Philpot Lane, in the City of London. The market continued to be buoyant and the firm’s fortunes steadily improved by specialising in selling loose leaf tea that was blended and packed by individual family grocers.

The Board of Densham and Sons was composed of John Boon Densham and his three elder sons. However, as is often the case with family-owned businesses, it turned out that the youngest son, John Lane Densham,who only joined in 188l, would be the one to take over the running of the firm, to define and achieve new corporate goals, and to increase prosperity.

Diana James, who has documented the history of Mazawattee Tea, describes John Lane Densham’s beginnings with the firm and the physical adversity he had to endure: “As a youth, he had developed consumption and doctors had given him just a year to live. All his life he was to be dogged by poor health, but he decided to fight, and took off around the world. After a year he was strong enough to throw himself into the family business, serving his apprenticeship as a commercial traveller, canvassing the grocers of Kent, Surrey and Sussex on a box bicycle.”

The firm began increasingly to rely on John Lane Densham’s dynamism and business acumen; so much so that when old John Boon Densham died in 1886, the three elder sons made John Lane a partner. “He was a great believer in advertising of all forms and lost no time in bringing the firm’s tea to the attention of the public,” James writes. “It was vital to create a really snappy trademark and he spent a day at the Guildhall library, working out a name that was eye-catching and easy to remember.”

John Lane Densham’s labours in the Guildhall library resulted in him choosing an exotic combination of the Hindi word Mazatha, meaning luscious, and the Sinhala word watte(e), or garden. On the advice of the firm’s printer the “tha” in mazatha was excised, and thus Mazawattee Tea was created. This strange linguistic hybrid, which paid scant respect to native pronunciation, proved to be remarkably popular.

People were fascinated by this unusual name, and so it achieved the objective of bringing the firm’s tea to the forefront of the market. It gave rise even to several cartoons in the newspapers of the day. One,which was rather racially patronising, showed a little page-boy of African descent offering a silver salver displaying packets of tea. The balloon from the boy’s mouth encloses the pun: “Massa-wot tea?” (“Master, what tea?”)

It was during this period that a famous painting was developed; a painting which is today one of the few lasting legacies of Mazawattee Tea. Entitled “The Old Folks at Home”, it shows a smiling, bonneted and shawled grandmother, together with her bespectacled grand daughter, happily drinking cups of Mazawattee Tea. This painting was used extensively on posters, tea packets - and large enamelled metal advertisements which were in those times the equivalent of today’s more sophisticated hoardings.

“Mazawattee was one of the first companies to appreciate the potential advantages of this form of publicity,” James writes. The firm signed a long-term contract with the railways which resulted in the appearance of eye-catching advertisements for Mazawattee Tea on every platform in the British Isles. According to James, “A cartoon of the day depicts a distraught old lady, having missed her destination, bitterly complaining to a porter that every station was either called “Gentlemen” or “Mazawattee”.

Ceylon tea had made its first appearance at the famous Mincing Lane auctions in London in October 1878, when the Penguin arrived from Colombo with a substantial parcel of 980 lbs. On Saturday, 26 October, the Public Ledger announced: “Ceylon. The first consignment of tea from this island is advertised for sale on Monday next.” Then on 28 October, the day of the auction, a newspaper advertisement informed buyers that ten packages of Ceylon tea would be sold.

The next day it was reported: “Ceylon. At the public sale, the first consignment yet received, comprising 10 half-chests, was sold at ls 11 1/2 d for Orange Pekoe and 10 1/2d for Pekoe Souchong; these prices were considered fairly satisfactory.The appearance and style of the leaf is very good, but the quality of the liquor somewhat dull and capable of much improvement.”

D.M Forrest writes in A Hundred Years of Ceylon Tea (1967): “that the event attracted great attention in spite of the rather humble offerings is shown by other references. The weekly Colonial Empire of 1 November, 1978 obtained from the brokers, a more extended description of the tea - ‘the make of leaf equals the first Indian, but the liquor though of good strength, lacks flavour. The Orange Pekoe is a closely twisted even leaf with a good gold tip. The Pekoe Souchong is an even, blackish leaf’.

The Pall Mall Gazette of 13 March 1891 ran an item with the heading, “An Enormous Price for Ceylon Tea.” It read: “Unusual excitement prevailed on Tuesday in Mincing Lane, on the offering by Messers Gow Wilson and Stanton, tea-brokers, in public auction, of a small lot of Ceylon tea from the Gartmore estate in Maskeliya (Mr. T.C Anderson). This tea possesses extraordinary quality in liquor, and is composed almost entirely of small Golden Tips, and the preparation of such tea is, of course, most costly. Competition was of a very keen description.

“The bidding, which was pretty general to start with, commenced with an offer of £1 ls 0d per lb; as the price advanced to £8 many buyers dropped out, and at this price only about five wholesale dealers were willing to purchase. Offers were then made up to about £9 9s 0d by three of the leading houses, but tea being ultimately knocked down to the Mazawattee Ceylon Tea Company at the most extraordinary and unprecedented price of £10 12s 6d per pound.”

However, the next day a letter by F.T. Pritchett of the United Kingdom Tea Company in the Grocer claimed that the Mazawattee sale was not the first involving Golden Tips. “So much interest is being evinced in the growth of fine tea from Ceylon,” wrote Pritchett, “that my Directors think it right it should be known that the tea in question is largely inferior in quality, both in leaf and liquor, to the consignment sold a few weeks ago at £4 7s 0d a pound from the Gallebodde estate.”

An editorial in the same issue of the Grocer confirms that the Gallebodde sale had taken place on 17 January. Yet Mr. Pritchett’s letter resulted in a heated rejoinder from Mazawattee and the correspondence continued for several weeks. Forrest comments that, “the whole affair caused unusual excitement in Ceylon; Gallebodde and Gartmore were not going to be allowed to get away with this. On 5 May Messers W.J. and H. Thompson offered a box containing four lb. packages of even more golden Golden Tips from Havilland in Kegalle and this was knocked down at £17 per pound.

Another landmark in the history of the business occured in 1896 when it became a public Company with John Lane Densham and a brother, Benjamin, as joint managing directors, while the other brothers were happy to assume a low profile. Predictably, it was not long before John Lane became chairman.

The fierce competition of the Golden Tips auctions of 1891 was evoked in 1898 with the battle between the major tea companies to see who could present the biggest tea duty cheque. On 27 April Mazawattee made a payment to the Customs of £63,147 - which was of course a minor fortune in those days. With a sharp eye for free publicity, these record-breaking tea duty payments were exploited in the press and elsewhere.

“Mazawattee people have just paid the biggest cheque ever for tea duty and are not too proud to mention the fact,” ran a column in the Daily Mail of 4 May 1898. “They have filled the town with reverberant announcements about it; and pictorial representations about it confront one everywhere. If you get into a hansom, you find a cheque for £63,147 lying on your seat; if you ride in a bus, tram or penny steam boat, this sum haunts your gaze and will presumably do so until another tea man will arise and raise the Mazawattee cheque an additional ten or twenty thousand.”

Mazawattee had always tried innovative and imaginative methods of advertising and corporate promotion. “One way of charming money out of the public pocket,” as James puts it, “was by having delivery vans pulled by teams of four zebras,” adding that, “this spectacle must have caused traffic jams and been a source of delight to goggle-eyed pedestrians.”

The corporate message on the side was typical of the way Ceylon was exploited in the promotion of tea. It read: ‘Mazawattee Tea from the sweet-scented island, CEYLON, the most luscious tea in the world.’ Later, these reasonably tasteful zebra-drawn vans were replaced by tacky motorised monstrosities in the shape of a tea packet with a shining imitation silver teapot on the roof.

Mazawattee and other tea companies would never see the likes again of the boom years of the 1880s and 1890s. The price of tea rose at an alarming rate and Budget days caused constant worry with the heavy duty imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchange. In fact the decline in the tea industry at the turn of the century was such that some firms went bankrupt. The Board of Directors of Mazawattee decided to diversify into the cocoa and chocolate trade. Ominously, however, John Lane Densham was “perfectly satisfied” that the new enterprise would lead to the business being “seriously crippled.”

The next year, John Lane Densham resigned as managing director due to ill-health. His prediction turned out to be essentially correct, and having served the company during the halcyon years, now was a good time to go. He had travelled extensively in connection with the tea trade, visiting over 50 main offices, nearly 40 capital cities, and many tea estates in India and Ceylon.

In the economically sluggish aftermath of the First World War, there was an appeal to the public to support British goods. Mazawattee jingoistically boasted that its: “Teas from the choicest gardens of India and Ceylon - Empire grown throughout and brought by Empire ships - are dealt with by a British firm employing British labour.”

However, circumstances did not improve. When the Second World War started all tea firms were allotted a quota. Later, the markets ceased to function and rationing was introduced. Tea virtually sold itself. In 1940 Mazawattee’s Tower Hill complex was destroyed in an air raid. It was a blow from which Mazwattee Tea appeared never to recover, for the firm continued to decline during the 1950s and by the early 1960s the product was no longer available.

So if ever you participate in a quizshow and are asked: “What Sinhala word was incorporated in a brand of tea featured in advertisements on every railway station platform in Britain during the Victorian era?” - you will know the answer!

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