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Early Grey: The results of the OED Appeal on Earl Grey tea

Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey (1764–1845), was born on 13 March. He served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the early 1830s, but is most famous today for his association with Earl Grey tea, a type of China tea flavoured with the citrus extract bergamot. But did Earl Grey ever actually drink Earl Grey? A number of modern tea purveyors date the origin of the tea to the 1830s, but when Oxford English Dictionary researchers looked into the name, the earliest example of ‘Earl Grey tea’ found dated from the 1920s, nearly a century after the first bergamot-scented cuppa was said to have been brewed:

She brought me beef tea, port wine and jellies from Robert Jackson’s, and his Earl Grey tea, and tracts on animals and Christian Science.

1929 ‘J. Swift’ Chronicles of a Gigolo xi. p. 113

However, the OED had references to ‘Earl Grey’s mixture’ from as early as 1891, and it appeared that that may have been the original name. Accordingly, we publicized an Appeal for documents relating to the name’s early history, in the hopes that some tea aficionados might be able to shed more light on the murky origins of the term. Here is what our volunteer contributors discovered:

c.1928

‘Hugo’ tracked down an advertisement, apparently dating from around 1928, which detailed a claim by the firm Robert Jackson’s of Piccadilly to have sold ‘Earl Grey’s mixture’ since 1836:

c.1928 History of Feminine Fashion (House of Worth), advertising front matter

(c.1928 History of Feminine Fashion (House of Worth), advertising front matter)

1914

A contributor known to us as ‘Bryn’ provided a substantially earlier example of the phrase ‘Earl Grey tea’, from the Sunday Times of 8 November 1914, p. 13. Once again, the purveyor was Jackson’s of Piccadilly, lending credence to that firm’s claim to have originated the tea. However, the next piece of evidence provided shed some doubt.

1891-1901

A number of contributors noted some version of the following passage, which appeared almost word for word in numerous publications between 1891 and 1901:

(1892 [Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen] Marquise de Fontenoy’s Revelation of High Life within Royal Palaces, p. 42)

The specification of a Pall Mall address is interesting, given the later association of the tea with Jackson’s of Piccadilly. However, there is some reason to question the account of the 2nd Earl Grey making tea recommendations to Queen Victoria, since he was no longer active in public life by the time she became monarch, at the age of 18, in 1837.

1884

Longtime OED contributor Stephen Goranson noted a flurry of advertisements for ‘Earl Grey’s Mixture’ dating from 1884:

(1884 Morning Post 19 June, p. 8)

This is the earliest documentary evidence yet found of a connection between ‘Earl Grey’ and a particular blend of tea, sold by Charlton and Co. Goranson posited that the date suggests that Henry, the 3rd Earl Grey (1802–1894), who served as Victoria’s Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in the 1840s–50s, might have been the Earl Grey associated with the tea, rather than his more famous predecessor.

1867

Glyn Hughes used the OED Appeals site to apprise us of some new research being posted on the Foods of England project, which had joined the quest to find the earliest origins of ‘Earl Grey’. With the help of these food history sleuths, a surprising new twist in the origin of the name emerged.

In 1867, Charlton and Co., the first merchants to advertise ‘Earl Grey’s Mixture’ in 1884, had published a number of advertisements for a tea called simply ‘the Celebrated Grey Mixture’.

(1867 John Bull 12 Jan., p. 31)

The relative prices here suggest that the ‘Grey Mixture’ was a luxury product. Could it be that Charlton and Co. started with a tea called ‘the Grey Mixture’, and only later endowed it with a peerage? If so, there may not have been any connection to the Earl Grey at all. Newspapers show numerous records of tea merchants named Grey in various localities during the nineteenth century, offering another possible connection. On the other hand, the advertisement does make note of the tea’s ‘most distinguished patronage’, suggesting an aristocratic connection. Unfortunately, there is no indication of whether the tea in question was scented with bergamot.

1824

The trail for evidence of the name Earl Grey runs cold in 1884, nearly four decades after the death of the 2nd Earl Grey. However, the culinary history of what we now know as Earl Grey tea may be traced back further. Foods of England uncovered a reference to the use of bergamot as a flavouring for tea from 1824. However, in the early decades of its use, it appears to have been somewhat disreputable, used primarily to enhance the taste of low-quality tea—quite the opposite of the later associations of Earl Grey. Indeed, in 1837, Brocksop & Co. faced charges for surreptitiously adding bergamot to undistinguished tea in order to misrepresent it as a superior product (at a higher price). This suggests that while it is possible that the second Earl Grey encountered tea flavored with bergamot, it seems rather unlikely that he would have championed it, or recommended it to the youthful Queen Victoria.

*     *     *     *

The OED entry for Earl Grey is being revised to take into account some of the new information that has now emerged on the origin of the term; the new version of the entry will appear in a future quarterly update of OED.com. But the mystery still hasn’t been completely solved, and though a connection to Charles, 2nd Earl Grey now seems unlikely, it cannot be ruled out. An enterprising researcher may yet discover a recipe for bergamot-scented tea in the Earl’s own hand. As always, the OED will endeavour to update the entry with any new documentation that comes to light.

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