The Guide (logo and link)

Tea boutique and mini-museum

Twinings Tea Shop And Museum, Strand, WC2

Thomas Twining teacup
Thomas Twin­ing teacup

Thomas Twin­ing was born in Glouces­ter­shire in 1675 and the fam­i­ly moved to Lon­don (Crip­ple­gate, to be pre­cise) when he was nine years old. Fol­low­ing in his father’s foot­steps, Thomas trained as a weaver but soon switched to a new trade, work­ing for an East India Com­pa­ny mer­chant who import­ed exot­ic prod­ucts from Asia, includ­ing that fash­ion­able new bev­er­age, tea.

By 1706 the young entre­pre­neur had saved enough mon­ey to strike out along his own path and he opened Tom’s cof­fee house in Dev­ereux Court, off the Strand. His knowl­edge of sourc­ing and blend­ing tea gave him a com­pet­i­tive edge over oth­er the area’s many oth­er cafés (some of which began to buy tea from him).

With­in a few years, Thomas had acquired adja­cent premis­es and opened what may have been the world’s first dry tea and cof­fee shop, at the sign of the Gold­en Lyon. The shop expand­ed over the decades and – after some exten­sive rebuild­ing and the clo­sure of Tom’s cof­fee house – end­ed up with an impos­ing entrance on the Strand. The busi­ness has now trad­ed for longer from the same site than any oth­er shop in Lon­don, though fur­ther rebuild­ing was required after Dev­ereux Court was wrecked in the Blitz.

The store’s 18th-cen­tu­ry cus­tomers includ­ed Christo­pher Wren, Josi­ah Wedg­wood, Jane Austen, and William Hog­a­rth, who bar­gained with Thomas Twin­ing to let him paint his por­trait in return for hav­ing his unpaid bill can­celled – at least that’s how the shop’s present-day staff tell the sto­ry.

In 1771 Richard Twin­ing took the reins of the busi­ness – which is still called R Twin­ing and Com­pa­ny Lim­it­ed today. In his capac­i­ty as spokesman for the tea deal­ers of Lon­don, Richard suc­cess­ful­ly (and elo­quent­ly) lob­bied the gov­ern­ment to dras­ti­cal­ly reduce the hith­er­to puni­tive tax­es on their stock in trade. The Com­mu­ta­tion Act of 1784 cut the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Once tea became afford­able to all it quick­ly estab­lished itself as Britain’s de fac­to nation­al bev­er­age.

The Twin­ing dynasty also diver­si­fied into bank­ing, at first for the ben­e­fit of fam­i­ly and friends, and lat­er for a vari­ety of mer­chants – but espe­cial­ly tea traders. The cashiers even changed cheques part­ly in notes and coin, with the bal­ance being paid in tea or cof­fee. Lloyds acquired and absorbed the Twin­ing and Co. bank in 1892.

The tea side of the busi­ness remained inde­pen­dent for longer – but in 1964 the fam­i­ly sold out to the gro­ceries and retail­ing con­glom­er­ate Asso­ci­at­ed British Foods. ABF remains the own­er of R Twin­ing and Co. Ltd. – although you would­n’t know this from a vis­it to the Twin­ings web­site.

Thank­ful­ly, ABF has kept the shop going strong and retains the ser­vices of tenth-gen­er­a­tion tea spe­cial­ist Stephen Twin­ing, who acts as a glob­al ambas­sador for the brand – as well as curat­ing the muse­um’s col­lec­tion of tea cad­dies. These and oth­er his­toric arte­facts and mem­o­ra­bil­ia (includ­ing Queen Victoria’s Roy­al War­rant) are most­ly locked away inside glass-front­ed cas­es towards the rear of the store, although some larg­er objects are on open dis­play. In the trad­ing sec­tion at the front, the walls above the shelves are lined with por­traits of emi­nent Twin­ings.

Most vis­i­tors are delight­ed by this his­toric bou­tique but it gets the occa­sion­al dis­parag­ing review – usu­al­ly from some­one whose expec­ta­tions were per­haps unre­al­is­tic. Peo­ple com­plain that there are low­er prices or a wider choice of teas and cof­fees to be found online, or that staff aren’t as knowl­edge­able about the muse­um exhibits as they might be. Hid­den Lon­don thinks these flaws are for­giv­able in the cir­cum­stances (and most of the exhibits are well labelled).

The only real draw­back is that the nar­row shop­ping aisle can get crowd­ed, espe­cial­ly at week­ends, as the pho­to bot­tom right shows. Mov­ing to new, larg­er premis­es would be sac­ri­lege so cus­tomers desir­ing more elbow room just have to vis­it at qui­eter times, such as ear­ly on a week­day.

Twinings sext

R Twining and Company Limited, 216 Strand, London WC2R 1AP
Phone: 020 7353 3511
Web page: Twinings: 216 Strand
Open: Monday–Friday 9.30am–7pm, Saturday 10am–5pm, Sunday 10.30am–4.30pm
Admission free
Nearest station: Temple (District and Circle lines)
Further reading (and a source for some of the details above): Markman Ellis, Buying Tea in 1801
Nearby‘Roman’ Bath
Richard Twining’s campaigning efforts included publishing a several lengthy pamphlets, which were written with evident passion and considerable erudition, and displayed some flashes of acerbic wit. He was accordingly nicknamed the “Tract-writing Twining” – and the tracts sold well too.
* The picture of Twinings’ shopfront on this page is adapted from an original photograph by ‘Gryffindor’ at Wikimedia Commons, released into the public domain. All the other pictures are copyright Hidden London.