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A Nice Cup of Tea

A woman in a grubby coat sorting items salvaged from her home stops to drink a cup of tea given to her by a member of the Salvation Army. Lytcott Grove / Playfield Crescent, Dulwich, London, 18 January 1943. © IWM HU 136931.

George Orwell calculated that the tea ration – 2oz per week during the Second World War – could be eked out to twenty cups a week. So important was tea considered to be for the welfare of the nation that pensioners were allocated a slightly larger ration. Orwell’s ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, published in 1946, illustrates its importance in British culture. He described the eleven stages required for making the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette surrounding tea-drinking and the varied uses for tea leaves from fortune-telling to cleaning carpets.

Whether it was Lyons Green Label, Typo, Brooke Bond or Twinings, tea – along with cocoa for children – is referred to in numerous accounts about London during the Second World War as the favoured drink after bombing raids. Its importance is reflected in a significant number of photographs in the ‘London bomb damage’ section of the Ministry of Information Press & Censorship Bureau Photograph Library at IWM London, which show both the realities for bombed Londoners as well as carefully staged propaganda shots. Londoners gathered together in groups drinking tea is a favoured trope in this archive.

 

Shop workers sit on bales of salvaged cloth, drinking tea in the sunshine in a street still filled with debris from the night’s bombing, 17 April 1941, © IWM HU 136932.

 

A staged photograph of boys sitting on a salvaged sofa in front of a bomb damaged house drinking from thick ceramic mugs, 12 March 1943, © IWM MOI No. 252805.

Tea was considered to be good for the nerves and for shock – it helped people to start their day after a sleepless night in an air raid shelter or after a long night on duty during a night of heavy bombing. Making a pot of tea gave people something to do and was a way of showing compassion for bombed-out family and neighbours, when words failed or seemed inadequate following the violent destruction of people and places.

Local councils as well as the Salvation Army, YMCA and WRVS maintained tea vans which travelled to bombed-out areas. These vans were particularly important when making your own cup of tea was no longer possible due to loss of home, destroyed water and gas mains or when shock rendered this everyday action impossible.

The tea van was also a gathering point in a newly bombed area, where people learned who had survived and where, if they had been bombed out, they were intending to find shelter. Westminster, 9 November 1940, © IWM HU 131642.

There were also practical reasons for tea drinking: gathering together after a raid was a social leveller in a society with a rigid class structure. No matter the social background, everyone drank tea and could meet on more equal terms at the tea van.

In memoirs written for his family about his childhood in East Surrey Grove, Peckham, Vic Atkinson recounted how as he and his parents emerged from their shelter after a bombing raid: ‘from several gardens down came the shrill voice of Mrs. B. “Oh, I couldn’t ‘alf do with a nice cuppa tea.” “Yeah, that would go down real nice right now, eh?” replied Mum, giving me a big wink as she lifted the tea cosy and poured us both a steaming cup. I didn’t realize how dry my mouth was until I took the first sip of tea which tasted fantastic and instantly my taut nerves relaxed.’

27 November 1943, © IWM HU 136985.

Tea brought much needed comfort for civilians, firemen and ARP workers alike who were often suffering from smoke-parched mouths and throats and coughing from breathing air filled with gritty dust from destroyed buildings. Having survived the bombing of their street, Vic Atkinson wrote ‘we found ourselves becoming desperately thirsty, with no water to ease our dry throats. Try as I might, I found that after a while it was impossible to muster enough saliva to moisten my dry lips and whenever I did so, my tongue encountered the clinging grit which grated on my teeth.’

Government and Press used images of people drinking tea to reassure the public, to show that despite the nightly destruction during the Blitz, or the quick violence of a rocket attack, the ritual of tea making and drinking was still observed.

Children being served tea from an enamel teapot in a deep shelter, London, 21 July 1944, © IWM HU 136997.

 

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