A sample of loose leaf ‘Russian tea’

5 minute read

Why has someone written ‘Russian tea’ in blue ink on a box containing Queen Mary tea? Why does the catalogue entry of this object attribute its place to Tibet when the tea that the box contains might have been produced in Russia or Britain, and the box itself is by a Britain-based enterprise selling ‘high class confectionery’?

A box containing loose tea leaves in a crumpled piece of newspaper. Next to the box is its lid with 'Queen Mary' printed in big letters and the name and information of the confectioners 'Morley Bros' printed in small letters. On the lid someone has written 'Russian tea' in pencil.

Figure 1. A box containing a sample of loose leaf Russian tea. Tibet. MAA Z 46750.

Z 46750 raises many questions, some of which I can answer and some of which I cannot. The answers that I do have contradict each other and fail to form a coherent narrative that can provide better insight into the story of this object and its relation to MAA. Nevertheless, I believe that the unique, incomprehensible, and un-pieceable story of this object offers an opportunity to contemplate how we can work with such and similar objects in museum collections. How do we engage with them and how do we enable others to engage with them?

I will begin with two pieces of information on the box’s lid which contradict each other. On the centre of the lid, in very large cursive letters, are printed the words ‘Queen Mary’. Since the box contains tea, this suggests that the tea is a blend named Queen Mary. In 1916, Twinings launched a special blend of Darjeeling and Keemun which it marketed as the personal choice of Queen Mary (1867–1953). Much to the chagrin of its lovers, Twinings discontinued this ‘fine Darjeeling with a pronounced muscatel flavour’ in 2007, eventually leading to the founding of a Facebook group called Bring back Twinings Queen Mary Tea, please.

Close up of the lid of the box containing a sample of loose leaf tea. On the lid is printed 'Queen Mary' in large letters and the name and branch addresses of Morley Bros. Someone has written 'Russian tea' in pencil on the left of the lid.

Figure 2. Detail of the box’s lid. MAA Z 46750.

Rumour has it that the Queen loved this tea so much that she kept it locked in a cupboard. This was pointed out by former royal chef Charles Oliver in his book Dinner at Buckingham Palace (2019):

‘The ritual of English tea-time was brought to perfection by the late Queen Mary, for whom it was the favourite time of the day. Everything had to be fully ready by 4pm punctually, with sandwiches, cakes, and biscuits invitingly set out on gleaming silver dishes upon a smoothly-running trolley. The teapot, cream jug, hot-water jug, and sugar bowl were always the same antique silver service which had been a favourite of Queen Victoria… Queen Mary would take over and meticulously measure out her favourite Indian tea from a jade tea-caddy she kept locked in a cupboard. Then she would pour on the boiling water and complete the tea-making ritual by snuffing out the spirit stove before sitting back for the footmen to pour tea and hand round sandwiches and cakes. But before Queen Mary gave the signal for this to begin she would always let exactly three minutes elapse from the moment she poured hot water on the tea leaves so that the tea would be perfectly brewed’.

Oliver says that the Queen would measure out her favourite Indian tea from a tea-caddy that she kept locked in a cupboard. He does not specify the tea’s blend except for that it was ‘Indian’. The tea could have been Darjeeling, Assamese, or from the Nilgiri Hills, or even a blend of two or three of these. How then did the Indian tea that the Queen hid become associated with a blend of Darjeeling and the Chinese Keemun, which Twinings marketed as the Queen’s personal choice?

To complicate things further, it seems that at some point in this tea’s life, someone tried it and decided that it was not Queen Mary tea, but in fact Russian tea, and thus inscribed so in blue ink on the lid of the box in which it is contained. Russian tea or the Russian Caravan as it is also known, is a blend of three Chinese teas, Oolong, Keemun, and Lapsang Souchong, and is described as an aromatic, full-bodied tea with a sweet, malty, and smoky taste. Its smoky taste was believed to be imparted to it by the close proximity of the camel caravans on which it was transported, to countless campfires, en route across the Mongolian Steppes to Russia. What might have suggested these smoky tones to the person who tried Z 46750 and decided that it was Russian tea instead? Could it have been the Chinese Keemun, also considered to have gentle smoky and malty notes? Could these have been so prevalent in Z 46750 that the taster was certain that it was not the tea that it was advertised as?

A close up of the tea leaves. The tea leaves are placed in a piece of newspaper and there is a red ribbon amongst them.

Figure 3. Detail of the tea leaves. MAA Z 46750.

Z 46750 was sold (and might have been produced by) the Morley Bros, a Britain-based enterprise selling ‘high class confectionery’. The enterprise was run by two brothers, Henry Samuel and Arthur William Morley, with three stores in Birmingham at the High Street, Bristol Street, and 73 New Street where Arthur lived; three in Worcester at 3 Broad Street, 36 the Shambles, and 22 Foregate Street where Henry lived with his family; and one at Belle Vue Terrace in Great Malvern. Some or most of these addresses have been listed on the lid of Z 46750. We can be consoled by this but perhaps disturbed by the discrepancies between the commodity logo and the shop sign of the Morley Brothers’ enterprise. Why is there a ‘L’ in their shop sign and none in the logo on Z 46750? None of the brothers’ names begins with the letter ‘L’ nor did their father William’s. Who does the L stand for? Could it have been named after their younger brother Louis or perhaps, Henry’s wife Louisa? Why omit the ‘L’ from the logo on their commodities?

A collage of two images. In the image on the left is a confectionary store under a street sign which reads 'Belle Vue Terrace'. In the image on the right, people can be seen parading down the road and behind them are some stores. Amongst these stores, farthest behind, is a Morley Brothers store.

Figures 4 and 5. A Morley Brothers store on Belle Vue Terrace in Great Malvern (left) and in Worcester (right). Photographs: Worcester News.

I could not find out much about Arthur, and arguably, I would not have any information on his brother Henry either, if he had not eloped with his secretary to California, and died en route on the Titanic. And, here the story gets better. Henry Samuel began a ‘clandestine affair’ with his 19-year-old shop assistant Kate Florence Phillips, that led them to the Titanic on a joint ticket under the pseudonym Mr. and Mrs. Marshall. When he bought these tickets, he was leaving behind his wife and a 12-year-old daughter, Doris. He had told his family and friends that he was going to California for a few months for health reasons, but was actually sailing to America with Kate. Before the sailing, Arthur noted that Henry drained his business to have capital to start a confectionery business in California. Henry had been quite a wealthy sweet shop owner, eventually leaving an estate worth £1136 (approximately £88,800 today), which was later administered by Arthur. Henry sold two of his shops to raise money for his elopement. He drew out £400 (approximately £31,200 today) in notes from his account at the United Counties Bank Limited of Worcester on 2nd March 1912, and probably spent £60 (approximately £4,700 today) at the most, before he sailed, staying at various addresses with Kate, who passed as his wife. Henry’s great granddaughter Beverley says that Arthur knew about the elopement, ‘he took them to Southampton and waved them off, he was the only one who knew’. Kate survived the disaster and returned to her family in Worcester, whereas Henry, who could not swim is believed to have drowned though was never found. Apparently, Henry did not want to let go of Kate. He ‘tried to cling on to her, but the sailors threw her in the boat’.

A tragic story indeed. But how is it related to the other stories that I have explored above and how do they provide us with a better understanding of Z 46750? Well, it is and it isn’t. All of the stories that I have explored above, of Twinings’ special blend of Darjeeling and Keemun, of Queen Mary hiding a stash of tea in her cupboard, of someone deciding that a smoky blend of tea was Russian, of a confectionery enterprise of two brothers who use different branding for their shop and their commodities, and of the tale of one those brothers who died in Titanic when eloping with his shop assistant, all of these stories are related in that they are woven into the biography of a single object: a box of loose leaf tea, by the Morley Brothers, containing a sample of Queen Mary or Russian tea. But given that this box is the only thread that ties them together, how can the stories help us gain a better understanding of the object itself?

The loose leaf Russian tea has now been repackaged into a plastic bag, visible on the right of this image. The box in which it is contained is visible on the left of this image.

Figure 6. A box containing a sample of loose leaf Russian tea, with the tea leaves repacked in a plastic bag. MAA Z 46750.

Perhaps, it doesn’t and perhaps this is a question that we cannot answer. Although unable to learn about the object, what we can learn from this object is that at times, many unrelated and contradictory stories can be woven together in the biographies of single objects in museum collections. With historical and catalogue records so sparse, these stories can seem unrelated and contradicting, as they do in the case of Z 46750. We do not know why the Morley Brothers used different branding for their shop and their commodities and arguably, we would not have known anything about them at all, had one of the brothers not become famous as a victim of the Titanic tragedy, leading to research into his life and the corroboration of a less sparser record on it. Perhaps, if this historical record was even less sparser, we would have been able to make sense of Morley Brothers’ contradictory approach to branding. Or perhaps, if Z 46750 had been well provenanced when it came to the museum we would have an answer as to whether it is Queen Mary or Russian tea, and how it got to Tibet where it might have been acquired. But rather than focus on this, maybe the question we ought to be asking is: what do we do with seemingly unrelated and contradicting stories surrounding objects like this in museum collections? How do we make sense of them, and how can we use them to provide a better understanding of those objects?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with us

If you'd like to get involved, then please get in touch with us at digitallab@maa.cam.ac.uk.

About the Museum

Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Downing Street

+44 (0)1223 333516

Visit the MAA Website
Search the Collections


Follow us


If you wish to donate online, then please go to the University of Cambridge campaign webpage.




Subscribe to receive notifications when we post new blog entries: