I think it is rather curious that Charles Grey, the British Prime Minister who oversaw the introduction of the 1832 Reform Act (leading eventually to universal suffrage for all adults, genuine constituencies, and secret ballots), is best remembered for the tea which carries his name.
So, who was he and what lies behind the tea? Well, if you have seen the film The Duchess you probably have a mind’s eye’ picture of Dominic Cooper as the younger Charles Grey. The real Charles Grey was described as ‘tall, slim and strikingly handsome’. He had been born on 13 March 1764 into a prominent Northumberland family, with its country seat at Howick Hall. One of seven children he went to Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, and at the age of 22 was elected to Parliament. He gravitated towards Whig politics and was closely associated with Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the Prince of Wales.
Shortly after becoming an MP he was introduced to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. She was of course already married but he pursued her with headstrong impetuosity. She became pregnant by him in 1791 but their relationship was doomed: Georgiana went abroad to have their child Eliza Courtney, returning to her husband in September 1793 and handing the child over to Grey’s parents.
There followed a string of affairs, notwithstanding his marriage in 1794 to Mary Ponsonby. The poor woman not only had to put up with his infidelities – she also went on to give birth no fewer than 16 times in the 23 year period between 1796 and 1819.
In 1806 Grey’s political ambitions received a boost when a broad-based coalition led by Fox formed a government and Grey was made First Lord of the Admiralty. By then he was known as Lord Howick (his father having been elevated to the peerage). Later that year, Fox died and Howick took over as both Foreign Secretary and leader of the Whigs, but was unable to hold the coalition together and the government fell from power in 1807. Howick succeeded his father as Earl Grey and went to the Lords, continuing in opposition for the next 23 years.
Eventually in 1830 the Whigs got back into power and Grey became Prime Minister. Under his leadership the Reform Bill finally reached the statute book (1832) and in the following year slavery was finally abolished throughout the British Empire. In 1834 Grey retired from public life, leaving Lord Melbourne as his successor.
Grey retired to Howick but became physically feeble in his last years. He died 17 July 1845, forty-four years to the day since first taking up occupation there. He is buried in Howick church.
But does his name roll on our tongues as we marvel at his political achievements? No, but it does so whenever we take a fine cup of tea, named after the great man because he popularised it and made the recipe available for all to copy. Silly old duffer, he could have patented it and made a packet…
The story goes that in the early 1800’s he was given a sample of tea by a Chinese diplomat. It was a blend of tea from China flavoured with rind of bergamot (a citrus fruit named after the Lombardy city of Bergamo). The Earl liked it because it was ideal for use with the water at Howick, with its high lime content. Lady Grey took to serving the concoction at her London soirees and soon friends were clamouring to know the ingredients. According to Robert Jackson & Co, Grey gave the recipe to their partner George Charlton in 1830 and their recipe has used tea from China ever since. Twynings also had their own version, using teas from Ceylon. Many other tea producers have their own recipe, some of them featuring blue cornflowers in the mix.
There is a memorial to Earl Grey in the city centre at Newcastle. But who needs a statue on top of a pillar when your name is still on people’s lips 167 years to the day after your death?