Earl Grey

I was watching a recent episode of QI (Series N, Episode “Noble Rot”) and found this interesting story about Earl Grey (both the tea and the man).


This is Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), prime minister of Great Britain in the 1830s.

It is long presumed that the tea was named after him as, according to Wikipedia, “Jacksons of Piccadilly claim they originated Earl Grey’s Tea, Lord Grey having given the recipe to Robert Jackson & Co. partner George Charlton in 1830. According to Jacksons, the original recipe has been in constant production and has never left their hands. Theirs has been based on Chinese black tea since the beginning”.

So how did Lord Grey get the recipe? There are a number of legends out there, including one about how one of his men saved a young Mandarin boy from drowning, and the boy’s father was so grateful that he presented Lord Grey with this special blend of tea.

This story is almost universally discredited, as Lord Grey never went to China, and the use of bergamot oil (which gives the tea its distinctive scent and flavor) was completely unknown in China at the time. Other theories state that he was given this special blend of tea as a diplomatic gift.

In reality, there is absolutely no evidence that he had anything to do with tea at all–and, in fact, Earl Grey tea only started being advertised in the 1880s, about 40 years after the earl’s death. If he did have something to do with the tea blend, no one knows precisely what, and everyone kept it pretty quiet for almost half a century.

Other fun facts about Earl Grey:

-If you guys have seen the film The Duchess, he’s the dopey fella Keira Knightly has an affair with.

-He and his wife had an incredibly productive marriage, producing 16 children in 23 years, or a child roughly every 15 months. That poor woman.

-He was famous for the Great Reform Act of 1832, which worked to reform election abuses and “rotten boroughs” (where a usually aristocratic politician could rise to Parliament after being “elected” by a borough of about 10 people). It also opened up voting to the middle classes–sort of. While this act was hugely progressive for the time and led to further major reforms later in the century, it still favored wealthy white men. I remember reading that the Great Reform Act opened up voting from the previous 3% of the population, to a whopping 5% of the population. Not exactly representative.

-His government was hugely nepotistic, and was the most aristocratic administration ever formed. All but 13 of his cabinet members were either peers, or the heirs to peerages. Everyone else from the “lower” ranks was a member of Grey’s own family.

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