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Clipper-Ship Days in Mincing Lane

The interest and excitement among landsmen during the clipper-ship days has been rivaled only by the Derby. The tea trade was then the highest class of mercantile pursuit, and during the tea season the cynosure of all eyes was the dashing “tea-clipper.” Speeding under her enormous spread of snow-white canvas from faraway China to her British or American home port, she was freighted with the choicest of the new season’s pickings, a cargo meaning a handsome profit to the consignees of the first arrival. The best sailing masters, the finest seamen, and swiftest vessels afloat were represented in the tea fleet. The racing of the tea ships was at that time the all-absorbing topic of the hour on ‘Change, at the club, or by the fireside. The winner gained something more substantial than mere fame -- not infrequently a fortune was the prize.

In Mincing Lane the telegrams recording the hours at which the tea ships passed certain points were read with as much avidity as present-day stock-ticker tapes; and when the news came from Start Point that the clippers were beating up the English Channel the excitement became intense. Before the days of the telegraph when news traveled slowly, the arrival of the tea clippers had in it even more of mystery and of thrill.

Sometimes the crew of the winning ship received 500 pounds from the owners of the cargo, for the first tea put on the market realized from 3d to 6d a pound more than tea on the slower ships. Swarms of sampling clerks would descend upon the docks to draw samples for brokers and wholesalers as soon as the news came that the racers had passed Gravesend. Some spend the night at near-by hotels; others slept at the docks. By 9AM the samples were being tasted in Mincing Lane. Then the bids were made by the large dealers’ duty was paid on the gross weight, and by the following morning the new season’s Congous would be on sale in Liverpool and Manchester.

From Volume I of All About Tea, by William H. Ukers, published in 1935 by the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company.

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