Miss Julie Wilson of "South Pacific" cuts the cake - 1st Aniv of Plantation House London

Plantation House - an illustration

London Tea Auctions & Plantation House

Listen to a 1936 London Tea Auction - click here

– The 319 year  history of the London Tea Auction began in 1680.

– East India House in London conducted Tea Auctions for a period of 156 years from 1680 to 1835.

– The London commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane housed the Tea Auctions from 1836 to 1935 – a period of 100 years.

– The Plantation House auditorium, London took over this Auction from 1936 up until 1970 – a period of 35 years.

– Sir John Lyon House,  London subsequently  conducted auctions from 1971 to 1990, for a period of 19 years.

– The London Chamber of Commerce was the last venue of this historic auction from 1990 to 1998.

– The last Charity Auction of the London Chamber of Commerce was held on Monday, June 29th, 1998 auctioning a mere 20 lots comprising of 229 packges of an assortment of Assam Orthodox and CTC, Darjeeling Orthodox, Ceylon Orthodox,, China Keemun,  Kenya Orthodox and CTC tea.

– The highest price achieved was for the last lot which was a “Ceylon Hellbodde Orthodox Flowery Pekoe”  which fetched a  world recordprice of  GBP 555 per kilo, and was purchased by Taylors of Harrowgate.

– The total proceeds of this Charity Auction were donated to the following charities :-

1)  The Sir Percival Griffiths Planters Trust
2)  The Planters Benevolent Fund of Ceylon
3)  The Tea Trade Benevolent Society of London


John Joseph Bunting - The Tea King

By the 1930's, John Joseph Bunting, the 'Tea King', was the most powerful man in the London tea trade. 

The climax to his career came in 1935 when the Lord Mayor of London, accompanied by his Aldermen and Sheriffs laid the foundation stone for JJ's biggest investment to date A dedicated office block on Fenchurch Street to house the tea auction room and Londons Rubber Exchange. 

Plantation House was one of the most lavish city office complexes of its time. 

It's completion a year later was marked with a staff dinner at Claridges, and John Joseph celebrated his new status and affluence by buying a large, newly built first floor flat overlooking Marble Arch. 

Within four years everything was lost. The tea company had gone into voluntary liquidation after a disastrous lawsuit. John Josephs main customer had accused him of buying up tea stock to fix the price and refused to honour its contract. 

The whole edifice of opulence and credibility came crashing down as rapidly as it had been erected. 

Plantation House was sold in 1940 and John Joseph retreated, bitter and defeated, to a small house in Highgate.  

Plantation House, built in the 1930s was at the time the City’s second  largest building.    Covering a major site on Fenchurch Street, now home to Plantation Place, the building was designed by Albert W Moore to house the Tea Trade’s commodity traders all under one roof - the tea plantation companies, the brokers, the shippers and even allied industries like sugar, timber and  rubber.

The building was financed by John Joseph Bunting, known as JJ & ‘The Prophet of Tea’ for his predictions of the future of tea in the 1930s. The building’s design was  inspired by the American Skyscrapers of the time, but not as high; it was considered by many the most elegrant building in the City.   Although covering a large area it was noted for its warm cosiness aiding good strong relationship to be built between all those working  and visiting there.

In the 1980s for a period of 14 years it became home to the London Metal Exchange


 The London Tea Auction was a 'candle auction' - meaning that a lit candle was marked and bidding started - after the candle burned for 1 inch - the hammer was dropped. 

Auctions ran from 1679 to 1998 - the last being on June 29th 1998.  

The East India Company held the first auction in Leadenhall Street and then in 1834 auctions were held at the newly built London Commercial Salerooms on Mincing Lane. It was called the "Street of Tea".  

Plantation House was built in 1935 especially for commodity auctions - tea and rubber. It was home of the London Metal Exchange until 1994.

It was demolished in 1991 and was replaced by Plantation Place. 

The last London Tea Auction held was on June 29, 1998. The twentieth and final lot was a single chest of Ceylon Flowery Pekoe from the Hellbodde Tea Estate. The bidding opened at £10 per kilogram and quickly reached £225 per kilogram as Twinings and Taylors of Harrogate dueled for the honor of purchasing the last check of tea.

American Thomas Eck, owner of Upton Tea Imports was present and recorded his observations ‘More than once the bidding war appeared to be over, but just before the third strike of the gavel, the stakes would once again be raised… accompanied by resounding support from the crowd of observers… until the final bid of £555 per kilogram secured the tea for Taylors of Harrogate. Applause and enthusiastic shouts finally broke the tension.’ The winning bid, going to charity, was the highest price ever paid for any tea at any auction. The 44 kilogram chest sold for over $40,000 or $2.10 per cup!

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson, Benjamin Press, December 2013

British Pathe has many recordings of tea auctions in London - this webpage takes you to their website - Some film of the tea auctions - click here

Listen to a recording in October 1936 of a Tea Auction 

Independant newspaper article - click here for The End of the London Tea Auctions


East India House

The London Tea Auction was a grand tradition that lasted 300 years. From the very first event in 1679, until the last sale on 29 June 1998, the London Tea Auction was a regular event that made London the centre of the international tea trade. The first auctions were held by the East India Company, which at the time held the monopoly for the import of tea (and other goods) from China and India. They were held at the headquarters of the Company on Leadenhall Street. The building was decorated with reliefs of ships, sailors, fish and a large coat of arms, and swiftly became known as East India House.

By the candle

Auctions were held roughly quarterly, and tea was sold 'by the candle'. This meant that rather than allowing bidding to go on for an unlimited length of time, a candle was lit at the beginning of the sale of each lot, and when an inch of the candle had burnt away, the hammer fell and the sale was ended. In the late seventeenth century tea was not always the star of the show, as the auctions sold other goods, primarily fabrics, which the Company had brought back from the East. But by the early eighteenth century, tea was so popular that the London Tea Auction came into its own.

It was something of a riotous affair. An anonymous tea dealer, writing in 1826, described the noise and confusion of an auction taking place at East India House: 'To the uninitiated a Tea sale appears to be a mere arena in which the comparative strength of the lungs of a portion of his Majesty´s subjects are to be tried. No one could for an instant suspect the real nature of the business for which the assemblage was congregated...'

A free trade commodity and the 'Street of Tea'

The London Tea Auction

Things changed in 1834, when the East India Company ceased to be a commercial enterprise, and tea became a 'free trade' commodity. The tea auction had to find a new home - and it was moved from the splendour of East India House, via a brief sojourn at a dance studio, to the newly built London Commercial Salerooms on Mincing Lane. Within a few years, various tea merchants followed the auction and established offices of Mincing Lane, earning it the nickname the 'Street of Tea'.

By the middle of the nineteenth century tea was such a popular beverage that auctions took place monthly, and then weekly, and the tradition of selling 'by the candle' was replaced by more practical methods. Tea was sent from India, China, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) and Africa for sale at the auction, and as the Auction grew busier and busier, a practice developed of devoting particular days of the week to the sale of teas from each individual country. By the 1950s, a third of all the world's tea was bought through the auction. Once purchased, the tea was sent from the London warehouses either direct to retailers where it was sold loose, or to companies which specialised in blending and packaging. These companies then sold the tea ready packed under various brand names, offering a wide range of choice to tea-drinkers.


The Tea Auctions of today


The Tea Auction in Mombassa

Except for breaks necessitated by the First and Second World Wars, the London Tea Auction continued to be held regularly until almost the end of the twentieth century, though its location moved first to Plantation House, then to Sir John Lyon House, and finally in 1990 to the London Chamber of Commerce. Yet its business gradually declined, particularly after India, Sri Lanka and Kenya became independent states in 1947, 1948 and 1963 respectively. The owners of many tea estates preferred to sell their teas as soon as possible after manufacture, rather than go through the costly and timely process of shipping them to England for auction.

To meet this demand auctions were set up in locations including Calcutta, Colombo and Mombassa, and they gradually eroded sales in London. The decline of the London auction was further hastened by new methods of international trading, such as sales via the telephone and the internet. The methods of the auction became increasingly outdated, and it was decided that the sale on 29 June 1998 would be the last. The proceeds of the final auction went to charity, and a grand City tradition came to an end.

From John Bunting - Sculptor 1927-2002

  John Joseph Bunting (1874-1949). He hoped a place might have been found for this in the newly refurbished Plantation House in Fenchurch Street, where his grandfather had founded one of the City of London’s most significant and prestigious new office buildings as the home of the Rubber and Tea Exchanges in 1935 and where he headquartered his own business Bunting & Co. This was the ‘Tea King’ whom Bunting so admired and owner of the country estate which the artist had visited as a boy in the 1930’s. For him ever after this was a time of near pre-lapsarian delight upon which he looked back with ever growing nostalgia and longing. His grandfather had led the sort of country life that, in an ideal world, Bunting would have wanted, if only some money had remained after his grandfather’s death. It was all lost when the markets crashed and the business imploded under the weight of forward contracts on the outbreak of the Second World War. 


Tea helped the British during world war 2.

As German bombs fell on London in September 1939, the British tea industry faced a dilemma they had feared for some time. How would they protect their precious commodity that fueled an empire? Tea.

Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, recounted the tumultuous time: “When London was being persistently bombed, I had to tell the tea blenders to remove their stocks to less vulnerable positions – a scheme drawn up by the Tea Buyers’ Association in 1937 at the request of the Food Defense Department.”

30,000 tons of tea had already been sent to a variety of safe warehouses far from London while 40,000 tons remained in the city. The tea auctions in London halted on September 5 and the Ministry of Food became the owners of all tea stocks. The 280 tea wholesalers based in London were allotted leaf in only three grades: high, medium, and low.

Mincing Lane, the center of London’s tea trade, was bombed on May 11, 1941 and half of the brokers’ offices and records were destroyed. Over 8000 tons of tea were damaged that year. The removal of tea from the danger area proceeded with haste and, by 1942, most of the contents of 30 warehouses on the Thames had been dispersed to 500 locations across the country.


Attempts at rationing took place but somehow there was always tea to be had. The Rationing Division went so far as to dictate that a pound of tea had to serve 260 cups of beverage. They refused to define the size of a cup except that a ‘pot of tea for one’ counted as two cups.

Tea was the great ‘cheerer-upper’ of the war. Everyone from the Throne downward can attest that civilians and military alike turned instinctively to the solace of the kitchen teapot, mobile canteen urn, or an improvised trench-built billy-can.

The water burners were lit in mobile tea canteens even before the flames of burning buildings were extinguished so that fire brigades and ambulance drivers might have a cup of tea as they completed their horrific tasks.

Tea Canteens were spotted not only in the bombed out streets of London, but also on the back lines of the war’s battlegrounds. Canteens followed the Allied troops as they crossed France and marched into Germany. Grateful communities from Wisconsin to Ceylon raised funds to sponsor these rolling tea wagons that brought a bit of home comfort to battle-weary soldiers.

The workers aboard these mobile units were most often greeted with “That was a lovely cup of tea.”

But the British have strong feelings about their national beverage. Novice tea makers were likely to be scolded with “Bring me another cuppa tea like this and I’ll report you to the Council!”

Clean water was hard to come by which prompted some wags to say: “Not so bad. Got a bit of a funny taste, though.”

Never mind that these workers were trying to cobble together a proper pot of tea in a war zone!

There was nothing they could do but keep calm and carry on.


Read more about the history of tea in England and The United States in A Social History of Tea.