The history of our famous tea caddies
Margaret Scott shares her fascination with one of the magazine’s most popular traditions – the tea caddy.
OUR birthday issue wouldn’t be complete without a look back at one of our most popular gifts to readers – the “Friend” tea caddy. This “gift”, which had to be earned by writing a letter to Uncle Jack, made its debut in 1909.
“We have pleasure in introducing to our readers a new and highly acceptable ‘People’s Friend’ prize. From an eminent firm of tea merchants we have secured a large number. The tea is of the best quality.”
Before Uncle Jack set up the Letters Page, readers sent in queries which appeared in the back pages of the magazine. Under Uncle Jack, they were encouraged to indulge in a longer, more entertaining correspondence.
During the war years, the tea caddy to be won carried images of war heroes – there was one of Kitchener in 1915 – and Uncle Jack had sharp words for some who were avoiding their patriotic duty . . .
“There are thousands of ‘strong young men’ who haven’t gone yet, and apparently have no intention of going. They belong, for the most part, to the comfortable and well-off classes. Our working lads have done their duty nobly.”
His “nieces and nephews” wrote on all manner of topics, including what they did, how they lived, anecdotes or simply points of view.
“I first saw the People’s Friend in a farmhouse in Ontario. In summer Canadian farmers have to ‘make hay while the sun shines’, so the paper was laid away for weekend reading. In the long winter evenings all the back numbers were brought out and read again.”
One fascinating aspect of the letters is revisiting historic events through the pen of an ordinary reader.
One man tells us his grandfather was rescued by Grace Darling from the
Forfarshire in 1838. From 1930 comes this haunting account of the Tay Bridge Disaster:
“Lately, when reading about the old Tay Bridge, I wondered how many saw the first and last train on it.
“On an afternoon in June 1877 we were allowed out of school to go to the foot of the road to see the first train cross the Tay Bridge.
“On December 28, 1879, we were sitting round the fire listening to the storm outside, when my father said, ‘This wind will test the bridge; we’ll watch how the train gets on.’
“We saw the train enter the bridge; it just crawled along. Someone suggested putting out the light. We turned to see this done and when we looked out again we saw neither the train nor the lights on the bridge. Next morning, after the paper came, we went to see the gap. It was hard to realise what had happened.”
The style of the caddies changed again and again, and till recently we’ve known little of their origins.
We did have one tin box from the 1920s bearing the words “A Present from ‘The People’s Friend’”. On close inspection, however, our eagle-eyed Editor spotted writing on the hinges of the very rusted, rather battered box.
Hudson Scott & Sons, Ltd, Carlisle, England.
This firm began making tin boxes in 1896, and did so till wartime, when they made munitions instead.
We still can’t make out the image on the front – the Scottish fiddler, Niel Gow, perhaps.
My personal favourite is our superb 1940s caddy. Made of pewter, it has a strikingly modern shape.
This tea caddy was sent out to readers minus the tea, which was rationed!
The modern, stylish tin we give present-day readers is certain to turn up in the future, and new generations raised on nothing but tea bags may puzzle over it.
Nevertheless, few things beat a pot of tea made with real loose leaves – at least, that’s what I believe! ■
Perhaps a few examples of these are in attics waiting to be unearthed.