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As we have been stuck inside for three weeks I can imagine a lot of cups of tea have been had. Ceylon tea was one of the key imports the English brought into New Zealand in the early 1800s, albeit more for the home comfort of new settlers rather than for any survival need. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries tea has been relied upon for its revival properties, emphasized by workers’ demand for a tea break and soldiers memories of a brief respite for a hot brew. 


Tea has a 5,000 year long history in China, although black tea was not discovered until the 17th century AD. At this time tea was being introduced independently into Russia and Europe. Tea was originally bought from grocers in chests or caddies made from wood, porcelain, silver and tin. Due to its popularity in Europe and New Zealand the various tea brands developed distinct and beautiful packaging to stand out from each other.  


Packaging is often a marvellous way of looking back at historic trends and Whangarei Museum houses a myriad of interesting articles. One such package is a rectangular tin of Bell branded tea leaves. Its pale yellow paper label features blue writing advertising “The Bell Tea Co., Ltd., Dunedin”, decorated with ivy sprays and winged cherubs ringing a large gold bell. This tin was donated by Miss Jones in 1984 and contained 1 pound of tea. Its dimensions were the exact size for a special postal rate during the First World War, so business was pushed to the max as friends and family bought Bell Tea 1 lb tins and packed them with goods for troops serving overseas. Tins like these went out of production in the late 1930s, replaced by cardboard packaging. 


Tea tin donated by Miss Jones in 1984 (Whangarei Museum 1984.190.6)



Named after its founder Norman Harper Bell, Bell Tea was a resilient company surviving through two world wars and remaining popular today. Its origins go back to 1862 with a man named Robert Wilson who founded his own tea company in New Zealand. Just  over thirty years later, Robert joined business with Norman Bell who had arrived from Melbourne after working with the Robus Tea Company. Quality tea was a priority to Victorian New Zealanders. At this time Australasia had the highest tea imports in the world. In 1882 the Tea Examination Act was passed to qualify that imported tea was not filled out with other powders like sawdust and ash. 


Bell was a savvy business man and hard worker. One of his first promotions was in 1902 where he distributed coupons for gifts if one purchased Bell Tea. In 1905 Bell ended his partnership with R. Wilson and Co. and soon after Bell died and his son Norman Harper Bell Junior took over, registering ‘The Bell Tea Company’. By 1924 Bell Tea had built a four storey brick factory on Hope Street in Dunedin, recognisable by its iconic concrete bell topping a corner spire. During the 1930s Depression  Bell Tea was among many companies to push for locals to buy New Zealand made products. As part of this campaign they released a promotional video through the N. Z. Industrial News which had the slogan “What N. Z. makes, makes N. Z.”; just as applicable today as then. The film reveals the action inside the factory, including the cleaning, blending, sieving, mixing, testing, weighing, packaging and labelling processes. A crucial step in was the blending of tea to suit N. Z. tastes. You can watch the full video through Nga Taonga Sound and Vision


New Zealanders first experienced tea bags from companies like Tiger Tea in 1969. Bell finally introduced tea bags in 1974 and from there the consumption of loose leaf tea has slowly dropped. By the turn of the 21st century our consumption of tea, loose and bagged, dropped by a third since the 1960s, corresponding with the rise of coffee consumption. Sadly, like many other buildings in Dunedin’s historic business precinct, the company could not afford to maintain the building and therefore shut its Dunedin factory in 2014. Production was moved to its Auckland Factory which had been in existence since 1967. New Zealand’s oldest tea company upholds its legacy today by producing around 3 million tea bags a day. Next time you take a sip spare a thought for the long heritage of your tea and the pioneering work to develop an iconic Kiwi brand. 


Georgia Kerby

Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum.