John Shaw, Grocer and Tea Dealer

John Shaw of Carter Street, Uttoxeter, was principally a grocer and tea dealer with a side line in the manufacture of sewing cotton and linen thread, the latter probably in association with Robert Shaw. Apart from John, the 1818 trade directory lists a number of other Shaws: Robert Shaw, linen and cotton manufacturer, Sheep Market; Mary Shaw, lace worker, Pinfold Lane; and perhaps most significantly because it may have enabled John to access workhouse contracts, a Job Shaw, governor of the House of Industry, Uttoxeter Heath.

Like many nineteenth-century grocers, Shaw carried a range of foodstuffs: loaf sugar, moist sugar, mixed tea, Congou tea, coffee, treacle, ginger, pepper, mustard, rice, saltpetre, black pepper, currants, raisins, and clove pepper. He also stocked soap, candles, tobacco, black lead, soda, whiting, starch and blue.

Shaw was prosperous enough to have illustrated pre-printed billheads such as the one dated 30 November 1835 which provides further evidence of the goods he stocked including tobacco, pickling vinegars, and ‘every description of eating and other oils, butters, hops, seeds, &c’.

There is a stylised westernised depiction of a ‘Chinaman’ dressed in flowing robes and wearing a bamboo dŏulì or rice hat. He is sat by the coast on chest of Fine Hyson tea with his left arm resting on a canister of ‘Turkey and all other Coffees, Cocoa &c’. Behind him is a pagoda, similar to the one at Kew Gardens in front of which is a large six sided, oval jar. Out at sea is a tea clipper.

Representations of Chinamen are seen on other billheads, often in conjunction with other generic figures (see ‘Advertising a Global Outlook’ post), and raises interesting questions relating to national sentiment.

Transporting tea was hazardous, with ships subject to storms, shipwrecks and smuggling. To compensate for erratic supplies to the domestic market, tea was often adulterated, reused and imitated. There was a thriving trade in second hand tea purchased from servants working in grand households, or from hotels to which the unscrupulous added a range of adulterants to ‘improve’ its colour and taste: ferrous sulphate, verdigris, and carbon black, were favourite additives. Such adulteration was widespread and often commented upon, but only occasionally was action taken against those involved: in 1818 eleven people were tried and convicted in London for adulterating tea. But it was not just that adulteration existed but who was believed to be doing the adulteration. Thomas Short’s A Dissertation upon Tea (1730) and John Lettsom’s Natural History of the Tea Tree (1772) both alleged that it was the Chinese. Such accusations grew during the rest of the century, increasing significantly in the nineteenth. The reality was that most of the adulteration was carried out in Britain by domestic dealers and suppliers eager to overcome shortages.

Shaw’s representation of the ‘Chinaman’ as a means of advertising his wares comes just prior to the introduction in the late 1830s of Indian and later Ceylon tea from Britain’s expanding empire. Purchasing and consuming products from the empire was regarded as patriotic; Indian and Ceylon teas were increasingly associated with Britishness whilst Chinese tea was regarded with suspicion. Like the representation of the Chinese figure in ‘Advertising a Global Outlook’, Shaw’s ‘Chinaman’ is presented as placid and unthreatening. It would be interesting to know whether later bills presented by Shaw continued to adopt the ‘Chinaman’ as a sales technique, or whether he had succumbed to national sentiment.


John Burnett, Plenty and Want: A Social History of England from 1815 to the Present Day (London: 1989)

Frederick Filby, A History of Food Adulteration and Analysis (London: 1934)

W. Parson and T. Bradshaw, Staffordshire General and Commercial Directory presenting an Alphabetical Arrangement of the Names and Residences of the Nobility, Gentry, Merchants and Inhabitants in General (Manchester: 1818)

Liza Picard, Dr Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740–1770 (London: 2000)

Erika Rappaport, ‘Packaging China: Foreign Articles and Dangerous Tastes in the Mid-Victorian Tea Party’ in Frank Trentmann (ed.), The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World (Oxford: 2006).

SRO, D3891/6/42/75, Bill to Overseers from John Shaw, 30 November 1835

James Walvin Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Trade, 1660–1800 (London: 1997)

N.B. This  is a work in progress and will probably be amended as further information from vouchers and other sources becomes available.


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