Chapter 20 - 1873 - Tea takes over gradually.

The coffee fungus gradually spread across the island and production of coffee waxed and waned and there was a peculiar fluctuation in alternate years but each cycle of two years showed a progressive diminution in production.

Seasons Coffee Exports by Cwts Total

1874-1875 988,328
1875-1876 688,434 1,676,762
1876-1877 927,093
1877-1878 627,246 1,554,339
1878-1879 824,058
1879-1880 654,217 1,478,275
1800-1881 452,032
1881-1882 563,498 1,015,530
1882-1883 262,303
1883-1884 311,969 574,272
1884-1885 310,922
1885-1886 220,106 531,028
1886-1887 177,665
1887-1888 138,010 315,675

The end of coffee as a plantation product came in 1889 when exports fell to less than 100,000 cwts of which the coffee totaled 87,164 and small-holdings 10,748. Although coffee continued to be exported thereafter the amounts were negligible. The misery that was caused by this ruinous affliction was immense. Fortunes were lost, homes destroyed and lives ruined. And yet it was not something that occurred overnight. The disease itself was insidious; attacking savagely in one year only to appear in a mild form the next season. Estates would be so severely affected in one year that their proprietors would consider their abandonment, only to find apparently healthy tree yielding heavily in the following year.

Planting Tea Bush

Many Superintendents were thrown out of employment and were forced to return to their countries. A few indomitable planters such as Lt-Col Bryde and Mr Willam Sabondiere stuck to their posts and began to turn their attention to other products.

The period between mid 1860’s to mid 1880’s turned out to be the most critical period for Planters. It was in fact a period of remembering the old and nurturing the new.

The start of tea is the story of James Taylor and the Loolecondera Estate. James Taylor in 1855 arrives at the Loolecondera Estate and settles down in a temporary bungalow with Mr Hoffman, a Portuguese and ‘a quite sort of Gentleman’ who had been born and lived all his life in Calcutta.

Their home was a rough job, in James Taylor’s words, quote; ‘constructed of a few posts about the corner with boards nailed across, overlapping each other like slats, as open as well as can be, with about a foot opening above between that and the thatch. Whenever the light went out at night, a flock of rats from the jungle beside us came in looking for something to eat; and then the wind, of which we have plenty at this season of the year, blows a perfect hurricane in the bungalow, sometimes so as to put out the lamp. This is the rainy season with us and cold too; I wonder how the naked fellows of coolies can stand it all’.

Tea Planter’s Log Cabin (Picture)

The estate had been cleared of jungle and was ready for planting. James Taylor now had to get roads made and the ground “holed” for planting. With the help pf 200 labourers, within the year Loolecondera was in business. He spent more time and money than his proprietors had budgeted, but his roads were the best in the district and when finished cost nothing for two years. His thatching was good for five years against the normal three. He was a natural technician and was always looking for ways to make the estate more profitable – James Taylor’s never-rested mind found its outlet not in new jobs but in new products.

His chance came when the estate changed hands in 1857 after the death of George Pride, the owner. The estate was sold to Keir, Dundas & Company, the leading agency house in Kandy after George Wall’s. The two principals were J.L.Dundas and John Gavin. Taylor thought nothing of the former but John Gavin was another story.

John Gavin

Taylor calls him ‘the business man of the lot and perhaps the most important man in all the Kandyan country except perhaps Tytler.

John Gavin was not coffee bound; he was interested in the idea of diversification – cotton growing in the Southern Province for example. John Gavin retired in 1862, but he passed on the message to the two men who took over from him.
The ownership of Loolecondera Estate passed to two gentlemen named D.G.B.Harrison and Martin Leake. Harrison & Leake – great names in the history of Ceylon tea. They had started out as irrigation engineers and it was at this that brought them in touch with John Gavin, one of the previous owners of Loolecondera Estate. Harrison made the bigger splash at first (he was known as the King of Kandy), but was Leake’s name that has been immortalized, in a rather quaint manner. After several years as secretary and then Chairman of the Planters association, he went home to England and became the first Secretary of the Ceylon association, London and the telegraphic address of the body is “Leake” to this day. Cinchona provided the first breakthrough. In 1863, 14,000 cuttings of ‘siccirubra’ and 7,500 cuttings of ‘officinalis’ were produced in Hakgalla and some were sent to James Taylor at Loolecondra who got off the mark by planting each kind that by 1867, the first commercial peeling of Ceylon bark could be made, though it did not reach London until 1868.

The sequel was sensational. Ceylon Cinchona was immediately recognized as superior to the India, Java and other rivals; in fact John Eliot Howard, the quinologist, reported that ‘there must be something in the soil or climate of Ceylon peculiarly adapted to the perfect growth of this plant’. Howard’s report on the Loolecondera bark brought James Taylor right to the front. It was decided to concentrate on ‘officinalis’ and all the Hakgalla cuttings of it then available were sent, free of charge, to Lollencondera. By 1872, Hakgalla was overstocked with cinchona plants and James Taylor obtained 100,000 of them in a ‘sadly overgrown condition’. They were cut up, planted in nurseries and eventually put out in two clearings on Loolecondera and Stellenburg respectively, which became the most successful cinchona field in the island.

Stripping Cinchona bark growing amongst coffee trees

Unfortunately by 1886, overproduction of Cinchona, particularly in Ceylon had already brought about a steep fall in world prices – as James Taylor had prophesied years before that it would. Cinchona was a useful stop-gap, but it was not the crop of the future.

After saying that the credit for starting the tea industry of Ceylon belongs to Messrs Harrison and Leake, James Taylor goes on to say ‘It was they who allowed me to plant cinchona and ordered me to plant tea and it was they who paid for these things and stood the risk of failure’.

The first commercial planting of tea was on Loolecondera Estate, some 18 miles southeast of Kandy, No.7 field is where the first tea plants were planted.

Martin Leake
Mr James Taylor of Loolecondera – now acknowledged as the Father of the Tea Industry – was quite unassuming man who arrived in Ceylon towards the end of 1851 when he was but 17 years old and took up duties as Assistant Superintendent on Lolecondera. He remained on loolecondera for his entire planting career of 40 years and only left Ceylon on one occasion in 1874, when he went to Darjeeling in India to absorb as much tea lore as he could. He was painstaking in the extreme and by reading and experimentation took every opportunity to increase his knowledge of the tea-bush and its fragrant product. In a letter written by James Taylor he starts by recalling that how in his China phase a Cachar (North Indian) planter, Mr Noble, showed him how to pluck, wither and roll tea with a little leaf growing on those old bushes near his bungalow. All the rolling was done by hand and Noble also told him about fermenting and panning and the rest of the process.

Taylor made a further batch under the direction of the old Assam Planter, W.J.Jenkin, whom he met earlier experimenting on Condegalla for the Ceylon Company. A sample of this batch, together with seven samples Taylor had made before, was sent to Weinholt in Calcutta, India, in 1872. Taylor says with justified pride that while the Jenkins-controlled sample was valued a little higher than his own single-handed effort, all but two of these were ‘reported on as being better than the Indian teas then sold in Calcutta’. Up to this time Taylor explains that his entire tea making had been with ‘arrangements in the bungalow verandah’. Many famous Coffee Planters learned the art of tea growing and manufacture from him.

James Taylor

E.G.Harding who came to Ceylon in 1869 and started his planting career on Great Valley Estate, a few miles from Loolecondera noted that when he visited Taylor one Sunday that ‘The factory was in the bungalow. The leaf was rolled on tables on the verandah by hand, from wrists to elbow, while the firing was done in chulas or clay stoves, over charcoal fires, with wire trays to hold the leaf. The result was delicious tea which he bought for One rupee, fifty cents a pound.

He eventually built a “Tea House” as he called his factory. By 1872 Taylor was busy on a new project – a fully equipped Tea-House to his own design and ‘quite different from the Indian tea houses’. Taylor describes the tea-house as being fitted for acreage of 50 to 100 acres of tea in full bearing, though he thought it might do more.

Loolecondera Factory

The most exiting thing of all was, of course, the rolling machine, the first ever made in Ceylon. Taylor referred to it in a letter of 18 March 1872, quote ‘I have a machine of my own invention being made in Kandy for rolling the tea which I think will be successful. If so, we cannot help making a profit on tea if it grows of fair quality in this country. The picking or gathering the leaves and the rolling are the greatest expenses in the production; the rolling costs nearly as much as the gathering’.

The completed rolling machine was delivered in late 1872 and by January 1873 Taylor had been making tea with it ‘for about a month’. The machine consisted of a grooved cylinder traveling across a flat bed when connected to the water-wheel and must have imparted a twist to the leaf which was so much prized and was certainly present in the samples of 1872. At the same time Mr Jenkins was putting up a tea-house on Codegalla and Taylor as surprised to find it was a copy in all its working parts as his own, but Mr Jenkin did not make such food tea in it.

Manuring Tea Bushes

Charlotte Rowlands gave birth to a son William Oswald Rowlands on 29th May 1875. He was baptized at Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya and his God Parents in the Baptismal Register are shown as Charles Hendry de Soysa and his wife and Edward Lindsay.
About the time No.7 field came into full bearing, another Assam planter named Mr Baker arrived. Mr Baker showed him that he had not pruned sufficiently, so he did it all over again. Later, William Cameron commented that Taylor’s pruning method was the same as that used on Mariawatta Estate, famed for it’s high yields. Mariawatta was not planted with tea until 1878.

Taylor states, quote ‘Mr Cameron started finer plucking than I had been doing and began to top the sales lists, which I think we began about this time…. I also took to weekly plucking and topped the sales list for some time. That finer plucking largely increased the selling price of the tae and still more largely the selling price per acre.

So I was greatly indebted to Mr Cameron though I only met him casually two or three times about Kandy and Gampola’.

Ferguson’s Directory of 1878 shows Richard William Rowlands as being in Kandy.

In April 1990, the Planters’ Association of Ceylon started a testimonial to James Taylor. Subscriptions rolled in, a notable contributor being Sir William Gregory, who while Governor of Ceylon visited Loolecondera to see the tea and cinchona experiments. A silver tea-set was presented to James Taylor. It bears the inscription “To James Taylor, Loolecondera, in grateful appreciation of his successful efforts which laid the foundation of the Tea and Cinchona Industries of Ceylon, in 1891”.

James Taylor contracted dysentery and died on 2nd May 1892, still at Loolecondera. His people mourned him and carried his body to Kandy. Twenty-four men carried him, two gangs of twelve taking turns every four miles. It was about 18 miles from the estate to Kandy. They started in the morning and got to Kandy about four o’clock in the afternoon. The kanganis and the labourers walked behind the coffin. They called him “Sami Dorai”. His grave in Mahaiyawa Cemetery is inscribed as follows:

“In pious memory of James Taylor, Loolecondera Estate, Ceylon, the pioneer of tea and cinchona enterprise, who died on May 2, 1892, aged 57 years”.

The old planters were great empiricists and they were essentially coffee men catapulted into tea, rather than blacksmiths forced to turn garage hands. Seed was one of Ceylon’s earliest problems, bitter were the complaints about the price and quality of seed. There were three main sources – imports from Assam or China; tea seed nurseries in Ceylon; and seed bearers on individual estates. The old tea planters were compelled to work in this manner not only because of their lack of technical know-how, but an even more desperate lack of cash. With their coffee world collapsing around them, their one idea was to get the tea in quickly and gather a crop and sell it.

Those who criticized the methods of the early tea planters forgot Sir Edward Rosling’s terse phrase – ‘Ceylon tea was born in penury and reared in economy’.

James Taylor’s Grave -
Garrison Cemetery Kandy


The initial clearing of land and preparation of the ground prior to planting is of major importance; the success of subsequent operations and the eventual prosperity of the
property will depend upon it to a large extent. After the clearing of the land, the area to be planted is marked out with stakes and rope into long lines 6 feet apart. Tea plants used to be planted in straight lines of squares, rectangles or triangles, spaced so as to allow for total coverage when the bushes are mature. The modern method adopted on slopes and hillside is ‘contour planting’ where the lines of tea bushes follow the contour of the land. This system allows for a more economical distribution of bushes – 12,000 to 15,000 plants per hectare.


Originally, the seeds were directly placed into a hole in each ‘lined’ plot, but later, nurseries were set up for the purpose of raising young plants, which were then transplanted into the open ground. This period of propagation continued for a long time, but in recent years tea has been propagated by the vegetative method, which means that plants are grown from leaf-bud cuttings taken from selected parent bushes of a high yielding and disease-resistant strain.


Contour Planted Tea Estate

Tea from Ceylon falls into thee categories – low grown (on estate up to 2,000 feet high); medium grown – (between 2,000 and 4,000 feet) and high grown (over 4,000 feet). Each level produces tea of unique character. By blending teas from different areas of the island, Ceylon offered a wide range of flavour and colour. Some are full bodied; other light and delicate, but all Ceylon blends will have brisk full flavours and bright golden colour.

Because of the geographic location, tea can be plucked in Ceylon all year round; the west and the east of the island are divided by central mountains so that as each region’s season ends, the other begins.

Principal specialties are:

· Ceylon Blend
· Dimbula – probably the most famous of Ceylon teas. Dimbula is cultivated on estates first planted with tea when coffee crops failed in 1870. Grown 5,000 feet above sea level, all Dimbula teas are light and bright in colour with a crisp strong flavour which leaves the mouth feeling fresh and clean.
· Nuwara Eliya – are light and delicate in character, bright in colour and with a fragrant flavour. Their excellence is particularly heightened when taken with lemon rather than milk.
· Uva – is a fine flavoured tea from the eastern slopes of the Central Mountains in Ceylon. It is bright in colour and has a dry crisp taste. Uva teas make an ideal morning drink or an after-lunch tea.


A Tea Party in England

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