Secrets of Stockwell…

It’s always great to find out the history of your area. To discover that something so bizarre that you suddenly see your neighbourhood in a whole new light.

That’s what I found when I looked into the history of Stockwell and the roads around my parents’ house.

The Swan Tavern of Stockwell Village in 1780

Sure, Brixton and Stockwell are well known for being ‘dodgy’ and ‘a bit rough’.

Gang culture, guns and drugs are all heavily associated with the area. But this is nothing new. I discovered that the once affluent area had its scandals in the golden times

One in particular struck a chord with me.

Little did I know that Stockwell was at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in Britain during the 18th century.

Charles II’s wife was Portuguese and had a penchant for tea. So the East India Company started to import it from China, sparking a nationwide love for the brew. The King was so scared of the new found popularity of tea and coffee houses around the country – convinced that it was causing people to gather and plot against him – that he did what any sane king would do.

He taxed the tea.

He put the tax up so much that it became unaffordable so hardly anyone could afford to buy it.

(This was later done in the American Colonies, but that’s another story…)

This of course then triggered the British black market tea trade. Workers on cargo ships would smuggle in tonnes of tea from Holland.

The ships would come up the Thames and deposit the tea at Wandsworth then be loaded onto carts in the dead of night.

The carts would travel up to Clapham and pass through the common before being dropped at The Swan pub in Stockwell Village.

From here a massive community of criminals would distribute the tea into basements of local cottages and manor houses.

The area was suddenly overrun with violence, theft and even murders – all over tea!

The Customs and Excise were tipped off about a large import of smuggle tea on it’s way and one night (apparantly a Thursday) the authorities lay in wait in the bushes at Clapham Common (insert joke here) waiting for the horse carts bringing the tea up.

Unfortunately the smugglers were not best pleased at being ambushed. They fought back and over powered the Customs officials. Once the officials retreated the smugglers “fired their guns and moved on with their contraband, cheering as they went.”

A strange but true tale.

It was only when William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister and slashed the tax on tea that the tea black market finally collapsed.

The Swan is still standing today (but it was rebuilt in 1930) – it’s the sh*t hole pub opposite Stockwell station. With naff tribute bands every Friday.

The Swan as it is today.

But now whenever I pass it, I don’t think of it as a grimey run-down pub. It means so much more now. It’s a piece of the colourful history of my home.

Thanks to: and the UK tea council for all the facts and photos.

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January 28, 2012 · 10:45 pm

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