Until around 1880, most of the tea consumed in Australia came from China. However, from this time tea from Empire countries, like India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) began to make inroads into the market. In around 1890, Hawthorn, Rhodes & Co., major tea importers and the Melbourne representatives of the Pekin Tea Company, began selling blended teas under the Robur brand. In 1900, the company was purchased by James Service & Co and from then on traded as the Robur Tea Company.
The first use of the brand name Robur appears to have been in England in the 1870s. The Latin word for “strong”, the name was not applied to tea itself but to a new alcoholic drink known as “tea spirit”. Perhaps it was this that suggested the brand name to the Australian company that introduced Robur Tea to Australia.
By the early 19th century, tea had become the national beverage in Australia and was regularly included in bushman’s rations. It also became a staple in city households. By the 1840s, Australians were among the biggest consumers of tea in the world. As the gold rush of the 1850s drew more and more people to Victoria, Melbourne became the centre of Australia’s tea trade, with dozens of merchants competing for a share of the lucrative market.
Initially, most of the tea consumed in Australia, as in Britain, was from China. Both green and black teas were imported, with black tea the more highly prized. However, there were concerns about adulteration. Sometimes the cheaper green teas were treated with dyes, some held to be poisonous. Dust, sand, and even iron filings were commonly found along with the leaves of other plants including willow, rose and plumbago.
From the early 1880s, the Calcutta Tea Syndicate promoted the virtues of Indian tea, stressing that it was “grown, manufactured and packed under direct European supervision”. Chinese tea, they said, was grown by peasants and “hawked about in dirty bags, open baskets, on pack animals, in exposed vehicles and unsavoury boats”. An Adulteration of Tea Act was passed by the Victorian Parliament in 1881.
The concern about adulteration was reflected in early advertising by Hawthorn, Rhodes & Co. for their Robur brand. They quoted extensively from government analysts from each of the Australian colonies, attesting to the tea’s quality. Packaged tea was a relatively new concept; until the early 1880s grocers had weighed out bulk tea for their customers. The introduction of branded packaging – in Robur’s case tins – encouraged tea importers to promote their products to household users.
After James Service & Co. established the Robur Tea Company, the Robur brand was extensively advertised. In 1925, when the American naval fleet visited Australia, advertising suggested the sailors could be entertained with a cuppa. What’s more, they could be reassured that the tea was “grown, dried and packed under the supervision of white men”.
As well as newspapers, the company embraced outdoor advertising, using posters and signs painted onto walls around Melbourne and regional areas. Many of these featured Robur’s “perfect teapot” – a sterling silver or nickel silver plated pot with an internal strainer cup. Teapots could be acquired by sending payment to the company along with payment tickets accumulated from Robur packages. Robur Tea “ghost signs” can still be spotted around Victoria.
Along with its principal rival, Bushell’s, Robur Tea continued to dominate the market in Victoria, taking over Griffiths Teas in the 1960s. The brand’s advertising embraced electronic media, with a well-recognised jingle beginning “Ahhh, Robur, it’s got the flavour…that makes life worth living”. However, in the 1980s Robur itself was taken over by Tetley which in turn was taken over by India’s Tata Company.