1883 Bushell’s Tea introduced in Brisbane

Bushell's - Tea of Flavor. Australian Women's Weekly, 30 July 1938

Alfred Thomas Bushell was no stranger to the tea business when he arrived in Brisbane in 1883 and opened his grocery business and tea shop.  In England, he had worked for the tea company Brooke Bond and married Agnes Brooke, the sister of its founder. After her death, Alfred emigrated with his three oldest sons, leaving the youngest, Philip, to be raised by the Brooke family. Philip, later to head the Bushell’s tea company, joined his family when he was 11.

Early advertising included a poetic extravaganza which seems to have appeared only in the Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette in 1895. It began:

STRANGER! when vex’d and ill at ease
Just try the power of BUSHELL’S TEAS
In Queensland none you’ll find like these,
They soothe, they cheer, and always please
To bring true calm to heart and mind,
By Nature surely they’re designed.
And tired labor gaineth ease
And strength from BUSHELL’S famous teas.

The poem continues for two further stanzas, ending with the claim that “each ounce is worth its weight in gold”. The advertisement urged buyers to check for Albert’s signature as a guarantee of authenticity on each pack, an idea he borrowed from Brooke Bond.

In 1895, one of Alfred’s sons, Walter, established his own tea business in Sydney, opening a Victorian branch in 1899. Philip Bushell initially became a taster at his father’s business, but in 1903 left to join his brother, focussing on the wholesale trade. It caused a rift in the family, only healed in 1908 when Alfred retired and gave the Queensland business to his sons.

In the early 1900s, the Bushell brothers were quite successful in gaining editorial space in various newspapers. Their focus was on promoting the freshness of their product – a virtue of the smaller paper packages rather than buying tea in large quantities and in bulk. They claimed that blending was personally supervised by Mr Philip Bushell and that each packet carried the date of packing. Bushell’s claimed that any tea that was unsold ten weeks after packing was taken back from the storekeepers. The promotional line at this time was “Tea that speaks for itself”.

The public company, Bushell’s Ltd was formed in 1912 and by 1922 Bushell’s tea was available throughout Australia. The expansion stretched the company financially and it was only when the staff agreed to contribute to the coffers that Bushell’s was saved from bankruptcy.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, Bushell’s tea was promoted with a series of rather badly drawn comic strip-style advertisements, talking up its flavour and economy. Small, advertorial-style pieces also promoted “The tea of flavor” (flavor being consistently spelled without the ‘u’). Full-page advertisements in the Australian Women’s Weekly evoked the romance of the tea’s origins in the mountains of the subcontinent.

As well as tea, Bushell’s had a substantial coffee business. In the mid-1940s they took over a rival coffee business and began to expand their coffee offerings, opening a new factory in Concord, Sydney, in 1958. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Bushell’s tea was the leading brand. But in the 1970s, they made a strategic error. They were slow to embrace the move of the market to convenient tea bags. Still associated with loose tea made in a pot, the brand began to look a little old-fashioned. An unsuccessful attempt to launch instant tea didn’t help.

Until the late 1970s, Bushell’s remained under family control. But, in 1978, the Bushell family sold their shares to their English relations, Brooke Bond, then known as Brooke Bond Liebig Ltd. Brooke Bond was, in turn, bought by Unilever (who also owned Lipton) in 1988. Ten years later the Bushell’s coffee brand was sold off to FreshFood Services, while Unilever retained ownership of Bushell’s Tea.

In 2021, Unilever created a separate division named Ekaterra as part of a plan to ditch most of its tea business, retaining only Lipton’s Iced Tea and businesses in India and Indonesia.  In 2022, it sold Ekaterra to the private equity firm CVC. In Australia, Bushell’s Tea is still part of the portfolio, but for how long?  The “Tea of flavor” has a lot of competition these days.

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