5 min read

The Taming of the Brew

D21 formerly belonging to John Atack
D21 formerly belonging to John Atack

The following article appeared in Saturday’s Telegraph Weekend section, page 6 on 29th September 2001. The article was by Catriona Howaston and illustrated by the Hulton Archive picture of a D21 plus tray and crockery (not shown here – I have used one of my library of photos instead).

D21 formerly belonging to John Atack
D21 formerly belonging to John Atack

The comical and very British Teasmade is still very much with us, says Catriona Howatson

What thoughts does the word “Teasmade” evoke? Norma Major? Hillman Hunters? Candlewick pedestal mats? Probably a cosy feeling of pre-war suburban security, blessed with all the latest labour-saving devices.

People have strong feelings about Teasmades. My friend Kate wants one so that she can have tea in bed when her boyfriend is away on business, but he has forbidden it on grounds of taste.

“Why would anyone want to make tea this way, least of all the British?” asks one American. But some think that tea in bed every morning is the last word in luxury: “There is something truly delicious about lying in bed and waiting for your tea to happen, even if the tea, when it comes out, does taste rather of teabag and tannin,” says my friend Jenny.

I know a harassed mother who bought one in a last-ditch attempt to get her teenage son out of bed and into school on time. The pot was usually filled with thriving green mould. I even know an aesthete who bought a 1930s model that looked like a small cinema organ, tracked down a suitable Lloyd Loom bedside table to put it on, and redecorated the entire spare room to match it.

Gordon Hawkins, of Hawkins Electricals, who owns one of the UK’s most important collections of Teasmades still in private hands, explains that the Teasmade’s beauty lies in the fact that, until the late 1970s, models worked by steam pressure. The boiling water is forced through a tube into the pot; the kettle gets lighter and rises, simultaneously switching the heat off and the light and buzzer on. “Modern ones are not the same,” he laments. “It’s like people preferring steam engines to diesel.” It is a shame that J M W Turner never saw a Teasmade at full throttle in a thunderstorm.

Teasmades are essentially British, inescapably comical, and a bit improbable. These Heath-Robinsonish engines have been manufactured since 1891, only stopping for the war. One wonders if there have been any fatalities. Jenny recalls her parents’ 1970s model: “They are foolproof only as long as you remember to put the teapot on its stand and take its lid off. If you don’t, there is no fail-safe mechanism and the hot water comes out anyway, so you have to leap out of bed swearing.” It is a wonder that it is legal to have all that electricity, hot water and steam flying about on the bedside table when you consider that we are not allowed to have a light switch in the bathroom. There is a primitive model in the Science Museum that involves matches and methylated spirits; it hardly bears thinking about.

There are no official statistics available for how many new Teasmades are bought by British consumers. One alarming fact, though, is that there is only one model on sale in Britain. That it is actually made in Britain is quite a miracle, but it is made under the Swan brand by Moulinex, which is French.

The Swan LD01P1 (they haven’t even got around to christening it “The Sun-Up” or “The Larksong”‘ or other “I will arise”-type names) features a “traditional tea-making system”, ceramic teapot, “removable” tray, illuminated front panel, and large quartz clock with four-minute snooze facility (you don’t want your tea stewing). There is a floral picture in the front panel which you can replace with a 6in x 4in photograph if you prefer. (Be cautious: this will be among the very first things you see in the morning). It retails at about £59.99. John Lewis sells it for £54.50, but how many it sells is confidential information.

The true enthusiasts, however, are not going all gooey over the LD01P1. They are in charity shops and at car boot sales, snapping up vintage Teasmades as fast as Kate Moss snaps up Ossie Clark. “If you see one from the 1930s or 1940s for under £15, get it,” is the advice from one collector.

When you study the earlier models, you can almost (but not quite) understand why some people collect them. There are smooth Art Deco Teasmades with fluted lamps at each side and lots of chrome; there are girly 1950s models topped with frilly lampshades. In the 1940s, they had a pleated vinyl shade over the bulb, and were finished in “ivory enamel”. In the 1960s, Teasmades boasted “crisp styling in white plastic with integrated translucent acrylic lamp unit”, and Russell Hobbs had brushed steel and token bits of wood. The 1980s brought the addition of radios. And the innovations don’t stop there: a design student called David Kirk is investigating the possibility of including a toaster.

The name indelibly associated with Teasmades is Goblin. It is perfect. You imagine an Elves-and-the-Shoemaker kind of arrangement in which some fairies make your morning cup of tea as you sleep in exchange for a Rich Tea biscuit. But Goblin started life as a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners at the turn of the last century, quite possibly named because of their way of “gobblin’ up the dirt”. Goblin began to make clocks in the 1930s, and the automatic tea-maker attached to an alarm clock was an obvious development in an age that craved modernity and gadgets.

Other manufacturers couldn’t wait to join in the fun. The forward-looking Tecal (1939) was daringly described as a “robot servant”.

The Goblin name parted company with the Teasmade in 1984, but its machines are still spluttering away on bedside tables up and down the land. If you have somewhere a super-annuated Teasmade that you would like to rehabilitate, Hawkins Electricals (01785 714956; email gordonhawkins@freeuk.com) specialises in repairs.

A final word about the milk. It is worth thinking through. You could get a teeny fridge for the bedroom. Or put an inch of semi-skimmed in a sealed Tupperware container; or have a milk jug with a crocheted cover over it to stop the cat sticking its nose in. What you absolutely must never ever do is go to the kitchen in the morning to get the milk. It ruins The Whole Thing.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2001.