Thomas Stickler (1689-1750) and the ‘proper’ way to dissolve sugar in tea.

stir teaNothing irritated me more, when I was a girl, than to be told by an adult that I was stirring my tea the ‘wrong’ way to make sugar dissolve.

“Now, dear, you know if you simply stir round and round the grains of sugar just go round and round with the liquid. The proper way to stir tea is like this.”

There would then be a demonstration of something not unlike, in miniature, the method of sculling a coracle. So I tried, I really, really tried to do it that way. And without fail I would drink bitter tea with a sludge of grainy syrup at the bottom. In time I developed my own method, which I have stuck to ever since. It consists of two or three vigorous rotations, after which I stop the spoon dead in the hot liquid, which obstruction causes turbulence. By merely repeating that five or six times, I find that every single grain of sugar dissolves.

Thomas Stickler, portrait c.1745, attributed Henry Tube RA.
Thomas Stickler, portrait in old age c.1745, attributed to Henry Tube RA.

Anyhow, I wondered how the inefficient but ‘proper’ method of stirring tea ever came about. The internet is a wonderful institution, and it was through the judicious use of search engines that I eventually came across Thomas Stickler. He was born the son of poor parents – John Stickler, ostler, of New Cross, and Mary Stickler, née Watermill – who had met during the annual Kentish Goose-Drive. Orphaned at an early age, young John had been brought up by the Reverend Theodorus Horner, vicar of Saint-Barnabas-Without in Southwark. That reverend gentleman, being himself childless, treated John Stickler as his own son, and, on his death, left a not inconsiderable bequest to him, which he inherited at his majority. Of a studious bent, and conscious of having had a rise in station, John set out to better himself further. With well-chosen investments, he amassed a small fortune and continued to rise socially. By his middle thirties he considered himself to be a gentleman – though some people in society thought of him as an upstart and a prig, notably the young Duke of Sudbrooke who, on an occasion when Thomas addressed him out of turn, advised him to “… go tend your geese, sir!”

Rev Theodorus Horner, by an unknown artist.
Rev Theodorus Horner, by an unknown artist.

Undeterred, Thomas compiled and published in 1730, A Manual of Genteel Comportment, being a Setting-forth of All that is Best and Most Admired in the Behaviour of Gentlemen and Ladies. It did not sell in any great quantities, for the simple reason that those who were born and brought up to gentility did not need such a work of reference, and few aspirants ever climbed the particular greasy pole that John had. Nevertheless, it was often cited as being a work of shrewd observation, and it is said that a well-thumbed copy could be found in the study of Sir Robert Walpole. On page 223 of the First edition (I was fortunate to come across a battered copy in a Dundee flea-market*), in the section on ‘Manners at the Table’, there is a description of stirring ‘tay’ which resembles so closely the method that was demonstrated to me as a girl, that I felt it must surely have been that method’s origin. Thomas mentions that ‘the movement must be a gentle one, a flexion of the wrist, this being elegant and sightly, producing a pleasing tintinnabulation of silver upon porcelain, that serves to indicate one’s pleasure and appreciation of the hostess’s serving… tay being one of the few refreshments that the well-bred proffer with their own hand and not by the offices of a servant…’

Portrait, in the French style, of Jean-Phillipe Pédant.
Portrait, in the French style, of Jean-Phillipe Pédant.

Given that the circulation of Thomas’s book was not great, it was puzzling to me how his stirring method passed into general use. But pass it did. I found it mentioned, for example, in Howard’s Gazette of 19th July 1745; a correspondent who signed himself merely ‘Cicero’ remarked ‘… Mr. Stickler’s method has gained some ground in coffee houses, those who favour it adhering to it with utmost certainty, and any such can scarcely be surprised when onlookers remark “So-and-so is a bit of a Stickler”…’ Further research led me to a remarkable court case, in which Thomas Stickler was obliged to defend the originality of his stirring method, to which an erudite Frenchman – Jean-Phillipe Pédant, one time sous-sous-tuteur to Louis ‘le bien aimé’ when he was Dauphin – also laid claim, bringing as evidence a pamphlet in French, dated 1729, in which it appeared that something very similar was indeed described. Fortunately for Stickler, Pédant’s insistence that he should be represented by his French lawyer, one Mâitre Corbot, meant that his claim was not upheld; Corbot was unused to English law, had little of our language, and was unable to provide evidence to a satisfactory level that the date on the pamphlet was genuine. There was another half-hearted attempt to claim the method, launched by the self styled Tuscan polymath, Lodovico di Letante, but that did not even get as far as court before being abandoned**.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is that we now know how the word ‘stickler’ entered the English language. It’s a word that Consuela (my Tejana maid) often applies to me. When she’s being generous, that is – at other times she says I’m ‘mule-headed’. Stickler is buried in the now disused churchyard of St Athelstan-the-lesser in Bermondsey, though his actual grave site has long been lost. I’m thinking of raising a subscription to have the churchyard restored. Consuela says I’m nuts.


*You may ask why I was shopping for fleas. I have my reasons.

**As it turned out, it’s probably a good job that neither Stickler, nor Pédant, nor di Letante had come across a translation of Geoffrey of Rutland’s 14c treatise De Moto in Liquidis!


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