This film is held by the BFI (ID: 299373).


INTEREST. The growing, collection and processing of tea in Ceylon.

No main title. Tea bushes planted out by natives under European supervision (70). LS of native collecting the leaves (113). CU of a woman picking tea leaves (137). Workers, carrying baskets file, past the camera (158). Putting the leaves into large baskets (198). Weighing the baskets (230). Inside the factory: drying the leaves and sifting (303). The tea is put into a steam drier (331). In a yard, women sort the tea for quality (341). The tea is packed into crates and weighed (368). Two Ceylonese men make tea. The tea is taken to two European women who drink it (428ft).

Note: German titles.

Note: Another copy is also held in MRS CARLISLE'S BABY REELS (296-326ft). Originally on 9.5mm the film has been transferred to 16mm. The film shows natives collecting leaves, carrying and weighing baskets, drying and sifting the leaves, factory scenes and the packing of the crates.



Born at a time of industrial expansion, cinema both reflected and reflected on new manufacturing processes. The industrial film was one of a number of different types of non-fiction film that proliferated during the early years of cinema. These films to some extent demystified methods of production for an audience that was buying mass-manufactured goods (Peterson). Adopting a template that had been established by magazines and newspaper articles devoted to scientific and technical information, the industrial film commonly explained manufacturing procedures in some detail and in chronological order. At the same time as many industrial films documented the changes that were taking place in the production of consumer durables, others explored new procedures in food production. The companies featured in the films were often those of their sponsors; however, this was not always the case. Le Thé features the products of Quaker Ceylon Tea. Although it is probable that this company had a hand in the film’s production, it has not been possible to find supporting evidence. Industrial films differed from early advertising films; while the latter are obviously concerned with promoting products and often feature staged action, industrial films are devoted to realistically documenting production processes (Peterson).

Le Thé was produced in 1909 by the French company Pathé-Frères, the ‘first acknowledged global empire in cinema history (Abel, ‘Pathé-Frères’, emphasis in original). Pathé’s success rested on the mass production of films and on distributing their releases via a worldwide network (Abel, 1994, 22). By 1909 Pathé had established distribution agencies throughout Europe, in the US, and in the colonised countries of India, south-east Asia, central and southern America, and Africa (Abel, 1994, 23). One of the selling points of early Pathé films was the distinctive stencil colour technique employed for some of the releases. Colouring films was a repetitive process: originally, large numbers of female employees tinted each frame individually by hand. However, by 1907 Pathé had mechanised this procedure (Abel, 1994, 20, 34).

Although the first tea plantation in Ceylon was not developed until 1867, 600 square miles of the country were under cultivation by 1900. By this point the tea industry was responsible for more than half of the country’s export earnings, with Britain being the primary market (Moxham, 2003, 183, 209; The Romance of Tea, 9). Tea production became mechanised following the introduction of the ‘Sirocco’ tea drier by Samuel C. Davidson in 1877 and John Walker & Co’s tea-rolling machine in 1880. Correspondingly, Ceylon witnessed the construction of its first tea factory in 1884 (‘History of Ceylon Tea’).

Although a few of the tea estates in Ceylon were owned by Sinhalese or Indians, the vast majority were British-controlled, and by the early twentieth century production was increasingly undertaken by large companies (Moxham, 2003, 165-67). It also became the case that British men of ‘good family’ ventured to Ceylon to work as tea planters, bringing with them European ideas of etiquette and taste (Moxham, 2003, 169).

From the outset, plantations in Ceylon relied on imported labour. The Sinhalese regarded it as against their way of life to work for hire, and the tea planters relied primarily on Tamils from southern India (Moxham, 2003, 172). Indian Tamils eventually settled in large numbers: by 1900 they constituted 300,000 out of a total population of just under four million (Moxham, 2003, 183-84). The Tamils were made to pay for their transport to Ceylon and for their recruitment. This meant that they began their careers in debt; a debt that due to low wages and being paid in arrears was hard to repay (Moxham, 2003, 183). The workers were provided with ‘extremely basic’ accommodation, and were expected to work a ten-hour day with no break (Moxham, 2003, 180-81). While men undertook the heavier clearing work, women worked as tea clippers (‘Just 64p a Day for Tea Clippers in Sri Lanka’). Children worked in the fields from the age of five, and earned about a third of the adult wage (Moxham, 2003, 182). In sum, Moxham argues that ‘it was a tragedy that so many of the British planters showed so little compassion, and made so little effort to improve life for their labourers beyond what was strictly in their own interest’ (Moxham, 2003, 183).

Although this film was titled Tea Planting in Ceylon for its release in Britain, and features the products of the Quaker Ceylon Tea, there is some doubt regarding the location of the tea gardens featured in the film. It is possible that they might be located in Malaya.



Le Thé follows the pattern of most industrial films by showing stages of production in chronological order. It commences with the planting of tea bushes, and then follows the cultivation of the crop, leading up to one of the standard climaxes of the genre: the moment of distribution. Le Thé then goes one stage further, showing the consumption of tea by European consumers. Throughout there is great attention to detail. The intertitles clarify each stage of the process, and the cameraman uses a range of shots – from extreme long shots through to medium close-ups – to best portray the activity. Moreover, the majority of shots are arranged, either by grouping people or through the judicious positioning of the camera.

The cinema journal Bioscope praised the film for the fact that its ‘nearer views’ are likely to be ‘fascinating to all consumers of our national beverage’, and also added that it makes a ‘striking picture’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1909, 19). Le Thé is one of Pathé’s colour-tinted films, and at times leans closer to the picturesque qualities of the travelogue than it does to the dispassionate elucidation of the industrial film. Several of the scenes are beautifully arranged, in particular an extreme long shot in which the hats of the tea clippers appear as dots as they work across a mountainside field. Much of the tinting has now faded, although there are still occasional flashes of the ‘vivid, flashing colours of the native costumes’, in what the Bioscope praised as the ‘one of the best coloured films we remember to have seen for some time’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1909, 19).

The Bioscope noted one further quality of the film: that it ‘gives an interesting sketch of Cingalese life’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1909, 19). As well as focussing on the manufacturing procedures, the cameraman documents the workers; for example, there is a prolonged individual portrait of a slightly careworn looking woman clipping tea. This medium close-up is made all the more striking due to the fact that it follows immediately on from the depersonalised extreme long shot of the dotted hats among the field. The Sinhalese life on display is almost entirely confined to the tea plantation. Here one of the most striking features is the dominating presence of the plantation’s overseers. In the film’s opening sequence a European supervisor commands the centre of the screen; he instructs the workers crouched before him how to plant bushes. Arranged behind him in the distance another white plantation officer walks amongst a group of men, monitoring them closely as they rake the land. Repeated throughout the film there are scenes in which the overseers instruct the workers how to do their jobs, and even in the extreme long shot a European’s pith helmet can be seen pursuing the coolie hats of the workers in the field. However, it should be noted that not all of the superiors are European: at several stages, in particular in the factory scenes, local workers occupy senior positions. It also the case that the close proximity of workers and superiors, and also some of the instruction that is taking place, appears to have been arranged for the camera.

The film’s final sequences provide a contrast to the rest of the film. Here there is a staged performance featuring two native domestic staff who prepare and deliver tea to two high-class European women. The scene provides a distinct contrast between the actions of the cameraman, who undertakes an intrusive ethnographic study of the workers, and the behaviour of the women, whose performance requires them to ignore the presence of these same staff. The women are instead deeply engrossed in conversation. One of the staff delivers their tea, and the women neither pause nor acknowledge him. Nevertheless he still bows to them, and also to us, the tea-drinking audience.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Abel, Richard, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (London: University of California Press, 1994).

Abel, Richard, ‘Pathé-Frères’,

‘History of Ceylon Tea’,

‘Just 64p a Day for Tea Clippers in Sri Lanka’,

Moxham, Roy, Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London: Robinson, 2003).

The Romance of Tea: A Story of Its Journey Direct to the Table of Co-operators (London: The English and Scottish Joint Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd, 193-).

Peterson, Jennifer Lynn, ‘Industrial Films’,

‘Tea Planting in Ceylon’, Bioscope, 147/5 (August 1909), 19.



  • TEA PLANTING IN CEYLON (Alternative)
  • TEE (Alternative)
  • TEEERNTE (Archive)

Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
510 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production Company
Pathé Frères