The origins of tea in Australia

A lost tea plantation, a record setting cyclone, a rainforest expedition and an Indian botanist and his dream to create a tea plantation in Far North Queensland. The story of tea in Australia reads like a film script with drama, intrigue, romance and plenty of highs and lows. Follow in the footsteps of Australia’s tea pioneers from the early days at Bingil Bay to the growth of Australia’s tea industry in Innisfail and our modern-day home in the Atherton Tablelands. The story of tea in Australia is the story of Nerada Tea.

Dr Maruff: Planting the seeds of Australia’s Tea Industry

In the 1950s, the future pioneer of Australian tea, botanist and surgeon Dr Allan Maruff, migrated to Australia from India. Together with his wife Enid, who went by her nickname ‘Carro’, he settled in Innisfail, near Cairns, and ran a successful medical practice. On a Sunday drive, Carro remarked that the foothills of Mt Bartle Frere reminded her of the north-east Indian state of Assam, famous for its tea plantations and where she holidayed as a child with her family. Inspired by his wife’s observation, Dr Maruff began to read and research all he could find on growing tea.

“The seeds of Allan’s fascination with plants may well have been sown by his mother,” writes Dr Maruff’s daughter Maggie (Maruff) Dawkins in Dr Maruff’s biography Dr Allan Maruff: Medical Practitioner & Surgeon, Tea Industry Pioneer, Inventor, Egalitarian, Philanthropist, Shire Councillor. “He often spoke of her keen interest in botany and her talent for creating drawings and watercolours of botanical specimens from their local environment.”

The lost tea plantation at Bingil Bay

But the story of tea in Australia begins much earlier than Dr Maruff and his dream of starting his own tea plantation in the 1950s. Rewind a century earlier to the late 1800s. It was at this time that four brothers – James, Leonard, Sidney and Herbert Cutten – applied for a grant for a patch of land they identified could be a potential tea and coffee plantation on the Cassowary Coast at Bingil Bay. The land was granted and it was back-breaking work taming the dense rainforest into arable land. Four years later in 1884, the Cutten brothers had established Australia’s first-ever commercial tea plantation. Alongside tea and coffee, they also grew spices and tropical fruit on their property, named Bicton.

Not long after Bicton was established, it was battered by a number of monumental tropical cyclones. In 1918, two enormous cyclones crossed the Far North Queensland coast, causing widespread damage. The second was one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the area and at Bingil Bay, the tempest unleashed a tidal wave, which had devastating consequences for the Cutten brothers’ littoral tea plantation. Practically the whole estate was destroyed and the brothers, who were by now in their sixties, rebuilt their home, but the fruit orchards and coffee and tea plantations were never restored. And so, just 40 years after it took root, virtually nothing remained of the Cutten brothers’ farming empire.

Dr Maruff goes in search of the lost tea plantation

Fast-forward to the 1950s. Dr Maruff is researching tea cultivation in Queensland and learns of the Cutten brothers’ lost plantation at Bingil Bay. Captivated by the romance of the lost plantation and inspired by his dream to capitalise on Innisfail’s lush tropical climate and fertile soil to cultivate the tea plant camellia sinensis, he embarks on an expedition to find the lost plantation. Deep in the tropical rainforest, Dr Maruff is thrilled to find wild tea plants, some growing as tall as 15 metres high, and collects hundreds of specimens. He returns to his home in Innisfail to start a tea nursery behind his surgery with the seeds he has collected. This is where Australia’s tea story makes the jump from Bingil Bay to Innisfail.

Photo: Dr Allan Maruff

Photo above: Dr Allan Maruff

Tea blooms in Innisfail

In 1958, armed with the relics of the Cutten brothers’ tea plantation he had collected from the forest undergrowth, Dr Maruff purchases 320 acres of land in the Nerada Valley, which is nestled in the lush foothills of the Atherton Tablelands. Here, with great care, he plants the very first row of camellia sinensis tea plants using the seedlings he found at Bingil Bay and cultivated at his nursery in Innisfail. These plants marked the first commercial tea planting in Australia since 1884 and became the basis for a plantation that ultimately blossoms into Nerada Tea.

“He planted his tea seeds – which are bigger than a marble ­– in their permanent place in slits in sheets of black polythene laid on proposed rows, this by-passing the high labour costs of transplanting seedling and weed control,” writes Dorothy Jones in Hurricane Lamps and Blue Umbrellas: The Story of Innisfail and the Shire of Johnstone, North Queensland. “He designed and had manufactured his own mechanical clipper and the world tea industry should benefit from his initiative of which he, as pioneer, had had the doubtful privilege of providing the high initial cost of a prototype.”

With its high altitude, humid climate, heavy rainfall and rich red soil, Dr Maruff’s plantation provides the perfect growing conditions for the tea plants. In no time, the seedlings have transformed into thriving tea bushes, and less than a decade on, in the 1960s, Dr Maruff harvests his first crop using an innovative five-tonne mechanical tea harvester, custom-made in Queensland.

But the story does not end here. Read the next chapter on Nerada’s Innisfail Connection to learn how Dr Maruff’s tea plantation was the genesis of Nerada Tea and how the unexpected legacy of the pioneering Cutten brothers became the basis of a successful tea industry in Queensland that continues today.

Today, Nerada Tea has come a long way from that lost plantation in the Bingil Bay rainforest and is the largest producer of Australian-grown tea in the world. Tea that dates to the 1800s and has been passed through the generations by tea pioneers and visionaries.

Read more…

  • Read the next chapter to learn how Nerada put down roots in Innisfail. READ MORE
  • Discover how Nerada scaled up production in Innisfail with farmer Bill Benson at the helm. READ MORE
  • A timeline of Nerada Tea, from conception to cup. READ MORE