The phrase given away with a pound of tea is used of something considered tawdry and worthless.
It refers to the grocers’ former practice of making a free gift with every pound of tea or with any fair-sized order. This practice was mentioned, for example, in an article titled Special Attractions, published in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Friday 22nd January 1886:
In days when the race for life is growing swifter, and the struggle for existence more keen than ever before, it appears the object all who have business dealings with their fellow-men [is] to put forward such special attractions as shall draw into their net a larger number of customers than their neighbours. […] The old idea that it was sufficient to placard one’s windows with the words “Selling off,” is exploded, because it has been so much overdone, and the more recent fashion adopted by pushing grocers of announcing that certain gaudy but not particularly useful articles are “Given away with a pound of tea,” has not struck deep root.
This practice was also mentioned in an article titled Day Trips, published in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Friday 11th September 1885:
The “day trip” has distinctly established itself as a part of our social system. […]
[…] It is in the manufacturing districts of the North of England that the day-trip system has been brought to its finest pitch of development. […]
[…] In the North it is not as it is in London. In Lancashire and Yorkshire private firms—tea dealers, grocers, and other retail traders—organise excursions as a means of advertisement; the chance of a cheap ticket is “given away with a pound of tea,” just as glasses, and jugs, and monstrosities in ornament are in more southern latitudes.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the review of a pantomime titled Aladdin; or, Harlequin, the Magic Lamp, the Lively Scamp, the Wizard Rude, the Fairy Good, and the Demons of the Enchanted Wood, staged at the Royal Princess’s Theatre, Glasgow—review published in The Evening News and Star (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Monday 12th December 1881:
By a marvellous and ingenious invention we are transported to a street in Pekin […]. With a ticket displayed on her back, announcing that she is “to be given away with a pound of Tea,” and held firmly in the grasp of two policemen, the widow is in a woeful plight when she is released through the entrance of “Aladdin,” for whom she had been searching.
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Hull Packet and East Riding Times (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 3rd October 1884; Hull had been decorated for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, and the following is about the principal decoration, an arch that had been built at the entrance to Whitefriargate:
I suppose the representation was meant as a copy of the old Beverley Gate1, and the wood and spruce branches were much more pleasing than was the taudry [sic] finery of the pink and white paper roses which were intended as a set off, but which failed so lamentably. One precious youth I saw standing gazing up at the paper garlands, suddenly broke out to his companion with, “Hey, Tom, given away with a pound of tea.” In future our decorators must remember that in the case of Beverley Gate, as with all art, or, as the poet has it, in the case of a beautiful woman, it is most adorned when adorned the least.
1 It was at Beverley Gate that, in 1642, Sir John Hotham (1589-1645), Member of Parliament and Governor of Hull, refused Charles I entry to the city—an act of defiance widely acknowledged as the spark that ignited the English Civil War (1642-49).
In the column Mustard and Cress, by ‘Dagonet’, published in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 10th January 1886, the phrase is used to deride a bookseller’s Christmas promotion offer:
Just before Christmas Mr. Smith’s bookstalls2 were covered with these “book and watch for 18s.” affairs. I shall never forget the look of indignation which mantled the cheek of one of the stall boys at Charing Cross when I asked him if he had any books that he gave away with a pound of tea.
2 “Mr. Smith’s bookstalls” probably refers to the British firm W. H. Smith & Son.
The following cartoon by the English illustrator and cartoonist John Tenniel (1820-1914) was published in the British satirical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari of Saturday 28th June 1890. Captioned Given away with a pound of tea!!!, this cartoon depicts Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (1830-1903), then Prime Minister, as an aproned, shirt-sleeved grocer at his counter; a plump German boy, holding a packet labelled Hinterland under his right arm, has just put a Zanzibar cheque onto the counter and extends his left hand to a plate on which is a rabbit-looking item of food labelled Heligoland.
—This cartoon alludes to the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890, under the terms of which Germany gained Heligoland, an island in the North Sea off the coast of Germany, and the United Kingdom gained Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa.