The History of Afternoon Tea

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
Wrote Henry James in Portrait of a Lady

Kitchen Talks, Duchess of Bedford,
Kitchen Talks, Duchess of Bedford.

Drinking tea has a long history, with a huge impact on Britain.  First introduced to England from China during the mid-17th century. Hence, to buy tea in Britain was expensive, a luxury item imported from another country. It has been said that tea was believed to be therapeutic as well as delicious! Yet, the social history of tea reveals many things about Britain from fashion, the decorative arts and even the designs of gardens.

Anna, The Duchess Of Bedford (1783-1857)
Anna, The Duchess Of Bedford (1783-1857)

The tradition of afternoon tea is credited to Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the mid-1840s. Anna felt famished between lunch and dinner, which had advanced to 7.30pm or 8pm. Anna, along with other ladies began to take a meal of tea and cake in the afternoon, at first surreptitiously in their boudoirs or bedrooms. By 1850 tea had become customary in all fashionable houses. Hostesses tried to outdo each other with the most splendid display of fine bone china.

Teapot, Killerton House (NT)
Teapot, Killerton House (NT)

What better way to suggest friendliness – and to create it – than with a cup of tea? 
J. Grayson Luttrell, 1930

At first tea was served in the Drawing Room after dinner, as one of several beverages.  Then drinking tea soon became an afternoon event. Afternoon tea reached its peak during the early 1930s due to popularity of tea-dances.

Afternoon Tea 1930s
Afternoon Tea 1930s

Traditionally, the upper classes served a ‘low’ or ‘afternoon’ tea around 4pm, consisting of crust-less sandwiches, biscuits, cakes and, of course, tea. Low tea was served on ‘tea tables’ rather than dinner tables. Middle or lower classes had a ‘high’ tea later in the day at 5pm or 6pm. A typical ‘high’ tea would consist of ham, salmon and salad, trifle, jellies, sponge cake, white and brown bread, currant teacake, cheeses and tea.

Tea Caddy, Silver C.1902-1906
Tea Caddy, Silver C.1902-1906

This Silver Chinese, Tea Caddy, is an accessory for the ritual of tea drinking.
On display at the American Museum In Britain, Bath.

Fashion For Tea

Over the years there seems to have been many quirks of etiquette whilst taking tea. Once sitting down in your seat your purse must be placed on your lap or behind you, against the back of the chair, out of view. Unfold your napkin and if you are leaving to ‘power your noise’ and returning, place your napkin on your chair. We see ladies wearing flamboyant hats and elegant gloves, of course! Dress worn for taking tea has been described as ‘Tea Gowns’ or ‘Tea Dresses’ considered to be your most elegant attire. Below is a selection of dress worn for taking tea.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Anne Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria from 1837-1841.  It has been know that Victoria sponge takes it name after Queen Victoria, who so did enjoy a slice of sponge with her afternoon tea!

 Tea, Britain’s favourite drink!


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