How did Afternoon Tea start?
That most quintessential of English customs is a relatively new tradition.
While we can trace tea drinking back around 2000BC in China it did not arrive in the UK until around the 1660s brought in by King Charles II and more importantly his wife the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza, the price of tea was so expensive that only the very rich could afford to drink it.
It was much later in the mid 19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared in newspapers, the mention of Afternoon tea was seen to be introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in or around the year 1840s. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The main evening meal was served fashionably late at around eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between breakfast and dinner, at the time it was normal just to have 2 meals a day. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her bedroom in Woburn Abbey during the late afternoon. Being a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria this was picked up and moved to the drawing room and as soon as the Queen took afternoon tea in the drawing room everybody wanted to join in and the habit spread across the upper-class.
This afternoon pause in the day routine for tea became a fashionable social event, the upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock where many households used it as a peacock event to show their wealth and stature within society. This was often taken with a stroll in the local park.
Traditional afternoon tea would be served on a 3 tier cake stand and consist of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves, cakes and pastries. Tea grown in India or Ceylon was preferred as these were British Colonies at the time.
How Did High Tea Start?
The middle and lower classes would have a more substantial tea later in the day, at five or six o'clock when the man arrived home from work, on a plate at the dinner table. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served, afternoon tea was taken whilst seating in low, comfortable chairs or sofas, whilst high tea was on a plate at the dinner table. English High Tea usually involved a mug of tea, bread, vegetables, cheese and occasionally meat. Variations on high tea could include the addition of pies, potatoes and crackers.