I went out for afternoon tea with friends recently and it got me thinking about this great British tradition and how it all started. Did you know that afternoon tea has been a British tradition for over two centuries
That mid-afternoon slump and craving for something sweet is usually remedied with putting the kettle on and reaching for the biscuits. But drinking tea and eating a snack at 3pm used to be a much more refined affair. In fact, it’s traced to the tradition of taking afternoon tea – a civilised event that has increased in popularity again in recent years.
As much as afternoon tea is loved for its cute finger sandwiches, elegant desserts and restorative drinks, it’s also an occasion in itself. The how, where and with whom you indulge is just as important as what you indulge in. And we can thank one fine lady’s peckishness and desire for a good chit-chat for the whole affair.
Tea drinking had been the height of sophistication in Britain since the 1660s, when it was popularised by King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. But it wasn’t for everyone: hefty price tags meant tea was the preserve of the aristocracy.
It had also long been the fashion for aristocratic families to just have two main meals a day: a substantial breakfast and an evening meal, supplemented by a light lunch. But by 1840, with the advent of kerosene lamp lighting, dinner was eaten later – and Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford complained of a “sinking feeling” around 4pm, what we now call the afternoon slump. Anna started ordering a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake to her room around mid-afternoon, and invited friends to join her.
When Anna came to London, she brought afternoon tea with her and it soon caught on among the great and the good, then shortly after, skyrocketed with a royal endorsement. Lifelong friend Queen Victoria loved the idea and began to enjoy having light cake with buttercream and fresh raspberries – later known as Victoria sponge – to accompany her precious cup of tea. Ladies came for tea dressed in finery and, as the gatherings got bigger, they moved to the drawing room. When summer arrived, afternoon tea relocated to glorious, high society gardens. Tea was still a delicacy so serving it to a large number of guests in the beautiful grounds of your huge home was a way to display wealth. Tea would be served from elegant silver teapots into fine bone china cups, with dainty morsels carefully presented on low tables as the ladies relaxed in parlour chairs. My husband used to laugh at me when I insisted on a bone china mug for my cup of tea. I must have some aristocratic blood somewhere 😂 but, believe me, it really does make a difference to the taste. Try it!
The 'At Home' tea evolved and quickly spread throughout England. Announcements about tea were sent to relatives and friends stating at what hour the tea would be served. Sometimes entertainment was provided but more often it was simply a conversation and a little idle gossip over tea and cakes. If 'At Home' notices were received the guest was expected to attend unless regrets were sent. There was at least one person holding an at home each day and social ties were quickly established with women seeing each other so regularly. The taking of tea gradually spread from the home and out into society in general. Tea Parties became the norm and Tea Rooms, and Tea Gardens quickly sprang up everywhere. During the Edwardian period, the 'At Home' faded as the desire to travel increased. Tea was now served at four o'clock in the new tea lounges of luxury hotels, the Ritz being one of the most famous, and high-end stores such as Fortnum and Mason, and was often accompanied by light music and sometimes even a little dancing.
By the late 19th century, tea prices had become more affordable, allowing the burgeoning middle classes to partake in the sophisticated afternoon tea ritual. It spread across Britain and even to the USA. Tea dances became something of a phenomenon and lasted until well after the Second World War, but then gradually disappeared.