A History of Afternoon Tea

There is no more quintessential British ritual than the ceremony and serving of afternoon tea. But where did this custom come from and why do we love it so much?

Afternoon Tea at Moor Hall Hotel & Spa

How It All Started...

Afternoon tea was introduced in England in 1840 by Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, and lifelong friend of Queen Victoria. At the time, people only ate two main meals a day and finding herself understandably peckish in the long gap between breakfast and dinner, the Duchess began inviting her friends to enjoy tea and ‘a light refreshment’ in her rooms a Woburn Abbey. She continued the practice upon returning to London and the ‘Afternoon Tea’ became an increasingly fashionable ritual among the social hostesses of the upper classes.

During the 1880s 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. 

Tea rooms were all the rage in the late 19th century, quickly becoming THE place for meeting friends and sharing gossip. They were also considered one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone, so the out-of-home Afternoon Tea took off. At some stage music was added to the occasion, and fashionable young people attended afternoon ‘tea dances’ in the most stylish of hotels, a practice which continued until the Second World War.

Afternoon Tea in 20th Century

The two World Wars radically changed the taking of afternoon tea, especially with tea rationing continuing into the 50s but the custom did survive until well into the mid-20th century. Ironically, it is the economic downturn which began around 2008 that is credited for the revival of afternoon tea. The return to more traditional values and homely pursuits is more prevalent when money is tight, it seems.

So nearly 200 years after the Duchess of Bedford’s innovation, sitting down to an afternoon tea remains a byword for an elegant way of carrying on.

Festive Afternoon Tea at Moor Hall

Facts About Tea

How we pronounce scone can be rigorously debated depending on where you live. Would you be a ‘Game of Scones’ or a ‘Scone with the Wind’ kind of person?

The correct etiquette is to add milk to the teacup first to protect the delicate china from the hot tea.

As you begin to eat your food, always start from the bottom of the tea stand and make your way to the top.

The most expensive tea bag in the world was created by Boodles jewellers to celebrate PG Tips’s 75th anniversary. The diamond-encrusted bag was valued at £7,500.

It is estimated that, as a nation, British people consume around 62 billion cups of tea a year.

Afternoon tea was originally an upper-class social event with a menu traditionally made up of delicate finger foods ranging from small sandwiches to scones, pastries and cakes. The working class could not afford such an indulgent treat so instead introduced high tea – a much heartier affair usually involving tea, bread, meat, pies and crackers. High Tea was usually eaten at the dinner table - so high up. Whereas Afternoon Tea was placed on lower tables.

The Victoria sponge cake was named after Queen Victoria, who was known to enjoy a slice with her afternoon tea.

Until the mid-18th century ale and gin were the drink of choice for people. Once tea came along, the fashion changed and tea became Britain’s most popular beverage.

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