The origins of afternoon tea in England

Afternoon tea at Brown's

Having an afternoon tea in Leicester Square before attending a film première at one of the Square’s cinemas is an extremely civilised way of spending an afternoon and an evening. Afternoon tea is a very English institution and many hotels continue with this tradition that dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Afternoon tea at Brown's

The custom of taking a small meal in the afternoon, typically from 3pm until 5pm, is thought to have begun around 1840. Although initially it was associated with the upper classes, it also became a common practice amongst the lower classes.

In those days the upper classes would partake of luncheon at around midday and dinner at around 8.00 pm, and the working class would take dinner in the late morning around 11.00 am and supper in the early evening around 7.00 pm. Although today most people refer to a midday meal as lunch or luncheon, it is still common in some traditionally working class regions to refer to a midday meal as dinner.

For both upper and lower classes, there was a hunger gap in the afternoon which was found to be satisfied by having an afternoon tea. It is said that the tradition of afternoon tea was begun by Duchess Anna Maria who was married to the 7th Duke of Bedford. She lived at Woburn Abbey and regularly entertained her friends and acquaintances there. During the afternoons she would complain of feeling flat and lethargic, and to overcome these feelings she privately took afternoon tea in her room. Later she introduced the practice to her visitors who themselves then invited their friends to take the timely snack. Once afternoon tea was considered to be respectable, it did not take long for the custom to spread throughout the British Empire.

Whatever the class, the beverage was always tea, which was made in a teapot and served with sugar and milk. Tea, with its high caffeine and sugar content, was the ideal drink for reviving and stimulating the senses. Typically working men and women would accompany it with a sandwich or more typically a scone which they would take to work with them.

For the higher classes afternoon tea was a far more elaborate affair. Scones and sandwiches were also consumed, but these tended to include what were then luxury ingredients such as ham, smoked salmon, cucumber, cress and various patés and pastries. Scones would be served with jams and clotted cream, and delicate pastries and cakes would also be included in the repast.

The experience of afternoon tea is not just the food and the beverage; the manner in which it is served and the crockery on which it is served are equally important. Traditionally the tea is brewed and presented in an ornate silver teapot and it is served in fine and often elaborately decorated bone china cups which have matching saucers and side plates. The cakes, scones and sandwiches (which de rigueur have had their crusts removed) are served on matching tiered cake stands.

So if you find yourself in England and wish to share a quintessentially British tradition, you know what to try.

What say you?