A History of Afternoon Tea

Words like “cuppa” and expressions like “not my cup of tea” have become staples in the British language for years – not to mention that tea has been England’s “national drink” for generations.

And although the custom of drinking tea dates back all the way back to the 3rd millennium B.C. in China, it wasn’t until the 17th century when the British East India Company started transporting massive amounts of tea to English shores; and well, the rest is history.

As a matter of fact, in this day and age having a cup of tea in England with friends during the afternoon hours has become such a huge part of English culture and tradition, that eventually it morphed into its own term (“Afternoon Tea”) which is actually much more complicated than it sounds…

So… what exactly is “Afternoon Tea”?

“Afternoon Tea” wasn’t part of the English tradition until as “recent” as the 19th century thanks to Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford who was also a close friend of Queen Victoria and quite the prominent figure within London’s aristocratic society.

Her husband (Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford), would often invite his male friends to lunch parties to discuss various business, environment and political topics over a light meal, and as a result their wives would have to wait for hours on end until they returned home for their evening meal. (Not only that, during the 1800s in England it was common to eat just two main meals a day, with breakfast being served early in the morning, and dinner later in the evening).

And because dinner wasn’t served until sometime between 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. during the summer months (to take advantage of the longer days and save money on candles to light up the house), the Duchess would often go through bouts of hunger by the mid-afternoon, and often complained about having “that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon waiting around for dinner time; (as one often does).

The Duchess started requesting a bit of bread with butter, cakes and biscuits with a cup of her beloved Darjeeling tea around four in the afternoon, and she soon began inviting her friends to join her in her dressing room in Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, after which they would have a pleasant, summer afternoon stroll “walking the fields.”

She continued the tradition after returning to London, and soon Queen Victoria caught wind of this tradition and fell in love with the idea; so much so that the Queen herself would soon start requesting an afternoon “cuppa” with light cake and buttercream topped with fresh raspberries, (now known around the world as Victorian Sponge Cake). And thus, the tradition of Afternoon Tea in England was officially born.

The evolution of Afternoon Tea in England

By the 1920s, Afternoon Teas went from being a few snacks with a “cuppa” served on a fancy tea tray, to massive, highly-fashionable social events hosted by England’s elite and upper-class societies. (Imagine: women dressing up in their fanciest long gowns, gloves and hats just for the special occasion).

As many as two hundred guests would be invited to the English elite households between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., during which they would indulge in sandwiches, sweet pastries, cakes, and (obviously) a few cups of tea. (Although today scones are a staple in the Afternoon Tea experience, they weren’t introduced until a few decades later).

The household servants would serve the guests a variety of dainty sandwiches, cakes and pastries, and the best tea the household could get their hands on, which would then be poured from expensive silver teapots into elegant fine bone china teacups.

Soon the tradition of Afternoon Tea expanded outside of the homes of aristocrats and into everyday, middle-class families in England, who would enjoy a pleasant stroll around the neighbourhood after dining on tea, cakes and biscuits. Soon even the lords and men of the house would join in on the Afternoon Tea festivities as well!

What’s on the menu for Afternoon Tea?

A true-blue Afternoon Tea doesn’t have a specific set of menu items, although it usually consists of dainty sandwiches and a variety of sweet items like clotted cream, home-made cakes, pastries and a range of different high-quality teas.

Sometimes Afternoon Teas are served with cucumber or smoked salmon sandwiches with cream cheese lightly spread in the middle, although you may come across the odd Afternoon Tea menu which includes ham and mustard or coronation chicken as well.

In Devon, Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset, Cream Tea is an adaptation of Afternoon Tea which consists of tea (obviously) with scones and clotted cream. There are also Champagne Afternoon Teas (typically served in fancy hotels with the tea being poured from elegant silver teapots followed with a glass of champagne – hence the name).

“High Tea” vs. “Low Tea”

When glancing over a hotel menu, you might even come across the term “High Tea,” which is a term the upper-classes would use for their four o-clock Afternoon Tea session, followed by a fashionable promenade around Hyde Park.

Ironically, the middle and lower classes in England would have “High Tea” later in the day (typically around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.). This type of event wasn’t so much of an afternoon get-together, but more of a main meal of the day among England’s working class. This term originated sometime during the Industrial Revolution when workers returned home after a hard day of labour; thus, the “high” in “High Tea” is actually because it was the main meal of the day, as opposed to the simple Afternoon Tea which was called “Low Tea”. (As a matter of fact – it’s quite taboo in English society to confuse “High Tea” with “Afternoon Tea”!)

Not so ironically, however, the terms “High Tea” and “Low Tea” also refer to the height of the tables on which the Afternoon Tea was served (with High Tea being served at the dinner table).

Where to enjoy some true-blue Afternoon Tea in London

If you’re visiting London in the near future and you want to have the quintessential Afternoon Tea experience, you won’t have to search very far. The fanciest of fancy hotels in London pride themselves in hosting the best Afternoon Tea events in the UK, not to mention a ton of restaurants, cafes and even museums offer budget Afternoon Tea dining experiences as well.

Here are some of the best places in London offering classic Afternoon Tea experiences to customers:

  • The Ritz, W1J 9BR (around £52)
  • Fortnum and Mason, 181 Piccadilly (around £44)
  • Brown’s Hotel , Albemarle Street (around £55)
  • Claridge’s, Brook Street (around £58)
  • The Dorchester, 53 Park Lane (around £55)
  • Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0EU (around £50)
  • Harrods’ Georgian Restaurant, 87-135 Brompton Road (around £42)
  • The Langham, 1C Portland Place London (£27.50 per child, or £49 per person)

However, if you’re on a tight budget and you’re looking for something more in your price range, here are a few other places known for hosting amazing Afternoon Tea experiences in London:

  • British Museum, Great Russell Street (around £25)
  • Orange Pekoe, 3 White Hart Lane (around £19.95)
  • Zetter Townhouse Marylebone, W1H 7JB (around £28)
  • St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road (around £29)