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The history of the British afternoon tea

Although it may seem as though the good old British afternoon tea has always been around, that’s not actually the case – it really only dates back to 1840.

But let’s start at the beginning with the tea itself, rather than the little sandwiches and cakes that go with it to make ‘afternoon tea’. The custom of drinking this particular herbal beverage dates back to 3,000 BC in China. The legend goes that the emperor Shen Nung was drinking some freshly boiled (for safety) water sitting beneath a tree. Some of the leaves from that tree fell into the pot that was boiling the water, and, completely by accident, Shen Nung sipped the first ever cup of tea (the tree was the camellia sinensis – tea, in other words).

It’s impossible to say how much of this story is true, but the fact remains that tea was popular in China before anywhere else in the world, possibly because a much beloved emperor enjoyed it. It was many thousands of years before the rest of the world even heard of tea, and that was down to a writer called Lu Yu who wrote Ch’a Ching (Classic Tea). At this point, the idea that this infusion wasn’t too bad at all started to spread. It still took a while before Britain trusted this foreign drink enough to try it, but once it did, it was hooked. It did take until 1606, to get to Britain, though, and until 1660, when King Charles II developed a liking for it, to become popular.

Afternoon tea

So, back to afternoon tea. It was, again, a fairly long time before tea was matched with food in any substantial way, but thankfully, in 1840, it finally happened and we have Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, to thank for it.

Anna preferred to eat late (fashionably late for the time) at around 8pm, but although that was what all the top nobility were doing, it didn’t stop her – and pretty much everyone around her – feeling pecking at around 4pm. They had had lunch at somewhere between 12 and 1pm, so it was a long time to wait without something to eat.

Finally, the duchess could stand her grumbling, rumbling stomach no more and requested that she be brought a tray of small things to eat such as bread and butter (or ‘sandwiches’ which were still a fairly new concept) and pastries. And of course, she demanded a pot of tea to go with it all because who would choose to enjoy any meal with it?

The tray of tea things was asked for rarely at first, then more and more frequently, until it became Anna’s daily habit. Worried that she would begin to look rather greedy because she was the only one having that extra meal, she decided to invite her friends over to indulge with her. After all, they all had to wait until 8pm for their dinner too, so they were bound to be hungry.

They loved it, and so did their hungry stomachs. So they told their friends who tried it, and then they told their friends, and so on until everyone who was anyone in high class circles had added ‘afternoon tea’ to their meal plan. By the time we reached the 1880s, it became usual for society ladies to go and change for tea, putting on a long gown and even wearing hats and gloves for the occasion – it was the perfect opportunity to show off their new frocks.

What do you get?

Afternoon tea traditional consists of dainty little sandwiches with a variety of fillings (and usually included thinly sliced cucumber somewhere) to begin with, and then freshly baked, ideally warm, scones with clotted cream and jam. On top of this (literally, since afternoon tea is often served on tiered platters) are some little cakes and pastries. And of course, there is tea, in a pot.

It’s incredible to think that in the past this kind of feast was consumed every day – it’s not much more of a treat and is something you can experience in fine hotels and restaurants all around the country.

You can even combine your afternoon tea (which is no longer confined to the pm, but can be enjoyed at any time of the day if that’s what you prefer) with other activities and really make a day of it. For birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, hen dos, or even ‘just because’ the afternoon tea is always a winner.


By Ella Hendrix

Image credit: Beaverbrook Hotel [https://beaverbrook.co.uk]

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