A History of British Afternoon Tea

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Afternoon tea is a British culinary tradition that’s as popular now as it was when it was introduced in the Victorian era. In London, especially, there are many themed variations — “Peter Pan Afternoon Tea” at the Shard, for instance, or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea” at One Aldwych Hotel — but you’ll find selections of sandwiches, cakes, and scones accompanied by pots of tea in tearooms across the country. If envisioning crumbly scones dipped in a warm cup of tea already has your mouth watering, here’s a brief history of this uniquely British tradition.

How the Tradition Began

A traditional table spread of English high tea.
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The tradition of taking afternoon tea in Britain began in the 1840s with Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Lunch in those days was often served early, around noon, but dinner had gradually been pushed back later and later into the evening, so it wasn’t uncommon for it to be served at 8 or 9 p.m. Understandably, the duchess would feel hungry by late afternoon, but it wasn’t appropriate for someone of her class to eat dinner early.

The solution was a meal that would later become afternoon tea. Her servants would fetch her a pot of tea and a light snack that she would take in her private quarters in Woburn Abbey, her family’s country estate. It’s believed that the duchess began to invite her friends to join her, and what started out as a dietary fix became a fad. Once Queen Victoria joined in, the tradition of having tea before dinner evolved into a British custom.

Afternoon Tea Versus High Tea

Close-up of tea being poured from a floral patterned teapot into a bone china cup.
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The terms “afternoon tea” and “high tea” are often used interchangeably, but they are two very different things to a Brit. Afternoon tea is as we have described. It can be served at a café table, but it’s more likely to be served at home in the living room, where everyone is comfortably seated on sofas or in armchairs. High tea, in contrast, is always served at a dining table. Traditionally, this was a meal eaten by working-class families at the end of the day, typically around 5 or 6 p.m. It would include a savory course, such as meat pie or a bowl of stew, accompanied by a slice or two of bread and butter, all washed down with a cup of tea.

Over time, the name of the meal was simply referred to as afternoon tea; some families still say they’re “having their tea” instead of having dinner or supper. However, in many parts of the world, the term “high tea” is used to signify afternoon tea. As a result, you’ll find this otherwise outdated term used in promotional materials, particularly at hotels hosting international guests.

Historical Debut

A drawing of The Langham Hotel back in 1865.
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The Langham in London claims to have revolutionized afternoon tea. This upscale hotel introduced the tradition in 1865, when the elegant Palm Court dining room was unveiled and guests were charged the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence a head for afternoon tea. Before then, the occasion was the preserve of the aristocracy, who would entertain guests in fancy drawing rooms.

These sociable hosts would sometimes invite a couple hundred guests to their functions, and it wasn’t long before the custom of having afternoon tea became a craze. For those wishing to have a more intimate teatime experience, the chance to be waited on in an elegant hotel was too good to resist. The custom of sharing afternoon tea with a small group of friends or family has retained its popularity in Britain ever since.

Tea at the Ritz

A server pouring tea at afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel in London.
Credit: Sam Mellish/ In Pictures via Getty Images

Though the Ritz wasn’t the first hotel to offer afternoon tea, its tea service carries a certain cachet. The resident pianist plays “Puttin' on the Ritz” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which, along with the exquisite décor, helps to create a timeless ambience. A harpist and string quartet also set the tone for what has become an iconic experience that sets the bar high for others to follow. As is customary for establishments like the Ritz, there’s a strict dress code.

Men must wear jackets, and jeans are considered inappropriate. Show up in sneakers and you won’t even make it to a table. The experience is worth the fuss, though: No fewer than 18 different varieties of tea are on the menu. Order the Champagne Afternoon Tea — featuring the exclusive Barons de Rothschild "Réserve Ritz" champagne — and they’ll replenish the cakes until you wave them away.

Finger Foods

English tea sandwiches on a platter, over a rustic wooden background.
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No matter where you enjoy it, a typical afternoon tea will contain both savory and sweet items. The idea behind the tiered cake stand that forms the centerpiece of the table is to ensure the two are kept separate even though they’re served at the same time. The sandwiches are usually cut into triangles or squares. Typical fillings include salmon, tuna, egg-and-cress, ham-and-mustard, cheese-and-pickle, chicken, or cucumber — but in reality, anything goes.

Most luxury hotels and independent cafés will include a selection of homemade cakes, such as Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut, or lemon drizzle cake, rather than something that’s commercially produced. Scones are served too, both savory (with the addition of cheese or herbs, for example) and sweet, accompanied by jam and Cornish clotted cream. A pot of tea is essential; a glass of champagne or prosecco is optional but usually well-received.

The Great Scone Debate

Close-up of freshly baked scones for tea time.
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Nothing polarizes Brits more than the debate over scones. Firstly, there’s a disagreement over how to pronounce the word. It’s not even a north-south thing; sometimes, individuals within the same family, brought up in the same town, disagree on the matter. While you may hear the word “scone” rhyme with “gone,” you’re just as likely to be told — with authority — that the word is pronounced more like “cone.” In reality, it doesn’t matter which pronunciation you use; regardless, half the population will think you have it wrong.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is whether the jam goes on the scone before the cream or vice versa. There are two camps. In the county of Cornwall, it’s jam and then cream; in neighboring Devon, the opposite is true. Elsewhere in the country, it’s more a case of personal preference. When you're served afternoon tea, the jam and cream will come to the table in small bowls. You will have to pick a side, but bear in mind that according to her former chef Darren McGrady, the queen is #TeamCornwall.

The Tea

Aerial view of several vintage tea cups on a floral table.
Credit: Alison Henley/ Shutterstock

How you brew and serve the tea during afternoon tea is also of paramount importance. Strictly speaking, the tea that accompanies a formal afternoon tea should be loose leaf. Popular choices include black teas, such as Assam and Darjeeling. Earl Grey is sometimes substituted, preferably with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice instead of milk.

Warm a china pot with some hot water, which you should then discard. Pour boiling water onto the tea leaves, and leave the pot to steep for three to five minutes. Next, pour a small amount of cold milk into the bottom of each tea cup (never a mug for posh afternoon tea). Using a tea strainer, pour the tea and sip the brew while it’s hot. At home, it’s perfectly acceptable to cheat and use tea bags instead.

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