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Spilling the Tea on Afternoon Tea

By Millie Earle-Wright
More by Millie

A Small Cup of History

A dormouse sleeping on a wicker chair, a mad hatter talking in riddles, and the upending of reason into shambolic, whimsical chaos are perhaps not the most soothing ingredients for a tea party. Yet Lewis Carroll’s famous depiction of Alice, and her comical accompanying characters conversing about time, ravens and treacle, is almost as well-loved by the British public as the beverage that gives the party its name: tea.

Tea is as synonymous with British culture as the weather. From Dickens to Austen, Gaskell to Wilde, the steadfast presence of tea in English literature is proof of its inextricable nature to the very fabric of British life. Today, you would be hard-pressed to navigate an entire day in England without being asked one of the loveliest questions in the English language: ‘would you like a cup of tea?’

How Did Tea Get So Popular in England?
England’s Tea Tax
The Origin of Afternoon Tea
Traditional Afternoon Tea Versus Cream Tea
Modern Day Afternoon Tea
English Tea FAQs

afternoon tea with champagne

Given its regard, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that Britain was late to the tea party. It took the marriage of Catherine Braganza of Portugal to King Charles II of England in 1662 for the tannic liquid to gain popularity. Until this point, tea had mostly been drunk for medicinal purposes, with publications of the time claiming it cured a myriad of problems, from headaches to breathlessness, colds to memory loss. A recent study has proven that drinking tea in the 18th century had the (admittedly unintended) impact of reducing mortality rates, as boiling water meant a reduction in waterborne diseases. Catherine’s fondness for the drink, and her prominence in the eyes of British society, meant that tea swiftly gained popularity among the first ladies of the court. From there, tea fast became the drink of choice amongst the nobility and upper-class society.

England's Tea Tax

By the 1700s, tea had become extremely expensive. This was due to the high tax levels imposed by the government. The East India Company was also monopolising the import of tea. Exorbitant prices meant that smuggling the light, floral leaves swiftly became a very appealing and lucrative venture. Smuggling tea became so popular that by the mid-18th century, the amount of illegal tea in Britain far outweighed its legal counterpart. No longer confined to the wealthy, tea was now being sipped, supped and gulped by all members of British society.

In 1784, the pressure to reduce tax on tea and thus address the significant impact of smuggling on the tea trade eventually made headway. The tax was cut from 119% to 12.5%. This major tax reduction meant that tea was now affordable to the working classes and that the smuggling of it was no longer profitable. The black market in tea shrivelled up almost overnight, and those involved in its bootlegging turned their attention back to hard liquor or to more legally harmonious trades.

The Origin of Afternoon Tea

A fancy afternoon tea

While tea was made popular by Catherine Braganza, it was Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, who was responsible for the creation of one of the most famous and well-loved British traditions: afternoon tea. Complaining of feeling empty in the long hours of an idle afternoon, the Duchess is said to have solved this ‘sinking feeling’ by taking tea, sandwiches and cake in her private parlour at around 4pm every day. She began inviting friends over to enjoy this ritual with her. It swiftly became an elegant and popular pastime for the upper classes.

Traditional Afternoon Tea Versus Cream Tea

A ream tea set up, scones served with jam and cream

A traditional afternoon tea often consists of sandwiches, pastries and cake. If you were to roll up to a bustling cafe aglow in Cotswold stone and order a cream tea, you would be served tea with fresh scones, cream and jam. Where you are in the country will also determine in what order it is deemed acceptable to adorn said scone. Ask the Cornish, and it’s unequivocally jam first and then cream; ask someone from Devon, and it’s a dollop of fresh cream topped with a big spoonful of jam. Regardless of whether you opt for the former or the latter, the result will be delicious.

Modern Day Afternoon Tea

Although the daily frequency of afternoon tea has decreased due to the busy nature of our modern-day lives, its popularity remains steadfast. Whether it’s a quick cuppa and a slice of apple cake while catching up with a friend or a more decadent event that calls for champagne, its very appeal is that it suits so many different occasions. So, if you are ever travelling through the pastoral beauty of England, make sure to take the time to pause and pour, sip and stir, indulging in this delightful, quintessentially British tradition.

English Tea FAQs

What is the Difference Between Afternoon Tea And High Tea? Read More

High tea is more substantial than both afternoon tea and cream tea. Many think high tea is fancier than the other two versions, but it’s the opposite. Where afternoon tea is often served with finger sandwiches, pastries and cake, high tea is more like dinner with a cooked meal, bread and even dessert. It stems from the working class population who needed to wait until after work to have a meal. They needed something more filling than the small bites featured in an afternoon tea. Rather than having two meals, they had one. It’s called ‘high tea’ because it’s served at the high table, effectively the dinner table, rather than in a parlour or outside. High tea evolved to what people now call dinner, supper or, in England, tea.

What is a Typical Afternoon Tea Menu? Read More
  • A selection of tea, usually Breakfast, Earl Grey and Darjeeling
  • A selection of finger sandwiches, usually cucumber, egg and cress, salmon, and coronation chicken
  • A selection of scones, typically plain, cheese and fruit accompanied with cream, jam and butter
  • A selection of cakes, most often Victoria Sponge, Bakewell tart, Madeira cake, muffins, carrot cake, and/or chocolate eclairs
  • Pastries like sausage rolls, pork pies and mini quiches
  • Biscuits like shortbread, ginger nuts, chocolate chip cookies, and rich tea.
What is a Finger Sandwich? Read More

Traditionally, a finger sandwich is a small triangle or rectangular baton of bread with the crusts cut off. Filled with a soft, savoury filling and served with afternoon tea, they are also called tea sandwiches.

What Do You Wear for Afternoon Tea? Read More

What you wear to an afternoon tea depends entirely on the establishment where you’re taking your tea and the occasion. People celebrating will opt for fancier versions, with the full menu frequently served with champagne or prosecco. On these occurrences, you’re expected to dress smart casual. However, casual wear and even outdoor clothing are acceptable in most venues for a regular cream tea experience.

Experience Afternoon Tea With Us

Meet the Author: Millie Earle-Wright

I grew up and studied in the UK. Itchy feet led to time spent in New Zealand embracing the seasonaire lifestyle and travelling in South East Asia. The last couple of years I’ve spent in British Columbia, an amazing place to chase adrenaline.

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