Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Afternoon Tea: The History and Ritual

by | June 7, 2013 | 2 comments

Tea_at_the_Rittenhouse_Hotel, author Joyosity, CC 2.0

Tea_at_the_Rittenhouse_Hotel, author Joyosity, CC 2.0

The English love their tea, or at least did. Being a tea drinker, when I boarded a plane for my first trip to England many years ago, I remember teasing my husband (a coffee drinker) that finally we were going to someplace where my choice of hot beverage would be primary. Imagine my surprise on our first night there, as we sat in a high-end pub and I confidently asked for tea after dinner, being told that tea was not served! Not served?

Apparently tea was no longer served in this establishment after 5 p.m. and, no, they couldn’t accommodate me by heating some water and brewing up some tea but if I’d like some coffee, they had several types to choose from. You can imagine my husband’s laughter.

Gratefully, I found more accommodating establishments the rest of the trip, but it served as a reminder that the British like their tea best during tea time.

For those not familiar with the custom, there are two types of tea services: low tea and high tea. You might think that low tea, or afternoon tea as it is often called, was a service practiced by the lower classes and high tea was a service for the upper classes but, historically, the reverse is true.

High tea was served between 5 and 7 p.m. in the households of workmen (what we would call supper) and included a hot dish and cold cuts of meat, followed by cakes. It was also served to children of the upper classes who would not be partaking of the more formal (and later) dinners of their parents. The term “high” referred to being more advanced in time or later in the day and the term was first used around 1825.

According the book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, what we think of as afternoon tea (low tea) did not become the custom in England until around the 1840’s. (p.209) By the 1860s, the afternoon tea, served between 4 and 6 p.m. was a “recognized social ritual” and by 1877 there was “even a special costume—the tea gown—with which ladies could grace the occasion.” (p. 209)

The afternoon tea (filled with caffeine) served as an afternoon pick-me-up and provided some sustenance before the more formal dinners which might not be served until past 8 o’clock.

Making tea for the afternoon tea service required boiled water, tea leaves—usually from China or, later, from Ceylon or India, sugar cubes and milk (not cream). The tea must steep in its pot for at least 4 to 6 minutes before pouring. In England, it is not uncommon for the milk to be added to the tea cup first, before the tea is poured. This was to prevent the boiling hot tea from cracking the delicate china cup. It became a status symbol, as pottery techniques improved, to put your milk in after the tea to show that you had superior quality china. It was also good manners to stir the tea without the spoon hitting the side of the cup, again to prevent the potential for cracking the cup.

Part of the food items accompanying the tea were tea sandwiches, though no peanut butter and jelly allowed. Tea sandwiches were typically made with cucumber, watercress, ham, or eggs in between pieces of crust-less bread. Scones were also served with clotted cream and jam—no cholesterol watching here. Smaller versions of cakes and pastries rounded out the menu and came to be referred to as tea cakes.

My daughter once befriended a elderly British woman and I invited her over for a proper afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches, scones, and pastries.  My biggest issue was finding clotted cream, but I managed to find a recipe which consists of putting cream in the oven for a long period of time and then scooping off the clotted part of the cream. She was thrilled with the results—or perhaps was just being polite. In any event, here is the recipe. http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2009/09/clotted-cream-recipe-making-clotted.html

Have you hosted afternoon teas or attended any and, if so, what was served?

Next month I’ll post about Brown’s Hotel in London, founded in 1837-38 and celebrating its 175th Anniversary and our interesting experience having tea there.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity, and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. Check out her contemporary novella, Falling for a Cowboy, and her western historical novella, Saving Cole Turner at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobooks.com. Or find her at  www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com



What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool


Picture-Wikipedia used with permission. CC 2.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tea_at_the_Rittenhouse_Hotel.jpg http://www.flickr.com/people/33993074@N00


  1. Terry Irene Blain

    Both my grandmothers drank tea, so that’s what I grew up drinking. I special order my tea from Murchies in Canada, and ‘unless the water boiling be, filling the teapot spoils the tea’ as my grandmother said.

    Tea is my favorite. My critique group celebrates by going to tea, and my daughter-in-law always takes me to tea when I visit.

  2. Nancy C

    Went to tea once years ago with friends. The finger sandwiches and desserts were wondwerful, but until then I had no idea how many kinds od tea there were. It was a fun experience accompanied by piano and harp. Every one should do it once.



Share This