The history of tea drinking in England goes past the actual imbibing of the refreshing blend of leaves, it extends also into a form of meal. Afternoon Tea or High Tea, as it is sometimes known, is a quintessential custom of the English that appeared in the mid-19th Century. Henry James once was quoted saying: There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. Although the actual tradition of spending a whole afternoon sitting around drinking tea and eating dainty fancies seems a little strange in this day and age, it is still a splendid pastime for a treat occasionally.
The History of Afternoon Tea
The ceremony of High Tea came to England in 1840, when Anna the Duchess of Bedford was known to get a little hungry around 4pm. In this period, it was fashionable to eat the evening meal late at around 8pm, so there was always a long gap to wait from lunch to dinner. The food consumed with the tea was basic, for example, simple slices of bread. That was until the Earl of Sandwich created the ultimate snack and inserted various fillings between the bread slices. Fancy cakes soon joined the party and the foundation of an English institution was born.
The Social Side of Afternoon Tea
It was not long before the gentry of England took up Anna’s idea and a fashionable social event sprung up in the upper echelons of society. Pausing for tea was now one of the most favorite pastimes of the upper classes, it was a way to prove that you were people of leisure and could afford to take the time for such frivolous matters. Women would wear formal long gowns for the ceremony which took place in a room where guests could be met, such as the drawing room or sitting room. Large hotels also saw this growing demand and tea rooms started popping up all over the larger towns in England and Scotland.
The Social Aspect of Drinking Tea
At the time, tea was still expensive, so partaking of Afternoon Tea was only something the toffs could afford, the working classes were on a different budget and lived life to a different schedule. Typically, a manual laborer would not return home from the factory until 6pm and was very hungry. So, their evening meal would also include tea, it was two occasions rolled into one. The average man in the street would normally sit down to an evening meal consisting of tea, vegetables, sometimes meat, cheese and bread. At times, this would be augmented with a savory pie of sorts, potatoes and perhaps biscuits or crackers.
So, while the privileged sat around and drank their Afternoon Tea as basically a fashionable event, High Tea was part of a worker’s daily meal routine right through the 18th and 19th Centuries. This so called High Tea still exists in parts of the north of England and Scotland today. Whether the consumption of tea by the British was as a social event or a daily meal, it was obvious that the nation loved this iconic drink from China. Even today, when it is so fashionable to stop for a coffee, the British show off their tradition and prefer to have a hot mug of tea.