Skip to content


Your cart is empty

Article: Tea Time: A history

Tea Time -

Tea Time: A history

afternoon tea

In 1662, King Charles II married the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza. Charles himself had grown up in the Dutch capital, while in exile. As a result, both he and his Portuguese bride were confirmed tea drinkers. When the monarchy was re-established, the two rulers brought this foreign tea tradition to England with them. Tea mania swept across England as it had earlier spread throughout France and Holland. Tea importation rose from 40,000 pounds in 1699 to an annual average of 240,000 pounds by 1708. Tea quickly proved popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England. It was a hot item and boiling the water made it a safe drink. Tea became the favorite English beverage after 1750. 

Tea bowl or cup and saucer? Getting a handle on tea

The first tea cups in England were handless tea bowls that were imported from China and then later copies made in England. The first saucers appeared around 1700, but took some time to be in common use. The standard globular form of teapot had replaced the tall oriental teapots by 1750. Robert Adam's Classically inspired designs for tea sets popularized handles and other Greek and Roman motifs.  

Enjoy a selection of delicious teas and treats in our Tea Rooms.

Two meals or three?

At first tea was served in the drawing room after dinner, and as one of several beverages offered callers. Tea in the afternoon served with other foods as a snack or meal is believed to have originated from Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 1800s. Prior to the introduction of tea into Britain, the English had two main meals: breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was ale, bread, and beef. Dinner was a long, massive meal at the end of the day usually taken around 8 o'clock. It was no wonder that she experienced a "sinking feeling" in the late afternoon.

With tea's popularity it was the most likely choice as the beverage for this new meal, but given that Anna's brother Viscount Petersham was a great tea aficionado whose sitting room contained canisters of tea in great variety coffee and chocolate didn't have a chance. The Duchess invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o'clock in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea. This summer practice proved so popular, the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for "tea and a walking the fields." (London at that time still contained large open meadows within the city.)

Other social hostesses quickly picked up the practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon, which is where the term "Tea Time" came about.

High or Low

Traditionally, the upper classes serve a "low" or "afternoon" tea around 4:00 pm just before the fashionable promenade in Hyde Park, at which one might find crustless sandwiches, biscuits, and cake. Middle and lower classes have a "high" tea later in the day, at 5:00pm or 6:00pm. It is a more substantial meal essentially, it's dinner which includes bread, meats, scones, and cake. A typical menu at High tea would consist of roast pork, stand pie, salmon and salad, trifle, jellies, lemon-cheese tarts, sponge cake, walnut cake, chocolate roll, pound cake, white and brown bread, currant teacake, curd tart and cheeses. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served. Low tea is served on what we would now recognise as a coffee table. High tea is served on the dinner table.

"Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea."

~Henry Fielding

See our range of Jane Austen Teas by clicking here.

 A hostess's duties

The butler and footmen having brought her the necessary tools: tea caddy, teapot, hot water urn and heater, and teacups; the mistress of the house brewed the tea. First she mixed her favorite blend or selected a premixed blend. To brew tea, hot water was poured into the teapot and allowed to sit a few minutes to warm the pot. The water was then poured out into a waste bowl, tea placed into the pot, and boiling water poured over the tea. This was steeped five to eight minutes. The tea leaves were strained out with a tea strainer placed atop each china cup as the cup of fresh tea was poured. Only one round of tea was made at a time, as tea loses flavor rapidly. Each pot was made with fresh tea.

The social critic Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Seven makes the first mention in 1680 of adding milk to tea. Sugar from the plantations in Jamaica might also be added. English sugar consumption reached 12 pounds per capita per year in 1780. It had been 4 pounds in 1700. English crumpets and Scottish scones quickly became associated with the snack. Crumpets might be toasted in the fireplace on the tongs of a long handled toasting fork, buttered, and placed on a plate on the hearth to keep warm. By the 1840's these teas were grand enough for a buffet table to be set up with refreshments.

Cakes, thin bread and butter, fancy biscuits, ices, fruits and sandwiches comprised the food, while big silver urns dispensed tea, coffee, wine claret cup, sherry and champagne-cup. In early Victorian days, sandwiches were made only of ham, tongue or beef. By the 1870s, cucumber sandwiches were being served regularly.

Tea Gardens

Experiencing the Dutch "tavern garden teas", the English developed the idea of Tea Gardens. Here ladies and gentlemen took their tea out of doors surrounded by entertainment such as orchestras, hidden arbors, flowered walks, bowling greens, concerts, gambling, or fireworks at night. Some famous London tea gardens were Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Small, locked wooden boxes were placed on the tables throughout the Garden. Inscribed on each were the letters "T.I.P.S." which stood for the sentence "To Insure Prompt Service". If a guest wished the waiter to hurry (and so insure the tea arrived hot from the often distant kitchen) he dropped a coin into the box on being seated "to insure prompt service".

Sharon Wagoner is the webmistress of The Georgian Index. Visit her site for a treasure trove of little known information about the Georgian period. A fascinating collection!

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

All comments are moderated before being published.

Read more

Sailor’s Valentines: A gift of Love -

Sailor’s Valentines: A gift of Love

Joe Elder explains the history behind 'Sailor's Valentines'.

Read more
Fine Herbes in April: Adding Flavor to your Pot -
Fine herbes

Fine Herbes in April: Adding Flavor to your Pot

one way of adding delicate, fresh flavor to Georgian cooking

Read more