A Potted History of Afternoon Tea

Ah tea – that most quintessentially English of drinks. Despite having its origins in China (as noted by Samuel Pepys in his famous 1660 diary), tea and the consumption thereof is as synonymous with our fair isle as rain and queuing. Although coffee has seen a massive rise in popularity in recent years, we still maintain our love affair with the old brewed leaves. We drink it at breakfast, throughout the day and in the evenings and almost any situation that requires attention and discussion is preceded with the phrase, “let’s put the kettle on.”

Afternoon tea as a meal however, is a tradition that rose later on. The 7th Duchess of Bedford – Anna Russell is often credited with making the meal into a formal occasion at some point in the 1830s.

A Sinking Feeling

Around this time it became more and more fashionable to have one’s evening meal late into the evening, partially due to the increasing availability of household lighting. At the time it was also usual for people to only eat two main meals – breakfast and dinner. This lead to Anna complaining of a “sinking feeling” in the mid to late afternoon as energy levels began to run low.

Thus Anna began to take tea and a snack in her bedroom in the afternoon and later began to invite friends to join her. The occasion proved to be so popular that it was continued when Anna returned to London and even began to send out formal invites. This practice was soon appropriated by other socialites and the occasion was moved from the boudoir into the drawing room as its popularity and respectability increased.

High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

You will sometimes hear afternoon tea referred to a high tea (especially by our American cousins) but this is something of a misnomer. Rather than being an afternoon social occasion of sandwiches, cakes and sweets as afternoon tea is, high tea was the main meal of the day for the working classes. The concept originated during the Industrial Revolution where tired workers would return home in desperate need of a hearty meal.

Traditional afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches with fillings of cold meats, cheese or, of course, the famous cucumber. Scones are normally served with cream and jam as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. Tea is served in bone china pots and cups. Although in recent times afternoon tea will usually consist of a mug of teabag brewed tea and a biscuit, the less said about this sacrilege the better.

The practice of spreading jam and cream onto bread is thought to have begun in a Devonshire manor house and it is from this font that the traditional and famous Devonshire cream tea sprang. Cornwall and Somerset also claim to serve the superior version of this afternoon treat, but the history books lay the origins firmly in Devon. Many hotels in London and other big cities offer a traditional afternoon tea experience, so you should go and visit if you wish to try it for yourself.

Or maybe you would prefer to lay on your own spread and invite your friends or family around for a special treat. If this is the case then allow us to present a short guide to laying on you own afternoon tea party.

Setting the Table

In the Kitchen: The teakettle; fresh water, and loose-leaf tea.

On the Tea Tray: The teapot, a sugar bowl with sugar cubes and sugar tongs, a milk jug, a tea strainer, a bowl for used tea leaves, a jug of hot water to dilute tea to a guest's liking, and a small dish for the lemon wedges and lemon fork.

On the Tea Table: Teacups and saucers, forks and spoons, small plates, linen napkins, and plates filled with sandwiches cut into small triangles, warm scones, and small cakes. Plus a pot of strawberry jam and another one of Devonshire or Cornish clotted cream for the scones.

The tea tray should be placed at one end of the table. On one side – set out the teacups, saucers, and teaspoons. On the other side place the stacked plates, forks, and napkins. The plates of food go in the middle of the table.

How to Prepare Loose Leaf Tea

·         Use English Breakfast or Earl Grey tea.

·         Always boil cold, fresh water.

·         Use a little of the boiled water to warm the teapot.

·         Add 1 teaspoon of leaves for every 1 cup of water.

·         Pour the water over the leaves as soon as it reaches boiling point.

·         Brew tea for 2 to 5 minutes dependent on your preferred strength. It’s always better to make it a little stronger as guests who like weaker tea can use hot water to dilute.


You can decide for yourself how important the following points are to your tea party, but these are the traditional guideline to afternoon tea etiquette:

DO try a little of each food served at the tea (both sweets and savouries).
DO spread a scone with cream first, then jam.
DO avoid talking with your mouth full or taking large bites.
DO wait until you have swallowed your food before you take a sip of tea.
DO look into your teacup when sipping, rather than over it.
DO place your napkin on the chair if you must leave the table during the event. (If you must leave for some reason, simply say "Excuse me.")

DON'T place items that are not part of the tea service, such as keys, sunglasses, or phones, on the table. 
DON'T use milk and lemon together in tea. The citric acid of the lemon will cause the milk to curdle.
DON'T place lemon in the teacup before adding tea. The tea is always poured first. 
DON'T fill your cup to the brim with tea, in order to avoid messy spills.
DON'T tip your teacup too much when drinking--keep it slightly tipped.
DON'T leave your spoon in the cup. Place it on your saucer instead.
DON'T remove food from your teeth while in the presence of others.
DON'T move your plate more than 1 inch the edge of the table, and don't push your plate away from the edge of the table when you're done eating. 
DON'T talk about personal food likes or dislikes during the tea. Tea offers a nice selection of treats to avoid this problem.
DON'T place your napkin on the table until you are ready to leave the table.

Have you ever laid on your own afternoon tea party? Or maybe you know somewhere that offers a particularly good experience? Please let us know.


Have fun.