History of Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a quintessentially British luxury consisting of finger sandwiches, cakes, scones and, of course, tea in beautiful teapots. It might be considered more of a special occasion luxury these days, but the history of afternoon tea shows that it’s been a staple of British life for almost 200 years. So, who invented the traditional afternoon tea and why is it the perfect 21st century luxury for those special afternoons?

Afternoon tea stand

Who Invented Afternoon Tea?

While tea itself had been present in Britain for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that afternoon tea as we recognise it today emerged as a high-class pastime. Sources variously put the date at the late 1830s or early 1840s, but the fact remains that it’s Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford who we have to thank for the traditional afternoon tea!

The Duchess found that she was becoming peckish in the long gap between luncheon and dinner as the evening mealtime was becoming fashionably later. She began inviting her friends to her rooms to enjoy light refreshments incorporating a pot of a tea and a snack. Where the Duchess led, others followed and the practice of taking afternoon tea moved into respectable drawing rooms across the country.

Since tea came with a hefty price tag, it was the preserve of the aristocracy and no household represented that more fully than the Royal Household. Queen Victoria gave the idea of afternoon tea the royal seal of approval and the rest is history.

finger sandwiches

What is Traditionally Served at Afternoon Tea?

The evolution of afternoon tea means that some modern elements would be unfamiliar to the hostesses in the 19th century. Yet the basics of the traditional afternoon tea often remain – a pot of tea, sandwiches and small pieces of cake.

As the idea of afternoon tea was to bridge the gap between luncheon and dinner, it wasn’t designed to be a full meal. It developed into a fashionable social occasion where ladies changed into long gowns to visit each other’s drawing rooms to partake in tea and light refreshments.

A traditional afternoon tea is served around 4pm and often includes loose leaf tea options such as Earl Grey, Lapsang and Assam as well as basic tea blends. Delicate finger sandwiches with no crusts come with light filings such as egg mayonnaise, salmon and cream cheese, or cucumber, presented on a cake stand alongside bite-sized cakes. A later addition to the traditional afternoon tea, but one expected by modern standards, were scones with clotted cream and jam.

Cream tea stand with scones

Why Were Scones Added at a Much Later Date to Afternoon Tea?

Scones are a more modern addition to the afternoon tea experience, added from the early 20th century onwards. The story goes that day trippers returning from Devon and Cornwall brought traditional cream teas back via the railway network and it soon found its way into fashionable London locations as part of the afternoon tea.

There’s a long-running battle between Devon and Cornwall to stake a claim on cream teas and it generally comes down to whether the clotted cream or jam is added first. Either way, scones are now part of the afternoon tea experience, and an exceedingly delicious part too.


How Has Afternoon Tea Changed?

Along with the addition of scones to the traditional afternoon tea, there have been further modern embellishments to complement modern social occasions. So, you may find champagne being served alongside your scones and cakes or even canapes added instead of sandwiches.

Ultimately, the traditional afternoon tea is a luxury in the modern world, often saved for special occasions. It can be used as a birthday or anniversary treat in a country house hotel or as a welcome break when shopping or visiting friends. The history of afternoon tea tells us that it’s an accompaniment to social reaction and a break from the stress of the day – that’s needed now more than ever.

Afternoon Tea by Arabella Reeve Catering

Bring the taste of the traditional afternoon tea home with the Classic Afternoon Tea Delivery recently launched by Arabella Reeve Catering. Why not indulge in an afternoon tea in your own garden or send as a gift for someone else who deserves a treat? Local Suffolk delivery is available through online ordering. Find out more on our website and enjoy the sumptuous British experience in the comfort of your own home.

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