The History of Afternoon Tea

In the UK alone, over 165 million cups of tea are consumed each day. That’s more tea than there are people who drink it. Whether you prefer a classic Earl Grey with a splash of milk or a calming chamomile before bed, there’s no denying that a good cuppa is adorned by many. 

Although we could discuss it all day we aren’t here to debate what makes tea so tempting to the average Brit. Rather, we’re looking into the very tradition that made our favourite brew such a staple of British culture. So, what is the history of afternoon tea? 

From ancient Chinese Emperors to Victorian ladies-in-waiting, the history of afternoon tea has been honed for centuries. But have you ever stopped to wonder just how the ancient custom came to be so widely loved? Well, look no further, as we’re about to take you on a brief detour into the fascinating history of afternoon tea. 

High Tea

What is afternoon tea and why are we talking about it?

As Queen Elizabeth approaches her record-breaking 70th year on the throne, celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee are set to kick off. In true British fashion, we’re welcoming the four-day weekend at Donnington Grove over Royal afternoon tea served with finger sandwiches, freshly baked pastries and prosecco. 

For those who’ve been living under a rock, afternoon tea is a traditional British custom that tends to take place between lunch and dinner. Made up of light nibbles and a pot of tea or coffee, it was originally designed to stop hunger cravings whilst still leaving room for the final meal of the day. Now, it’s the perfect excuse to pop the kettle on and refuel over a slice of cake or two. 

But when exactly did it all begin? What is the history of afternoon tea?


What is the history of afternoon tea?

The history of afternoon tea begins 5000 years ago in ancient China. According to folklore, tea was discovered accidentally when the Chinese Emperor was boiling water and a gust of wind blew wild tea leaves into his pot. After this discovery, tea was believed to have medicinal properties and was used by the Chinese as a herbal remedy for centuries. 

It later became a popular beverage in Japan after a group of Buddhist monks were sent to China to learn more about the culture. The monks returned with tea seeds so that the plant could be grown in Japan, and it wasn’t long before it became a popular beverage amongst wealthy Japanese people.   

Late to the party, Britain wasn’t introduced to tea until the 16th century after King Charles II got married to Catherine of Braganza, who had acquired a bit of a tea-drinking habit over in her native province of Portugal. It was thanks to Catherine’s tea addiction that many other wealthy Brits became inspired to indulge in the occasional cuppa once in a while. From here on, Britain earned their place in the history of afternoon tea. And clearly, we have no intention to slow our thirst down.


pouring tea

The 7th Duchess of Bedford

Whilst we have Catherine to thank for introducing us to tea, the actual tradition and British history of afternoon tea didn’t form until the 1800s. It was the 7th Duchess of Bedford who initiated it and went on to become somewhat of a trendsetter. 

The Duchess, who would grow hungry between lunch and dinner, was known to request a tray of tea, a slice of cake and a plate of bread and butter every day at 4pm to squash her cravings. She would often invite her close circle of friends to join, and the custom quickly caught on amongst the elite members of Victorian society, who began holding tea parties for their wealthy companions. This could be argued as the rich beginning of the afternoon tea. 

afternoon tea

The history of afternoon tea etiquette

A typical Victorian afternoon tea came with a certain etiquette. Guests would receive their invites via word of mouth or a handwritten note stating the date and time of the gathering. They would then be expected to arrive in their best formal attire. Women would typically opt for an elegant tea gown paired with gloves and a hat, whilst the men would arrive in suits and ties. The better dressed, the wealthier they appeared. 

When the afternoon in question arrived, the hostess would greet her guests at the door with a handshake before leading them to the drawing room. Crisp, white tablecloths would be laid out with freshly cut flowers and expensive china teasets. 

On a nice day, afternoon tea would take place in the garden to take advantage of the rare British sunshine. 

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The history of afternoon tea: food and entertainment

When it comes to the history of afternoon tea, guests were known to tuck into a delightful spread of dainty cucumber or salmon sandwiches served without the crust, home baked scones slathered with generous amounts of jam and cream, as well as an array of delicious tarts, cakes and pastries. All topped off with a fresh pot of tea or coffee.

The food was designed to be eaten with your hands as only those in well-paying professions were expected to indulge in afternoon tea. Eating with your hands indicated that you did not participate in manual labour. Rather, you were a doctor, lawyer or businessman. 

As for entertainment, guests would be allowed to converse over politics or popular affairs without being frowned upon for having an opinion (which was often the norm if you were a woman in Victorian times). The host would sometimes encourage guests to join in with some games or dancing, which would go on until early evening until it was time to depart for dinner.  

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Illegal tea smuggling

For a while, this way of doing afternoon tea was commonplace and reserved only for the upper ranks of British society. This was due to the extortionate tea tax prices imposed by the government which meant only those with money to spare could afford such a treat.

The history of afternoon tea doesn’t stop there. The high tax prices combined with the demand for tea meant that those wanting to indulge in an afternoon tea of their own would have to find different ways to acquire it.

For a while, black market sellers would smuggle it into the country illegally. This was often poor-tasting or contaminated with unknown substances that were harmful to the average tea drinker. Yet illegal tea smuggling went on for decades until tea prices were eventually dropped, and the beverage became widely accessible to most UK households.

The lengths we’d go to for a cuppa. 


Taste the history of afternoon tea at Donnington Grove

Before you start polishing off your best china in time for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, consider popping down to Donnington Grove this June for a very special Royal Tea. Wear your best summer attire and celebrate her majesty’s 70th year of service over a traditional British afternoon tea served with homemade scones, sandwiches and cakes prepared to perfection. We can’t wait to see you.