The history of afternoon tea in the UK

There are many stereotypes about us Brits - we love a good queue, we all speak like the Queen and we constantly discuss the weather. One stereotype, however,  that has stood the test of time and is absolutely true, is the fact that we love a cup of tea. Whether it’s a tea break in the afternoon, high tea, or a comforting cup at the end of a long day, we love tea so much that as a country, we consume a staggering 160 million cups a day. To celebrate our love of tea, and Afternoon Tea Week running from August 13th - 18th, language learning app Babbel ( delve into the history of afternoon tea in the UK.

‘High’, ‘low’ and ‘afternoon’ tea

The difference between all of these is quite confusing. The British upper-classes would drink ‘low’ or ‘afternoon’ tea just before dinner, served on low tables, accompanied by delicate finger food. British lower classes, however, would have ‘high’ tea later in the day, serviced on higher tables, hence where the term ‘high tea’ comes from. Their foods and snacks were also much heartier, including meats, bread and pies.  

The first afternoon tea

The tradition of drinking afternoon tea was established in the 19th century and is largely credited to the eating habits of the Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess, Anna Russell, was hugely frustrated by only having two meals a day - breakfast, followed by dinner late in the evening, without any lunch in between. To lighten the hunger pangs, she scheduled a time for tea and a snack in the afternoon. Although originally a private ceremony, the custom spread across Britain in record time. 

The tea caddy origins

When tea was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century, it was considered a  valuable commodity. Because of this, elegant boxes with secure locks were created to store the tea.  Although first known as ‘tea chests’, they are now referred to as tea caddies.

There IS such a thing as a perfect cup of tea

Officially known as BS 6008, the standard for a cup of tea was devised by the British Tea Producers’ Association and the Tea Trade Committee in 1980, in order to standardise the procedure for professional tea tasters. To make tea the right way, you need a porcelain pot, with only two grams of tea per every hundred milliliters of water, and you must ensure that the temperature of the water for serving is between 60 and 85 degrees.  

The scone debate

Whether you pronounce it ‘scon’ or ‘scone’, you should know that the scone wasn’t an original element of afternoon tea, only being added in the early 1900’s. The order of the jam and cream is a hotly debated topic in the South West of England  - in Cornwall, it’s jam first and cream on top. Whereas in Devon, it’s cream on the bottom and jam on top. It’s all to do with cream quality - the Cornish believe that their cream is superior to that of the Devonians, who have to hide the poor quality cream under the jam. Whichever way you prefer, just be sure to do it the ‘traditional’ way, depending on which county you are in. 

NEVER stick out your pinky

You might think it is the ‘proper’ way to drink tea, but it is actually considered to be poor manners. The misconception comes from the fact that the cultured elite would only use three fingers when helping themselves to the snacks that come with afternoon tea, whereas the lower classes would use all five. The number of fingers used to indulge in afternoon tea actually has nothing to do with holding the tea cup itself!