Afternoon Tea is one of those quaint English things that has come to define the country as a whole. It’s easy to see the appeal, sweet and savoury treats served with lashings of clotted cream and jams — and of course, as much tea as you can handle.
Tea had been introduced to England by the King Charles II, and his wife Catherine of Braganza, in 1660. Before this, England had been a coffee loving nation, but the numerous Anglo-Dutch wars cut off access to the nation’s drink of choice. Tea had been consumed in the China since the early bronze age, and the English soon had their sights on this new drink. First through silver, then opium and eventually at the barrel of a rifle, England extracted all the tea it could ever desire from China, gaining the port of Hong Kong in the process.
It would be during the First Opium War (1839–1842) that afternoon tea would first come to prominence. Traditionally, the upper classes had only eaten two meals a day. A hearty breakfast in the morning, maybe a light lunch and a substantial evening meal. However, being the high society people that they were, they had access to the latest innovation — gas lighting.
As houses were able to be lit more easily, it became more fashionable to have dinner later and later, with 8 or 9pm becoming popular. For one woman, Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, this was simply too much.
She complained that she’d get hungry about 4 or 5pm. Naturally she couldn’t eat a meal so close to dinner and to simply serve dinner earlier would’ve been a blow to her prestige. Instead she came up with a novel idea for the time. She’d order bread, butter, some cakes and a pot of tea at around 4 or 5pm. Evidently, this proved to be a hit and she began inviting friends over to take ‘afternoon tea’.
As Anna travelled, the practice came with her, and whether through the novelty of it or the hungry aristocracy, it spread. But cementing it in British culture would require a far more famous woman, the most famous woman in the world at the time — Queen Victoria. Anna Russel and Queen Victoria were close friends and the Queen evidently was delighted by the idea of afternoon tea.
It’s a testament to Queen Victoria that her name was so powerful it became attached to one of the most common features of afternoon tea today. This light cake, with buttercream and raspberry jam (or sometimes fresh raspberries) is better known today as a Victoria Sponge and remains an English classic.
The royal approval opened afternoon tea up to the whole nation and the middle class ceased on it with particular fever. That said, the image we have of afternoon tea, a group of upper-class women drinking tea and dining on the sweet and savoury delicacies, has endured as the default impression of the practice.
It’s easy to see afternoon tea as yet another indulgence of the rich, benefiting from exploitation half a world away. However, afternoon tea was one of the first time that women (and it was almost entirely a women’s pursuit in the 19th century) could come together to talk openly in a relatively informal setting. Perhaps the only country with as complex a relationship as England with the tea, the United States, demonstrates this the best.
After constructing a tearoom, Mrs. Belmont (ex-wife to William Vanderbilt) and her daughter Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough would host numerous conventions, alongside afternoon tea, in the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1920, with the Nineteenth Amendment, Mrs Belmont was victorious and is credited with helping to spark the fledgling movement in the US.
Aristocrats may be looked at with some degree of scorn today, but in a different time they were the trend setters and celebrities of their age and they could have profound effects on the world. Just as the tea drinking habits of Charles the II and his wife would eventually lead to the UK bringing China to its knees in a devastating war, so to would the informal space created by Anna Russell be used as a catalyst for one of the most progressive movements of the 20th century.
Today, afternoon tea can be enjoyed all over the English-speaking world, from scones, to jam and clotted cream, to the Victoria sponge and the endless pots of tea (or sometimes even champagne). While the Savoy or the Ritz may serve the quintessential English afternoon tea, much like brunch, the universal fun of coming together over sweet and savoury treats with friends and family can be enjoyed the world over.