When tea was first introduced in England in the mid 1600’s, the consumption was limited by the high cost and also because of the segregation of tea being served in coffee houses that catered solely to menfolk. Once tea became popular enough in the coffee houses, more specific tea houses began to be opened in London and elsewhere in the country. From these Coffee houses, men and women could both enjoy a cup of tea or buy some for home.
Afternoon tea, a tradition that is thought of being almost synonymous with the word “British,” did not become established until almost 200 years later. In those days, most people only took two meals-a large breakfast late in the morning and a late dinner around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is credited for creating the tradition of afternoon tea sometimes around 1840.
Anna complained of a “sinking feeling” and requested that some light food and a pot of tea (usually Darjeeling) be brought to her private living quarters to help ward off her mid afternoon hunger. This light food probably included bread, butter, and perhaps biscuits.Eventually she began sharing this custom with her friends, and afternoon tea soon became popular among the aristocratic class.The working class caught on quickly, especially as the afternoon meal was a good opportunity take a much needed break and spend time with friends. Later on in the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s love for afternoon tea was well known, as were her particular tastes for having a slice of lemon with her tea and her preference for certain cakes and strawberry jam. Afternoon tea also gave way to another favorite tradition- the creation of tea gardens. Tea gardens were quiet places, created specially for taking in afternoon tea, with beautiful flowers, herbs and quaint outdoor furniture. Today tea gardens are not as popular as they once were, but one can still stumble across many throughout the countryside.
In England today, the tradition of afternoon tea continues on in the home, in upscale hotels, in departmental stores and even in the small neighborhood cafes and tea rooms found in every town. Whether it is a short break for a cup of tea and a small cookie, or a 3 course event of cakes, scones with jam and Devonshire cream, sandwiches and other treats, afternoon tea will continue to be a true English tradition. And tea itself will have a lasting place in English culture. Besides afternoon tea, the English consume large quantities of tea throughout the day, from breakfast to dinner and the last cup of the night. This love for tea is not unique to the English alone, but is found in most citizens of the British Commonwealth, including all of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa.