Published: 30 May 2024

We all know we’re a nation that loves our tea, with millions of cups drank every day. Pair this with a lovely sandwich or cake, and you have a delightful day of afternoon tea ahead of you! But what exactly is the history behind afternoon tea? Where did we get it from, and how has it changed over time? Well, we’re going to answer these questions and take a look back at the history of our nation’s favourite tradition.

Learn the History of Britain’s Favourite Tradition, Afternoon Tea

A Duchess’s Delight

The story of Afternoon Tea begins with a case of afternoon munchies. In the early 19th century, Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, found herself peckish during a long gap between lunch and dinner. To battle her hunger, she began requesting a tray of tea, bread, butter, and other nibbles around 4 pm. What began as a quick snack quickly became a fashionable social event, with friends joining in this late afternoon fun.

The Rise of a Ritual

As the Duchess of Bedford’s tea habits gained popularity, it spread rapidly among the upper classes. By the mid-19th century, afternoon tea had become a social occasion. Women and men dressed in their finest clothing would gather for a leisurely chat over tea and light refreshments. Not only did the ritual provide nourishment but it also offered a perfect excuse to socialise and show off their best jewellery and porcelain.

The Art of the Tea Table

The tradition of afternoon tea is as much about the presentation as it is about food and drink. Typical tea spreads may include a variety of finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, and an array of soft pastries and cakes. Often, the tea itself is brewed from fine, loose leaves and poured into fancy teapots, accompanied by lemon and sugar cubes.

Tea Rooms and Hotels

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, afternoon tea had moved beyond private homes and into the community. Tea rooms and hotels began offering some of their own versions of service, providing those who wanted to partake in the tradition with ease of preparation. These places often featured live music, adding a bit of sophistication to an already sophisticated atmosphere.

A Tradition in Decline?

Two world wars and subsequent economic difficulties led to the decline of the tradition of afternoon tea. Changes in supply and living standards had made it impossible for many people to indulge in such expensive pastimes. However, families continued to gather for tea and biscuits, keeping the spirit of the ritual alive.

A Resurgence in Modern Times

In recent decades, afternoon tea has seen a resurgence. Hotels, restaurants, and tea rooms around the world have embraced tradition, often with modern touches. From themed teas to gourmet experiences, today’s afternoon tea scene caters to a wide range of tastes and preferences.

Beyond Britain

While afternoon tea is linked to British culture, its influence has spread across the globe. Many countries have adopted and adapted the tradition, incorporating local flavours and customs. In Japan, for example, afternoon tea might include matcha and wakashi (traditional desserts), while in America it tends to be savoury sandwiches and various pastries.

Afternoon tea is more than just food; it is a cultural phenomenon that has evolved and changed over the centuries. From humble beginnings as the Duchess of Bedford’s hunger reliever to today’s revival, afternoon tea continues to be fun and exciting. Whether you like a simple cup at home or a nice spread at the hotel, this timeless tradition offers the perfect blend of history, elegance, and deliciousness.

Book your visit to Holker Hall today and indulge in afternoon tea options from our courtyard cafe.