With dainty cakes, mini finger sandwiches, and scones laden with jam and cream, Afternoon Tea has become renowned as a quintessentially British tradition embedded within our culture, so much so that the second week of August is dedicated to the very ritual. In honour of Afternoon Tea Week, we have sought to uncover the history of Afternoon Tea and answer the questions of where it came from, how it began, and what its rituals are.

Afternoon Tea at Summer Lodge, Dorset

What is Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea is a light meal often held between the hours of 4pm and 6pm. It consists of cakes, sweet pastries, scones with fresh preserves and decadent clotted cream, mini finger sandwiches, and either tea or champagne. Whilst today it is an occasional indulgence often used to mark celebrations such as birthdays or wedding showers, Afternoon Tea was a much more frequent occurrence when it first begun.

Afternoon Tea at Hotel d'Angleterre

Afternoon Tea at Hotel d'Angleterre

The origin of Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea has become engrained in British culture; however, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the tradition began. In approximately 1840, the seventh Duchess of Bedford and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, Lady Anne Russell, found herself in want of a snack ahead of dinner. Dinner in this period was held much later in the evening than we know it today, often around nine o’clock. Declaring herself to be ‘having that sinking feeling’ as the afternoon drew on, Lady Anne begun to request a cup of Darjeeling tea, bread and butter, and some cake to be brought to her boudoir. With this declaration, the seeds of Afternoon Tea were sewn.

Lady Anne Russell

Lady Anne Russell

Enjoying this newfound ritual so much, Lady Anne soon began to invite friends to join her, proposing the idea of ‘some tea and a walk in the fields’. Offering a chance for ladies to freely gather, host, and talk amongst each other without the presence of their husbands, this little affair of afternoon tea soon became both a popular social occasion and a liberating ritual for women of society. It is no surprise that the idea soon caught on. 

Tea Table

British Museum. Published by John Bowles (c.1701–1779), The Tea-Table. Etching and engraving, c. 1710.

The growing emulation of the ritual among other ladies of Victorian society soon elevated Afternoon Tea's fashionable status and saw it transpose from an affair held in the dressing room to the more formal setting of the drawing room. Ladies too would wear lighter, more flowing gowns adorned with long gloves and hats, completing the sophistication of the event.

QueenYoung Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria c. 1840

Amidst its growing popularity, it was Queen Victoria that turned the newfound social custom of gathering over tea and scrumptious food from a private social affair into a much grander one. Upon hearing of, likely attending, and favouring Lady Anne’s new social custom, Queen Victoria began to host ‘tea receptions’ of her own, consisting of up to 200 guests. The receptions were held between 4pm and 7pm and allowed for guests to arrive and leave as they pleased. And thus, posing the event as a larger social affair quite literally fit for a queen, the charming tradition of enjoying delectable cakes, sandwiches, and a pot of tea as we know it today came to fruition. It should be noted though that it wasn't until the twentieth-century that the scone was added to the menu.

The ritual of Afternoon Tea

Rubens Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea at The Rubens

Despite being engrained in British culture, there is much dispute over the proper way to enjoy this celebrated social custom. It is agreed that the menu must consist of a selection of delicate finger sandwiches with fillings such as cucumber or coronation chicken. So too is it accepted that warm scones with fruit preserves and fresh clotted cream must adorn the menu, accompanied by a selection of homemade cakes and sweet pastries. And lastly, whilst in its beginning the traditional drink was tea, champagne or sparkling wine are also now widely accepted, particularly when marking a special celebration.

However, whilst the Afternoon Tea menu allows some room for experimentation, the famed debate over whether jam precedes cream or vice versa continues to prevail. The most notable areas for producing clotted cream are Devon and Cornwall, and it is between these two counties that the famed debate stems. In Cornwall, the fruit preserves are spread onto the scones prior to the cream, which is then added in loving amounts. In Devon however, the decadent clotted cream is the first to be added, followed by the fruit preserves. It is a debate that has stood the test of time, and one that no one really has an answer too. But, whichever way you enjoy it, we suggest you don't hold back on either the next time you indulge in one of our famed Afternoon Teas at one of our hotels.