Is it Time for Tea?

Is it Time for Tea?

The drinking of tea while nibbling tiny sandwiches is an indelible image of English life. One would probably assume that “tea time” is a necessity deeply entrenched into English history, dating so far back that it has become written into the genetic code! Well, not necessarily.

A brief history of the magical tea leaf~

The first European to encounter tea (as far as what is recorded) was Father Jasper de Cruz, a Portuguese Jesuit, while traveling as a missionary in 1560. Gradually, over the subsequent century, tea was imported from the Orient. The cost, however, was outrageous, and only decreased as trade routes became less arduous. Popularity of the beverage grew as the tea leaves crept westward in stages, until finally reaching Paris in 1636. From here tea quickly became a fashionable drink, so prevalent that Madame de Sevigne (1626-1696) often mentioned tea in her famous chronicles of the French aristocracy—

Saw the Princesse de Tarente, who takes 12 cups of tea every day… which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. ‘But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.’ ‘No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.’

Charles II by Adriaen Hanneman (England, 1603-1671)

The founding of the British East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 opened trade to the East, but it would not be until somewhere in the mid-1650s that tea would reach England. King Charles II had developed a passion for tea during his years of exile in Holland, bringing the custom back with him when he assumed the throne in 1662. He expanded the East India Company’s focus on tea as a major import. Almost immediately tea was added to the menu of coffee houses throughout England, tea mania spreading as a wildfire. Queen Anne chose tea as the royal drink of choice (replacing ale) in 1700, thus establishing once and for all the importance of the beverage to English society and culture.

An interesting side note: Tea created a controversy of sorts with many praising the health benefits while others claimed it was harmful, too expensive, and may even lead to moral decay! Many of the tax issues surrounding tea import and export were due to the varying opinions leading to major debates in Parliament. Politicians have always been the same, haven’t they? LOL!

“Afternoon Tea” by George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924)

Controversy or not, the love of tea prevailed. Yet, as common as tea became during the 1700s, it did not replace coffee as the preferred warm beverage. Furthermore, the drinking of tea was not attached to a particular time of day until the latter decades of the 18th century. Here is how that portion of the history transpired: Working class folks started drinking strong tea as part of their evening meal of meats, side dishes, breads, cheeses, and desserts. Typically, this was their main, full-course meal of the day, taken as soon as they returned home from a long day of labor, usually without a break for food. It came to be called “meat tea” or “high tea” – the latter term because it was consumed at a high, dining-type table, and not because it was a fancy meal, as we now see the term used.

Afternoon tea – or “low tea” due to being drank while sitting on chairs in front of low tables laden with scones and pastries – originated during the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the young queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with creating the afternoon tea party atmosphere. It is said that she suffered from “a sinking feeling” late in the day since the two meals traditionally taken at that time (luncheon and then a very late dinner) were spaced so far apart.

“Tea Party at Lord Harrington’s House” by Charles Philips (British, 1703–1747)

Fascinating! So, what does this history lesson mean for the Regency Era image of ladies sipping tea in the afternoon? There is no doubt that tea was a popular beverage by the Regency years. Certainly people of all classes drank tea, but probably no more so than coffee, cocoa, or the various alcoholic options. Tea Gardens, such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall in London (established around 1733) popped up all over the place with dancing and entertainments enjoyed while drinking tea along with other beverages. Exclusive “Tea Shops,” now an integral part of British life, did not exist until the Aerated Bread Company opened one in 1864. I could not find a single reference to an afternoon “tea time” being a customary part of Regency life. Every reference gives that credit to the Duchess of Bedford, although there is not a precise date known other than somewhere in the 1840s.

Within the texts of Jane Austen’s novels the drinking of tea is mentioned numerous times, but at various hours of the day and not associated with a standard activity or ritual. I think we are safe in asserting that tea and snacks may have been consumed in the afternoon from time to time before Duchess Anna, but not necessarily as a formal tradition. So, while we cannot honestly attribute strict adherence to afternoon teatime during the Regency, it is abundantly obvious that tea consumption was extremely popular. The links noted below give more information, and the painting I’ve shared above reveal the popularity of tea in Europe dating back to the 1600s. To see more such paintings, click over to this excellent article, which also includes a terrific history: History of Tea on 18th Century American Woman

If interested, here are a few references for additional tea history information:
History of tea in Britain
Afternoon and High-Tea History
The History of Tea on UK Tea & Infusions
History of Tea: England

Tea in Eighteenth-Century Britain – an entire website devoted to the research of tea in England

14 Responses to Is it Time for Tea?

  1. Interesting and educational. I didn’t realize that coffee and chocolate were as important as tea for the British although some stories do mention both. I do drink both tea and coffee, but the latter more than the former. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lately, I’ve been enjoying an English tea brand that the Brits are probably familiar with: PG tips. It’s so much stronger tasting than our American tea brands. (I only drink the decaf though.) Thanks for this informative post!

  3. Love the history behind this. I have been drinking tea since I was very young. My mother hated coffee and so we always had all kinds of tea available. As a teenager, I found that I loved coffee too. Now I can only have coffee early early in the morning. The rest of the day usually has several cups of tea, going to herbal a couple hours before bed. I joke it’s the British ancestry coming out in me LOL.

  4. Sharon, thank you so much for this fascinating post! I enjoy sipping a cuppa tea while reading. I’ve never had the privilege to experience high tea. I would love to do so. 🙂

  5. Thank you for clarifying the difference between high/meat tea (supper) and afternoon/low tea (fancy snack), Sharon. Drives me nuts when people, especially tea room owners, refer to afternoon tea as high tea.

    BTW did you know that gaslight was instrumental in the development of afternoon tea? When houses began to be lit with gaslight, people stayed up later and dined later. So dinner might not be served until 8 or 9pm; that’s a long haul from breakfast! I bet the Duchess of Bedford wasn’t the only one with a “sinking feeling” … and the rapid acceptance of afternoon tea as a social occasion certainly backs that up. Not to mention that afternoon teas were one of the few acceptable social occasions where men and women could meet and flirt with each other. And then there’s those lovely fans and tea dresses …

    Anji, I am surprised that you grew up drinking white tea and consider it “ordinary!” White tea is amongst the rarest and least known of the tea processes (black, green, oolong, white, pu-erh, dark). It’s also one of the most expensive and most difficult to prepare properly. Wow — lucky you!!

    P.S. One of our kitties is named Tiffy. She used to be feral and had a sister named Miffy. Perhaps British tea drinkers will get the reference …

    • I never connected the dots between gaslight and late dinners, but that certainly makes sense. Thanks! Come to think of it, improved lighting probably had a big influence on the late night into the wee hours of the morning activities that were so popular amongst Society. It went hand-in-hand with the later breakfast too. I also speculate that the Oriental rituals of tea, and their lovely delicate cups, had a large influence. The English were wild about everything from the Orient, so it does make sense.

      I don’t get the Tiffy and Miffy reference, but I’m sure others will. LOL!

  6. Great post. I never liked tea growing up but love iced tea now. Still not a fan of hot tea though maybe someday I’ll develop a liking for that too.

    • I’m a coffee person myself. Of course, when one has a husband who is a barista and major coffee geek, it is nearly impossible not to be. LOL! Still, the occasional cup o’tea or hot cocoa is a nice treat. 🙂

  7. Hi Sharon 🙂

    Thank you for an interesting article. You saved me some research and I very much appreciate that. Austen Authors is a great resource.

    Now, if I could just gain a full comprehension of ‘luncheon’ I’d be all set. I find it a very confusing meal!


    • You are very welcome, Summer! We do like to enlighten and aid the research around here. LOL!

      As for “luncheon”, according to the OED it is basically just lunch, the term a shortened version. Here is the OED section–

      LUNCHEON (n.)
      “light repast between mealtimes,” 1650s (lunching; spelling luncheon by 1706); earlier “thick piece, hunk (of bread),” 1570s (luncheon), which is of uncertain origin. Perhaps it is based on northern English dialectal lunch “hunk of bread or cheese” (1580s; said to be probably from Spanish lonja “a slice,” literally “loin”), blended with or influenced by nuncheon (Middle English nonechenche, mid-14c.) “light mid-day meal,” from “noon” + schench “drink,” from Old English scenc, from scencan “pour out.” Old English had nonmete “afternoon meal,” literally “noon-meat.”

      All cleared up now? LOL!

      • LOL That definition could be used as an example under ‘Define confusing.’ I say we call it a snack 🙂

  8. Thanks for such an informative article Sharon. I hadn’t realised that we Brits had started drinking coffee before we drank tea!

    When I was growing up, tea was always the preferred beverage in my family for all meals, even for my sister and myself as children. It was also the norm for our main meal to be served at lunchtime. Until age 11, our school was close enough for us to go home for lunch and our Dad worked close enough to do the same. So teatime was exactly that; tea, sandwiches and a slice of cake. At secondary school, after age 11, we had the option of being served a hot meal at lunchtime, so the teatime routine was still preserved. It wasn’t until we moved house and my Dad couldn’t get home for lunch that things changed. Then we all took packed lunches and our main meal in the evening, at Dad’s insistence, but tea was still served! I can’t remember coffee being served very often at all.

    Even now, my preferred hot drink is still tea but it’s Lady Grey, black, with a slice of lemon and no sugar instead of the ordinary tea, white, with two (yes, two) sugars that I grew up drinking. It’s quite a treat for me to have what I know as a traditional teatime nowadays, usually at a teashop or café somewhere if we’ve been out for the day and it’ll usually involve lots of tea, some sandwiches, and scones with jam and cream – sigh!

    I can only drink coffee between mid-morning and mid-afternoon for some reason, and it has to be proper ground coffee, not instant. All other times, only tea will do.

    • When I first researched the topic, oh so long ago now, it was a shock to me as well. I tended to think that tea was a so-far-into-the-past British thing while coffee was more Italian or something. LOL! In the grand scheme of extensive English history, tea being introduced in the 1600s is practically modern!

      Thanks for your personal perspective. I love Earl Grey, when I do drink tea. I’m also very happy to hear you drink good coffee. My husband is a barista, so I know ALL about coffee, trust me. LOL! Instant coffee isn’t coffee!

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