The history of Afternoon Tea

A Short History of Afternoon Tea

There’s a great deal more to it than actual tea

More an occasion than a hot drink. Rehydrating dried leaves is one thing; creating a formal occasion with scones and cream quite another. We have a past Duchess of Bedford to thank for the inspiration. Gas lighting also played its part.

Tea itself has been a hit since the days of Samuel Pepys, whose famous diary noted it thus in 1660: 'I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before.' The glorious tradition of ‘Afternoon Tea’ as a meal occasion, however, came to a gentle boil altogether later.

Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford in the 1830s, is credited with first making ‘Afternoon Tea’ into a formal social occasion.

It all had to do with the shifting hour of the evening meal, which became fashionably later and later as more and more houses became able to be cost-effectively lit until well into the late evening. Not that the Bedfords were especially short on candles, but someone has to lead these things.

Book Afternoon Tea

Finding herself understandably peckish in the gap between luncheon and dinner, the Duchess began inviting her friends to enjoy tea and ‘a light refreshment’ in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. She continued the practice upon returning to London and the ‘Afternoon Tea’ became an increasingly fashionable ritual among the social hostesses of the upper classes.

Savoury afternoon tea
Cake stand

‘Tea rooms’ were all the rage in the late 19th century, quickly becoming THE place for meeting friends and sharing gossip. They were also considered one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone, so the out-of-home Afternoon Tea took off like a social network. At some stage music was added to the occasion, and fashionable young people attended afternoon ‘tea dances’ in the most stylish of hotels, a practice which continued until the Second World War.

Nearly 200 years after the Duchess of Bedford’s innovation, sitting down to afternoon tea remains a byword for an elegant way of carrying on. No wonder people like to come to a bastion like Fortnum’s to do it properly.

But for all our legendary respectability, Fortnum’s celebrated afternoon tea may actually begin with a glass of champagne and some canapés. My dear. It’s not a complete misnomer though: there will always be a pot of our famous Afternoon Tea or another elegant blend, and the classic bone china cake stand is always layered with light finger sandwiches on the lowest tier, scones, jam and cream on the second and delicious cakes and pastries on the uppermost.

Allow a good hour or more to enjoy this most leisurely of meals, which is served in our graceful Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. There’s a lot more to it than just ‘a China drink’, you see.

Watch our short film about the history of Afternoon Tea

Book Afternoon Tea