The Birth of Afternoon Tea – How a Duchess turned a ‘sinking feeling’ into a fashionable pursuit

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Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Woburn

We have a lot to thank Catherine de Braganza for, for bringing tea to England as part of her dowry. But, there is another lady to thank when it comes to one of the nations tea ‘obsessions’.

During the mid-nineteenth century it was usual for people to take only two main meals a day, breakfast and dinner.

Dinner was a more formal affair and would typically occur around 8 o’clock in the evening, thus leaving a long period of time between meals.

In order to suppress ‘that sinking feeling’ during the late afternoon, Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Woburn asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her room during around 4 in the afternoon.

Later Anna Maria would invite friends to join her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey during the summer and continued the practice when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walk in the fields”.

Other social hostesses quickly picked up on the idea and the practice became respectable enough to move it into the drawing room. Before long, all of fashionable society was sipping tea and nibbling cakes in the middle of the afternoon.

During the late nineteenth century, afternoon tea became extremely popular with the upperclass and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats.

Traditionally, the upper classes would serve a ‘low’ or ‘afternoon’ tea around four o’clock. The middle and lower classes would have a more substantial ‘high’ tea later in the day, at five or six o’clock, in place of a late dinner. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the meals are served, high tea being served at the dinner table.

A traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches, scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Tea grown in India or Ceylon is poured from silver tea pots into delicate bone china cups. In recent years, the addition to the menu of a glass of Champagne or Prosecco has increased its popularity.

To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition, indulge yourself with a trip to one of our finest hotels and restaurants who will be more than happy to offer you a special ‘afternoon tea’ experience.

Filed under Food & Drink.