top of page

A brief history of Afternoon Tea

Woburn Abbey Drawing Room

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.


Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Woburn

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.

How your morning 'cuppa' became a national obsession


Often described as the most quintessential of English drinks, the custom of drinking tea was a relative late comer to British shores in the mid 17th century. Origins of our nations favourite drink date back to the third millennium BC, and it took until 1560 for tea to reach Europe, by way of Venice, from its Asian origins.

Some 50 years later in 1610, Portuguese and Dutch traders became the first to import tea to Europe, with regular shipments. Despite this being a popular past time in these countries, it wasn't until the mid-18th century that the East India Company capitalise on tea's popularity bringing it to these shores.


It may pain a devoted tea drinker to know that we need to thank coffee houses, and one on particular, for introducing tea to England. Thomas Garraway was a coffee house owner and merchant in Exchange Alley, near the Royal Exchange, in London. He sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657 stating that its virtues included "making the body active and lusty", and "preserving perfect health until extreme old age".

Tea drinking became even more popular throughout England in the 1660's due to the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza's (wife of King Charles II) love of tea.

Popularity grew quickly in the coffee houses, and by 1700 over 500 of them sold tea. Not everyone, however, was pleased to see this particular drink thrive. With tavern owners witnessing a drop in the sales of ale and gin, coupled with the government of the day seeing a drop in revenues from the taxes earned on liquor sales, it wasn't long before a taxation was placed on tea. Ironically, Charles II did his best to counter the growth of tea with several acts forbidding its sale, but these laws became so unpopular that they were impossible to enforce.

Despite this early setback, governments continued to try and control, or at least profit from the popularity of tea in Britain. Tea had become so popular in the mid 18th century that duty had reached an absurd 119%, resulting in a new industry – tea smuggling.

As large ships from Holland and Scandinavian countries reached the shores of Britain, smugglers (often local fishermen) would unload the tea into smaller vessels and sneak them inland through underground passages and hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the best hiding places was in the local parish church!

Even smuggled tea was expensive, however, and therefore extremely profitable, so many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, liquorice, and sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also re-dried and added to fresh leaves.

Finally, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. Adulteration remained a problem, though, until the Food and Drug Act of 1875 brought in stiff penalties for the practice.

By the early 1830's the East India Company was given a monopoly on the tea trade. Previously, it would take ships almost a year to make the unrelenting journey from Asia back to our shores. One of the first things this forward thinking company did was to introduce the first "clippers", to cut down journey times. These streamlined, tall-masted vessels cut through the oceans at the speed of todays ocean liners. The most famous of the clipper ships was the Cutty Sark, built in 1868 in Dumbarton. It only made the tea run eight times, but for its era it was a remarkable ship.

Today, there are 51 million tea drinkers in the UK with the tea industry worth some 530 million pounds. Black tea accounts for 450 million pounds worth of trade, followed by fruit and herbal teas coming in at 78.7 million pounds. With these new tea products gaining ground as consumers seek the health and wellness benefits, the nations love of tea drinking shows no sign of declining.


Catherine de Braganza

bottom of page