The History of Afternoon Tea



According to historical records, it was a Portuguese aristocrat who introduced tea to England. In fact, Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of Portugal's King John IV, is said to have brought the popular drink to the English when she married England's King Charles II in 1662. Given Portugal's direct trade link with China (via Macau) which started in the 1500s, tea was apparently already popular among the Portuguese aristocracy. However, in England the tea trend wouldn't take off until the 1800s.

Catherine of Braganza, Source: Wikimedia


The Beginning of Afternoon Tea

Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford is largely credited as the originator of the practice of afternoon tea in the 1840s. How and why did this come to be? History suggests that while visiting the 5th Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, the Duchess was feeling hungry between the the traditional light luncheon and formal dinner - which was usually around 7 and 8 pm. Her solution to her hunger was to have a smaller meal in between this time in the form of tea (usually a black tea like Darjeeling), small cakes and sandwiches. After some time, the Duchess began inviting her friends to join her for this 'afternoon tea'. From there, the trend picked up amongst the upper middle class and upper class. It was traditionally served around 4 pm. In 1865, The Langham would be the first hotel to popularize this tradition on its opening menu in London, England.

Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, Source: Wikimedia


Types of Afternoon Tea

  • Cream Tea: Simply clotted cream, jam and scones served with tea
  • Light Tea: Cream tea plus some light desserts (like petit fours)
  • Full Tea: Light tea plus savoury treats (like tea sandwiches)
  • Royal Tea: Full tea served with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine like prosecco.


Why High Tea is not the same as Afternoon Tea

High tea is not the same thing as afternoon tea - despite modern attempts to use the two terms interchangeably. While the term 'high tea' might sound more posh, high tea is actually a hearty, evening meal that is often served between 5 and 7 pm. Historically, in the newly industrialized Britain in the 1800s, high tea was associated with the working class and was a tea and hot meal that was enjoyed after work. Today, it is actually enjoyed by all classes and is sometimes served after sports matches like cricket. Some examples of the dishes served at high tea include:

  • Meat dishes like steak and kidney pie;
  • Fish dishes like pickled salmon;
  • Baked goods like crumpets;
  • Potato and onion cakes; and 
  • Baked beans and casseroles.


Afternoon Tea, 1886. Chromolithograph after Kate Greenaway (Source: Print Collector/Getty Images)