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Brief History of Afternoon Tea

September 25, 2022

What is Today’s Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon Tea is much more than a quick sip. It’s a meal in the afternoon where people enjoy sandwiches, usually cut in small sections or “fingers,” scones, pastries, and even little cakes. Scones are a recent addition to Afternoon Tea, but they were added to the menu since many people love them.

Once referred to as tea receptions, certain Afternoon Tea events could have as many as two hundred guests with an open invitation for people to visit the home between 4 pm and 7 pm, coming and going as they pleased.

In Britain today, Afternoon Tea is typically enjoyed as an occasional indulgence or to celebrate a special event, including bridal or baby showers, birthdays, or social events with a group of close friends.

Where Afternoon Tea Started?

Afternoon tea is known throughout the world as one of the quintessential English customs. Surprisingly, it’s a relatively new tradition. While people have been drinking tea since the third millennium BC in China, its popularity in England didn’t occur until the 1660s, thanks to King Charles II and his wife, the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza. The concept of Afternoon Tea appeared during the mid-19th century.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, introduced the concept of Afternoon Tea in 1840. The Duchess got hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon, and the evening’s meal wasn’t until 8 pm. That meant there was a long time between lunch and dinner. Because no one wants to wait that long to eat, the Duchess asked for a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake during the late afternoon. It became a habit of hers, and she began inviting friends to join her in her room to enjoy this afternoon snack. As finger sandwiches became a popular staple, the Earl of Sandwich’s effect would be felt.

This pause for tea and food became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would wear long gowns, gloves, and hats to Afternoon Tea, which would typically be served in the drawing room between 4 and 5 pm.

The Tea Dance

By the late 19th century, tea was much more affordable, allowing the growing middle class to enjoy the luxurious Afternoon Tea ritual. It spread across Britain and even to America.

People started enjoying music at the event in the 1920s. A complete performance by an orchestra in the garden was common for the super-rich. Still, fashionable youngsters of lesser means would go to hotel tea dances.

Nowadays, afternoon tea isn’t a regular part of the day for most people, but it remains a royal tradition. Queen Elizabeth II is said to take Afternoon Tea every day, where she enjoys dainty, crustless sandwiches, sweet treats, and scones.

High Tea vs. Low Tea

You may come across a menu or venue offering High Tea in some situations. Nowadays, this can mean an upper-class event around 4 pm, which a trip around Hyde Park might even follow.

However, England’s original High Tea was a term used for the middle and lower classes’ supper. It typically took place around 5 or 6 pm. In many cases, it was the main meal of the day among the working class.

Many believe that people started using the term during the Industrial Revolution when workers returned home. High Tea was a more substantial meal than simple Afternoon Tea that was sometimes called Low Tea. In fact, it can still be a big no-no to confuse the two in England.

High Tea also referred to the height of the table, as the dinner table was higher than the coffee or tea table where one might enjoy a light snack. Some people in England still refer to dinner as tea.

Traditional Afternoon Tea Menu

  • Several types of fresh finger sandwiches, such as cucumber sandwiches
  • Scones with clotted cream and preserves
  • Various homemade cakes and pastries
  • A selection of teas from dark, full-bodied to light, refreshing flavors

What Types of Sandwiches are Served with Afternoon Tea?

Classically, the sandwiches you serve with Afternoon Tea can include:

  • Cucumber
  • Smoked salmon with cream cheese
  • Egg mayonnaise with cress
  • Coronation chicken
  • Ham and mustard

What is a Cream Tea?

Cream Tea generally refers to an Afternoon Tea selection of scones, clotted cream, and preserves served with a pot of tea.

What is Champagne Afternoon Tea?

Many hotels offer a glass of Champagne along with their Traditional Afternoon Tea. You might also be able to add a glass of Champagne for an additional charge. This version is typically for celebrations and special get-togethers.

What Types of Tea are Served?

The selection of teas available can range from six to over a hundred, including some rare and obscure ones. The most commonly offered teas can include:


Assam is India’s strong, full-bodied tea. It has a unique, malty flavor.


Darjeeling is an aromatic, astringent tea from India. Its flavor has a hint of almonds and wildflowers.

Earl Grey

The most commonly known tea and a loyal favorite of many, Earl Grey is a blend of black teas scented with bergamot oil. It was named after Charles the Second Earl Grey, who was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834.

Lapsang Souchong

Often shortened to Lapsang, this is a Chinese tea that’s fired over smoking pine needles. It has a unique smoky scent and flavor.

To experience the long-standing tradition of Afternoon Tea for yourself, check out The Swan in London. Sitting right on the river Thames, we offer delicious treats and, of course, tea. For more information, check out  https://swanlondon.co.uk/afternoon-tea/

A Swan Gift Voucher

Share the Swan experience with a loved one or simply treat yourself. Our luxury gift vouchers include a Champagne afternoon tea, a three course meal with a River Thames view, or a gift voucher amount of your choosing and more...

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