Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds One of Victoria’s favourite habits, I suppose, was taking tea in the afternoon. If you look at her journals, there were over 7,000 references to tea taking. So it’s pretty much a daily occurrence. And indeed, I suppose by the end of the period Britain is known as a tea-drinking nation. We tend to take a thing that becomes known as afternoon tea at around 5 o’clock. And in France, the British habit of taking afternoon tea at 5 o’clock becomes known, and indeed still is known as le 5 o’clock. So if you go to Paris today, you can sit down and you can have le 5 o’clock. And this tea-taking habit, I suppose, is codified, really, by the end of the 19th century.
Skip to 0 minutes and 45 seconds But it doesn’t start there. Tea is first introduced into Britain in the 1640s, 1650s. And it’s an aristocratic habit. It is a very expensive habit. People like to sit down and drink tea out of very small tea bowls. And it very quickly becomes a domestic, feminised habit as well. Why? Well, because tea is controllable. These three beverages come in at the same time tea, coffee, and chocolate. Chocolate and coffee, they basically come in as beans. They both have to be processed. So chocolate you would have bought in house as a tablet, which would have to go to the kitchen to be melted. Coffee comes in as beans, goes to the kitchen to be roasted. Tea comes in as leaves.
Skip to 1 minute and 20 seconds It doesn’t ever have to leave the watchful eye of the lady of the household. So tea becomes an emblem of the woman as a powerful figure, the woman as being able to be in control of her household. All of those pictures of women with locked tea caddies at their feet. That shows women in control of tea. And you find throughout the 18th century that women, tea, and the home become inextricably intertwined, and that tea drinking develops as a real, sort of, women’s ritual of sociability. Meal times, at the time, were in a state of flux. So in 1700 we tend to be eating our dinner at around 2 o’clock.
Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds By 1800, if you are royal, you’re eating your dinner at about 6 or 7 o’clock. And there’s a gap this kind of gap between breakfast and dinner, which is kind of unpleasant you get hungry. So into it slides, eventually, luncheon or luncheon noonings, but also tea. And you nearly always take your tea with some toast or a biscuit or a slice of cake. And it becomes a kind of thing you do somewhere in the afternoon, probably with some people over. So think about Bath, Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate– all these places of sociability. People are gathering together and drinking tea.
Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds And it’s less formal than dinner, but it’s still an excuse either to get together with your friends and discuss the affairs of the day or to try and seek solace, especially if you’re middle class and are stuck somewhere and you just want a friend. Or perhaps you want to assess a suitor for your daughter or son but you don’t want to invite him over for dinner. You want to just have him over and just see how he drinks his tea. It’s all about women and all about assessing other people. Afternoon tea develops its own set of rituals. Tea taking itself has developed sets of rituals by this point.
Skip to 3 minutes and 1 second There’s one particularly brilliant satire which illustrates a myth that was doing the rounds at the end of the 18th century into the 19th century. The picture shows an English family at tea. There’s a giant tea urn, there’s tea cups everywhere. You can tell they’re English because he’s got ruddy cheeks and looks healthy, and she’s got a good bosom, and the daughter is very attractive with an equally good bosom. And opposite them is a Frenchman. You can tell that he’s French because he’s scabrous and has a huge nose. And he’s bandy-legged and quite clearly unhealthy and living on a diet of frogs’ legs and snails.
Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds And the man is leaping from the table, clutching his bladder, shouting, “I can drink no more tea. I’ve had 17 cups.” And all of the English people are laughing at him. And when you look more closely at the table, you can see why. They have all placed their spoon inside the cup to indicate they’ve had enough. But he didn’t know that that was how you said you’d had enough, so he’s been forced to drink cup after cup after cup. And tea attracts these little unspoken rituals, these little ideas that people have and use as a way of testing other people, and little ways of working out which group you are in.
Skip to 4 minutes and 4 seconds So as the middle class fragments in the 19th century, every single bit of the middle class can work out whether or not the person opposite them is the right kind of person to be talking to them.
The quintessential British cup of tea
Explore the evolution of one of the most British of habits: the cup of tea! In this video, Dr Annie Gray discusses Victoria’s love affair with tea, and why the changing times brought about a popularisation in taking afternoon tea.
Dr Annie Gray
Annie will be answering your questions between 13.00 - 14.00 (GMT) on Wednesday 23 May on this Step. If you would like Annie to respond to one of your questions, please post them in the comment section below before then. Don’t worry if you miss the session for any reason – you can see Annie’s replies in her comment feed looking at her profile page.
© University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces.