First let’s distinguish between the idea of tea drinking in England, and the more elaborate ritual of taking afternoon tea (a light meal), which evolved much later.
When and how did tea become so popular in England? Portugal was probably most responsible. In 1662, when Charles the II married a member of the Portuguese royal family, Catherine of Braganza, she brought tea with her as part of her dowry, and tea soon became the official court beverage in the 1660’s. At that time, tea was scarce, expensive and highly taxed – a rare luxury good that only the aristocracy and upper classes could afford.
The powerful East India Trading Company began providing King Charles II with small gifts of tea from China for Catherine in order to curry his favor and perhaps win special rights and privileges for the company, which may have included a near monopoly on tea imported from China.
So while the English gentry became accustomed to drinking this luxury item in the 1660’s, it wasn’t until much later (1840’s) that the more elaborate custom or ritual of taking “Afternoon Tea” came into existence.
In the 19th Century, it was customary for the upper classes in England to have their evening meal rather late, say 8:00-9:00 pm. It was understandable then that one might become hungry in the late afternoon.
Sometime around 1840, Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, complained of a “sinking feeling” and requested that some light food and a pot of tea (usually Darjeeling) be brought to her private living quarters to help ward off her mid afternoon hunger. This light food probably included bread, butter, and perhaps biscuits.
The idea proved so successful that it soon became routine, and the Duchess decided to invite a few of her friends to her private rooms for tea in the afternoon. A new social event was born in which the invited guests would have an opportunity to meet with friends, catch up on the latest news, discuss recent events, etc.
The service would normally take place in the lady’s parlour, or withdrawing room, or boudoir and be served on low-decorative tables. Hence this event also became known as “low” tea.
The light food served with afternoon tea gradually evolved to include more elaborate fare such as crustless finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a final course of sweets and pastries. The idea was to provide easy-to-manage portions suitable for entertaining in a sitting room.
The Duchess was lady-in-waiting and a lifelong friend to Queen Victoria, whom she introduced to the idea and, in so doing, gained an influential supporter. The trend gained popularity, and it soon became a fashionable pastime of the upper classes. To meet this new demand, English china manufacturers, linen makers, and silversmiths began turning out fine accoutrements to be used in the service of afternoon tea.
This so called “At Home” tea spread throughout England where announcements would be sent to friends and relatives declaring the hour at which tea would be served. On a given day of the week, the hostess would remain home to receive visitors and serve tea, sandwiches and cakes. Since there was usually at least one person holding an “At Home” on any given day, women would have an opportunity to establish close social ties by seeing each other frequently at different houses throughout the week.
Anna Russell passed away in 1857 and is buried in the Bedford Chapel in Buckinghamshire.