Afternoon tea is a light meal typically eaten between 4 and 6pm. Observance of the custom originated amongst the wealthy classes in England in the 1840s. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, is widely credited as transforming afternoon tea in England into a late-afternoon meal whilst visiting Belvoir Castle. By the end of the nineteenth century, afternoon tea developed to its current form and was observed by both the upper and middle classes. It had become ubiquitous, even in the isolated village in the fictionalised memoir Lark Rise to Candleford, where a cottager lays out what she calls a “visitor’s tea” for their landlady: “the table was laid… there were the best tea things with a fat pink rose on the side of each cup; hearts of lettuce, thin bread and butter, and the crisp little cakes that had been baked in readiness that morning.”
For the more privileged, afternoon tea was accompanied by delicate savouries (customarily cucumber sandwiches or egg and cress sandwiches), bread and butter, possibly scones (with clotted cream and jam, as for cream tea), and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenberg cake or Victoria sponge). The sandwiches usually have the crusts removed, and are cut into small segments, either as triangles or fingers (also known as tea sandwiches). Biscuits are not usually served.
Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is more of a special occasion, taken as a treat in a hotel. The food is often served on a tiered stand; there may be no sandwiches, but bread or scones with butter or margarine and optional jam or other spread, or toast, muffins or crumpets. Afternoon tea as a treat may be supplemented with a glass of Champagne or a similar alcoholic drink.
A less formal establishment is known as a tearoom, similar to a coffee shop. These used to be common in the UK, but these establishments have declined in popularity since World War II. A.B.C. tea shops and Lyons Corner Houses were successful chains of such establishments, and played a role in opening up possibilities for Victorian women. A list of significant tea houses in Britain gives more examples.
A tea party is a social gathering around this meal – not to be confused with the Boston Tea Party, a mid-December 1773 incident at the beginning of the American Revolution, or the 21st century political movement named after it.
This snack is associated with the West Country, i.e. Cornwall and Devon. It usually consists of scones, clotted cream, strawberry jam, plus of course tea to drink. Some venues will provide butter instead of clotted cream.
Tea as the evening meal
Tea (also known as high tea or meat tea) is one name for the evening meal. It is associated with the working class and is typically eaten between 5 pm and 7 pm. In the North of England, North and South Wales, the English Midlands, Scotland and in rural and working class areas of Ireland, people traditionally call their midday meal dinner and their evening meal tea (served around 6 pm), whereas the upper social classes would call the midday meal lunch or luncheon and the evening meal (served after 7 pm) dinner (if formal) or supper (often eaten later in the evening). This differentiation in usage is one of the classic social markers of British English (see U and non-U English).
High tea typically consists of a hot dish, followed by cakes and bread, butter and jam. Occasionally there would be cold cuts of meat, such as ham salad. The term was first used around 1825, and “high” is used in the sense of well-advanced (like high noon, for example) to signify that it was taken later in the day than afternoon tea.
A stereotypical expression “You’ll have had your tea” is used to parody people from Edinburgh as being rather shortcoming with hospitality. A BBC Radio 4 comedy series of this name was made by Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer.
Not a meal as such, but a chance to “down tools” (or get away from the computer) and relax from work for 10-15 minutes. This may occur mid-morning or mid-afternoon. It may equally involve coffee, and almost inevitably, biscuits. Once upon a time, the drinks were served by the workplace’s tea lady, a position that is now almost defunct. The British habit of dunking biscuits in tea has been exported around the globe.
Australian usages of the term
In Australia any short break for tea in the afternoon is referred to as “afternoon tea”. As a result, the term “high tea” is used to describe the more formal affair that the English would call “afternoon tea”. Most Australians are unaware of the origin of the term “high tea”. In Australia, the evening meal is still often called tea whereas the midday meal is now commonly called lunch. In rural areas, dinner is still used quite often for the midday meal, tea is around 6pm, and supper is either a very late meal at night, or food served at night at a social function, such as the town’s annual Christmas dance and supper.