The tradition of afternoon tea

Is there anything quite as British as afternoon tea? Once characterised by dainty mouthfuls and even daintier china, the afternoon tea has lost some of its customs (ladies no longer wear gloves for example!) but none of its ingredients or charm.  At Bonds, we’re embracing the traditional tea as an excuse to get out the china and silverware, and recreate this elegant Victorian ritual.


The tradition of afternoon tea started in Britain relatively recently – it’s first mentioned in 1840. In upper and middle class households, improved lighting resulted in the evening meal being pushed back to later in the day – and people began flagging by late afternoon!

The Seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna, admitted to “having that sinking feeling” one afternoon while she was at her Woburn Abbey estate. Wanting a pick-me-up, she rang for tea, bread and butter to be brought to her rooms at four o’clock. She took this exciting new * back to London, where it was adopted by the city’s other fashionable ladies. By the end of the century, tea rooms became popular, and “taking tea out” was an acceptable pastime for respectable ladies.

Afternoon tea quickly diversified from the Duchess’ bread and butter. A traditional afternoon tea has dainty sandwiches (think cucumber, not bacon), a selection of cake, and scones with jam and cream. The tea was from India and Ceylon. The teapot had to be silver, and the cups were always china. Details such as cake stands and napkin rings also had to be “just so”.

The rise of the scone was thanks to the railways. Cornwall became a popular holiday destination from the 1850s onwards, and visitors fell in love with the Cornish cream tea of scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. The cream tea was gentrified as it travelled “upcountry”. Here in Cornwall (where Bonds is based), “cakey tea” is a hearty Sunday teatime treat made up from scones or “splits” with jam and clotted cream, heavy cake and saffron cake, and if you were lucky, “thunder and lightning” (a cream tea with treacle instead of jam). It isn’t exactly a delicate snack!

Because while the salon ladies were daintily nibbling cucumber sandwiches (no crusts), the working classes had “high tea” in the evening. This was the evening meal, and it’s thought it’s called “high tea” because it’s eaten sitting upright at the table. It involves tea and bread, but there any resemblance to afternoon tea ends: the other foods could be cheese, meat, pickled fish, potatoes, and other generally heartier fare. The main difference between afternoon tea and high tea is that the first is social, the second is for sustenance. 

High tea was also taken in the nursery. As the Victorian lady enjoyed her tea with her friends, her children would be eating with Nanny in the day nursery. Sandwiches, boiled eggs with toast, bread and jam, and heavy puddings formed their simple diet, washed down with milk rather than tea. It’s unlikely that even the wealthiest children used silver egg cups – but we do think that this one makes a lovely, traditional gift!

Feeling peckish yet? If you’re experiencing the Duchess’ mid-afternoon “sinking feeling”, it’s time to get buttering and slicing! If you need any help decorating your afternoon tea table, please get in touch with us. Bonds’ selection of silverware will add a touch of elegance to the tea table.