Where Does the English Habit of Afternoon Tea Come From?

Wrest Park
Silsoe, Luton, Bedfordshire

Listed and registered: 1985-86
Grade: Garden buildings, including Bowling Green House (Grade II*) and Chinese Summerhouse (Grade II), set within Grade I-registered Wrest Park
To view the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) entries, enter the search term 'Wrest Park' on the NHLE search page.

Introducing tea to England

Tea was introduced into England in the mid-17th century. Though incredibly expensive, its exclusivity made it much sought after, and by the early 1700s the taking of tea was a fashionable custom in aristocratic and middle-classes circles. This was a time when belief in the health-giving qualities of water was counterbalanced by fear that it spread disease. As a result, tea was celebrated because it could be imbibed in large quantities without the risk of either illness or drunkenness!

It has been said that afternoon tea was invented by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s, when she asked for something to eat with her cup of tea. Yet food historians who have researched relevant diaries and satires of Georgian culture have discovered that the leisured classes enjoyed a baked treat with their tea well before then. Many snacked on bread and butter, but the increasing number of cake recipes in cookery books suggest that sweeter treats were preferred.

By around 1720, the green tea originally introduced into England had been pushed aside in favour of black tea with milk and sugar. Cartoons suggest that dunking baked goods into hot brews was already popular. Occasions that revolved around the act of tea drinking were quickly established, reflecting the new sociability of the era. Georgian ladies had limited opportunities to move around independently, so invitations to afternoon tea at a friend's or in a tea garden provided welcome diversions. The richest members of society initiated the craze for constructing special rooms and garden buildings where ladies could enjoy a bucolic cup of tea and cake while admiring their estates.

'Wrest'-ing with tea and cake

By the turn of the 18th century, Wrest Park was owned by Henry Grey, who became the Duke of Kent in 1710. He was determined to improve the status of his estate, and under the instruction of his first wife Jemima, the landscape was redesigned by Capability Brown to reflect their desire for a more naturalistic, meandering style. Delicate garden buildings were scattered about, including the Chinese Summerhouse (also known as the temple or pavilion) and Bowling Green House. In her diaries, Jemima recorded going for lengthy tramps around Wrest with friends, architects and designers, followed by tea in these outdoor hideaways. She also kept a book of recipes, including one for 'Lemmon Pudding' that would be a welcome addition to any modern afternoon tea.

Establishing a tea-time etiquette

The term 'afternoon tea' was coined in the Victorian period, when the traditional tea we know today - scones, cream and jam, plus the dainty cake stand piled with cakes and delicate sandwiches - was established. Yet Jemima's late 17th-century routine was echoed in Victorian rituals: Queen Victoria's diaries note that, when staying at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, she would rest at the Swiss Cottage after long walks, where she would be plied with tea and buns by her footman.

Etiquette guides from the late 19th century underline how food and drink rituals were viewed as a central part of behavioural standards. These polite occasions became much more accessible as tea rooms offered afternoon tea to "the masses". As a result, the ritual moved from being an act associated with female sociability to an affordable treat that nevertheless retained its integral air of "Englishness".

Today you can enjoy refreshments in Wrest Park's new visitor's centre. So next time you visit, watch the Great British Bake Off or enjoy afternoon tea, raise a teacup to those long-dead ladies whose buildings still survive as a reminder of the invention of the afternoon tea.

Annie Gray is a food historian and a historic contributor on the Great British Bake Off.