A Short History of Afternoon Tea

There is a great deal more to afternoon tea than tea. 

This quintessential English tradition is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively new custom . Whilst drinking tea was popularised in England during the 1660’s, it was not until the 1830’s that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ was introduced – and we have the seventh Duchess of Bedford to thank for it.

At Woburn Abbey, Anna-Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford would find herself to be rather peckish in the time between luncheon and their fashionably late evening meal between 8 and 9 pm. Seeking something small to rid herself of ‘that sinking feeling’ the Duchess would request a light refreshment of tea, bread, butter and cake in her rooms in the late afternoon.

This pause for tea became a habit of hers, and thus the tradition of afternoon tea was born. The Duchess, a prominent figure within London society and a close friend of Queen Victoria,  began inviting friends to join her for tea, which in turn evolved from a small bite into a fashionable social event.

Tea parties became the norm, with tea rooms becoming all the rage in the late 19th century and society women and upper-class ladies would don fine gowns, hats and gloves for the occasion. Tea rooms were considered to be one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone and they would meet friends there to share idle gossip over tea and cakes.

The first and second world wars radically changed the rituals of afternoon tea, especially with rationing continuing into the 1950’s and by the middle of the 20th century, the population fell out of love with the tradition.

Ironically, the economic downturn in 2008 is credited with afternoon tea’s revival and resurgence. It would seem that people return to more traditional values and homely pursuits when money is tight. There is one rather large difference from tea in the Duchess’s day. What was something that filled a gap between lunch and dinner has become something which simultaneously replaces lunch and diminishes the need for a large dinner, with a large array of sandwiches, tarts, scones and sweets served to the table.

The 21st century has also seen a huge increase in the range of teas available, with traditional teas served alongside themed ones, and pastry chefs crafting stunning little edibles that are almost too pretty to eat (and yet gone in a flash!)

At Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, we have been inspired by one of the Bard’s best-loved plays. Our Midsummer Night’s Dream afternoon tea pulls on the themes and characters from the play, from the apricots that Titania feeds to Bottom and the mulberries on the lovers’ tree, to ‘the nodding violets’ that grow upon Oberon’s secluded bank. Dainty wild mushrooms and evocative floral flavours such as rose, lavender and elderflower are woven throughout the menu and help to set the scene of the enchanted woodland where the story takes place. Served on bespoke crockery which illustrates scenes from the play, our Midsummer Night’s Dream afternoon tea is served every day in the Swan Restaurant between midday and 3pm, with fantastic river views of St Paul’s Cathedral.