Afternoon Tea: A Very British Tradition



We Brits believe that practically everything can be cured with a cup of tea.  As a nation, every day we consume more than 165m cups of it!  In honour of National Tea Day last Friday (21st April) I’ve decided to write about the Great British Afternoon Tea. It’s a phenomenon that has its roots in the 1840s but which has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the last few years, partly attributable to the great Mary Berry.

Tea in China CupAccording to research from Barclaycard, more of us spend our wages on afternoon tea than on gym memberships … with almost half of us spending more per month on it than on takeaways!

History of the Afternoon Tea

Nineteenth-century British aristocrats made drinking tea in the afternoon fashionable. In the 1840s, evening meal was served at eight o’clock, leaving a long gap between lunch and dinner. Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, became hungry at around four o’clock in the afternoon. She asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon.  This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her. And so, a very British tradition was born.

This pause for tea later became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. Traditional afternoon tea consists of dainty sandwiches (including, of course, cucumber sandwiches), scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served.

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

What about the protocol surrounding this most British of institutions? Etiquette expert Jo Bryant explains that there are some very specific dos and don’ts even when talking about Afternoon Tea.  According to Jo, it is simply referred to as  “tea,” not “afternoon tea” and never “high tea”.

It is correct to “have” tea, not to “take” tea. You would say “I am having tea with The Queen this afternoon.” Similarly, you have “some tea,” not “a tea,” so you would say, for example, “I would love some tea.” In social circles, these little differences matter.

And the age old question: is it scone as in “gone” or scone as in “phone”? Well according to Barclaycard’s research, over half the country – 58% – pronounce it to rhyme with gone and Jo Bryant concurs with that.

So what to wear? According to the dress code in most venues nowadays is relaxed ‘smart casual’. For men, trousers or smart jeans and a collared shirt and clean shoes are acceptable (definitely not sportswear or trainers). For the ladies it’s the perfect excuse to get dressed up!

The Tea Itself

Getting the tea itself right is crucial.  It should be leaf tea – never teabags – served in a pot (china or silver).  Alongside should be served another pot of hot water, milk, sugar and a tea strainer.  Depending on personal taste and the type of tea used, the brewing time can be altered to suit. The longer the tea is brewed, the higher the level of antioxidants called flavonoids, (which research has shown to have many health benefits). Brewing time is recommended as being 3-6 minutes, otherwise the flavour of the tea is marred.

Tea china cup saucer strainerTea is correctly served in china cups and saucers, not in a mug.  Someone is nominated, or nominates themselves, as the pourer, making sure the tea strainer is used to catch the loose leaves. It is correct to pour each cup of tea one by one, passing each cup to the recipient before pouring the next rather than pouring several and handing them out.

Milk and sugar are passed round and everyone adds their own. Etiquette requires that milk is added after the tea has been poured, never before. Sugar is added last, after the milk, and the tea stirred by moving the teaspoon back and forth in an up-and-down motion making sure it doesn’t ‘clink’  against the sides of the cup, and avoiding large circular stirring motions which can be seen as inelegant. You must also remember to remove the spoon from the cup, placing it on the saucer to the side of the cup.



Drinking Your Tea

When you drink your tea, sit up straight and spread out the napkin on your lap. Hold your teacup by making your thumb and index finger meet in the handle: the cup is supported by the handle resting on your middle finger. Never hook your finger through or cradle the cup. And never ever raise your little finger (that’s just in the cartoons!)  Bring the cup up to your mouth avoid leaning forward to drink. Take small sips and don’t slurp or blow on hot tea to cool it. The cup is put down on the saucer in between sips.

It is usual to enjoy two cups of tea; one is never enough and three too excessive.

The Accoutrements 

As well as the china cups and saucers, guests should be provided with a china plate, a knife and a cake fork, plus a starched linen napkin.  Jam and cream should be served in bowls, each with its own teaspoon and the butter should have its own knife.

Afternoon Tea Setting

Knives are only used to spread the jam and cream on the scones once it’s been spooned onto the side of the plate, never for cutting.  Not surprisingly, the cake fork is used for eating the cakes.

The Food

Little sandwiches are usually served, cut into small squares or rectangles with the crusts removed. It is traditional to take just one sandwich and, no matter how small, eat it in more than one mouthful, so take a couple of bites.

Cakes are also served (but never cupcakes, according to another etiquette expert, William Hanson) and they should be small and mess-free. Scones are eaten with jam and cream, which is spooned onto the side of the plate. The scone is broken in half lengthways by hand (never cut with a knife) and the jam and cream spread onto it (using a knife).

The two halves of the scone should never be put back together to make a sandwich — each piece is eaten individually. Spread either the jam or the cream first onto the scone; there are various traditions in the UK but either is fine. All of these accompaniments are put down on the plate in between bites, and eaten with the fingers.

When You’ve Finished …

When it is time to leave, it is polite to leave the napkin unfolded, placed to the left of the place setting.  Do not fold it up or leave it on your chair.




Welcome to my world of ramblings. Born in ’66, I live in Cheshire with my two teenagers and my childhood sweetheart whom I met up with again 2 years ago, 30+ years after we’d left school! I work part-time for a local radio station and events company and my partner and I are currently renovating and extending a 1950s house. I enjoy spending time with family and friends; I enjoy cooking and wine and I love travelling. Somehow, life mostly seems to be lived at 90mph, however I love the life I have, and always try to remember that it’s not a rehearsal and that I must smell the roses along the way!

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