The origins of Afternoon Tea, as we know it today, reveal a fascinating mixture of historical and cultural influences. Once reserved purely for royalty and the aristocracy, Afternoon Tea is now enjoyed throughout the world, yet a setting as appropriate as Melbourne’s famous Hotel Windsor would be hard to find.
The simple ‘cuppa’ has a far-from-simple history. Tea gained popularity with nobility in Britain after the tea trade took off in the 1670s with the advent of the British East India Company. A century later tea arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 and having ‘Tea’ in the new colony represented a time for social interaction and friendship rather than the more class-focussed rituals of the UK.
Afternoon Tea itself came about around the time that gas lighting was introduced in the 1800s in Britain. This meant people were able to stay up later into the night, and therefore sought to eat their evening meal later too. This shift left a large, foodless gap in the day.
Legend has it that in 1840, Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford (one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting), began to request tea and a small meal of bread and butter, cakes and biscuits in the afternoon to tide her over until dinner. Her innovative (and somewhat indulgent) habit became a highly social occasion, with friends coming to share the hot beverages, delicate snacks and convivial conversation. By 1880, the trend took off and afternoon tea spread to the homes of the upper classes with teashops later springing up across the country.
The name ‘High Tea’ actually refers to a similar practice adopted by the working classes midway through the Industrial Revolution. It involved a heavier meal served with tea at 5.00 pm, upon returning home from work. As it was served at high tables it became known as “high tea”, whereas the more sophisticated afternoon tea was technically named ‘low tea’ in reference to the low drawing room tables that the upper classes would sit around to carry out the ritual.