Tea Time!

When I was about five years old, my parents gave me a toy tea set for my birthday. Dainty and ceramic and plastered with an adorable baby-pink plaid, it captured my little heart the moment I laid eyes on it.

Over the years I held tea parties for my grandparents, my stuffed animals, and my dear father, who lapped patiently at his tiny cup and let me wrap his neck in a feather boa. I made cinnamon rolls from bread slices and petite fours from Lorna Doones and frosting, then piled the treats high on my coaster-sized plates to proudly serve my guests. (Now that I think of it, those tea parties were my first foray into cooking!)

In short, I loved that tea set.

Eventually I outgrew it and packed it away, but my fondness for tea parties never faded. So imagine my delight when I discovered in the United Kingdom, tea time is for everyone and all ages!

This information reached me sometime in middle school, and since I didn’t know anyone British, I turned to Google. And I learned that tea time across the pond is a much more meaningful affair than my childhood socials. There, teatime is steeped (haha, get it?) in history, and there’s way more to it than pinkies and pretty cups.

I’m about to show you the three essential British tea times and the stories behind them. Heads up: I’m gonna use British terms for mealtimes to avoid confusion (so to all my Americans, “dinner” is lunch and “supper” is dinner). Good? Good. Bring on the tea!

Afternoon tea: If you wanna break out your best manners or fancy-schmancy hat, here’s your chance! Afternoon tea emerged in the UK around the 1830s or 1840s and is often said to have been started by the duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russel. Back then the upper crust ate a light dinner at noon and supper around 8 pm. The story goes that one food-less afternoon, the duchess felt hunger pangs and ordered tea and snacks to her bedroom. She enjoyed it so much she made the tea break a habit with her friends, and the practice soon grew popular throughout Britain’s aristocratic circles.

british afternoon tea
19th century painting of an afternoon tea

A typical afternoon tea service includes tea, crustless finger sandwiches, scones, and little pastries or cakes. This tea time was considered a chance for the wealthy—wealthy women in particular—to socialize and demonstrate their breeding, so the offerings, from the foods to the napkins to the china, were delicate.

Afternoon tea spread

Back then, tea time etiquette was extremely strict: women would even judge a man’s suitability for marriage by the way he set his spoon on his saucer! Thankfully, nowadays afternoon tea is really just a historically significant chance to kick back and enjoy some company and treats, but if you ever attend one, make sure to dress nicely and mind your manners.

High tea: Fortunately, pressure’s off when it comes to high tea. In the 19th century, many members of the working class were not allowed to take a midday meal break, so when they got home from their jobs they were starving! Since they were too hungry to wait for the socially-dictated 8:00 pm supper, they developed their own evening meal: high tea.

HIGH tea
A family having high tea

This was a meal for workers to eat right when they got home, and it usually consisted of a mug of tea, bread, vegetables, cheese, and sometimes meat. It could also include foods such as savory pies, potatoes, or crackers. Free of the social pressures of afternoon tea, high tea’s sole purpose was providing workers with comforting, hearty fare to sate their hunger after a long day.

feasible high tea food
Feasible high tea plate

Working class families often took high tea together, but as it was their version of supper they sat at normal tables with high-backed chairs rather than the low, comfortable chairs or sofas used at afternoon tea (hence the name high tea). Many working and middle class families still refer to their evening meal as tea, but as work regulations and schedules have shifted over time, it’s also common to hear the meal referred to as supper.

Elevenses: Finally, we have elevenses! This one is actually pretty modern and is totally unrelated to afternoon or high tea. Even though historians speculate that it didn’t pop up until the 20th century, it is very strongly engrained in today’s British culture.

Elevenses is taken at (you guessed it!) 11:00 am. It functions as a late-morning work break and involves a light snack–like muffins, scones, or biscuits–and a hot tea or coffee. While afternoon and high tea are still somewhat associated with social class, elevenses is for anyone and everyone! If you ever travel to Great Britain you’ll probably wind up partaking whether you mean to or not.

A typical elevenses

And there we have it! I hope that this sort of functioned as a “British Tea Times for Dummies” for everyone who, like me, had no idea what it all meant at first. Anyone with experience, I’d love to learn more from you in the comments! Thanks for reading!