The history of Afternoon Tea
The history of Afternoon Tea has its roots in Bedfordshire as it was invented by Anna Maria Russell, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, (3 September 1783 – 3 July 1857) and we have her to thank for the birth of the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, which was introduced in the mid-1940’s. Anna, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, was the wife of Francis Russell, 7th Duke of Bedford (married in 1808), and sister-in-law to Prime Minister John Russell. They had a country house in Bedfordshire, called Woburn Abbey, and the family seat of the Duke of Bedford. Andrew became the 15th Duke in 2003 and the family still reside in this stately home today.
It is reported that whilst visiting Belvoir castle, the Duchess found she was hungry late afternoon and complained of a sinking feeling as the main household meal was served between 7 – 8 pm and the gap between light luncheon and dinner was too long, so she asked for some bread and butter and Darjeeling tea with biscuits to be brought to her in the lady’s parlour at around 4 pm, this was essentially the commencing of first Afternoon Tea.
She found that it was enjoyable eating at this time, therefore regularly invited friends to join her for polite conversation and “low” Afternoon Tea at Woburn Abbey as she stayed during the summer months. A stroll in the fields followed to walk off the tea. This social event rapidly evolved into something more extravagant. The basic bread and butter sandwiches were exchanged for crustless, delicate finger sandwiches, the biscuits were replaced with scones, clotted cream and jam and soon easy to manage finger-foods emerged.
Due to its success, she continued with the tradition when she returned home to London and decided to make it a regular social occasion, where she could catch up with other women and enjoy the company and conversation followed by a stroll in Hyde Park. It was not long before it caught on with other high society women, including Queen Victoria and the original Afternoon Tea was established and became trendy among the upper classes, as they too opened up their own homes and hosted this regular, fashionable societal occasion.
The delights were presented to the society women as an art form on low decorated tables. The food was displayed on hand-painted cake stands which sat on fine linen tablecloths with silver cutlery to show these pleasures in a delightful way. The finger foods were served on decorated, fine china plates and the tea was sipped from bone china cups poured from a delicate teapot.
Within forty years it had developed into an occasion where the women would dress up in fine gowns, hats and gloves to mix with high-society at around 4 – 5 pm before promenading around Hyde Park in London.
Unfortunately, these afternoon gatherings were a breeding ground for gossip, and the Duchess was involved in rumour spreading about an innocent woman, whom she disliked – Lady Flora Hastings. She was unmarried and was seen by a physician as she was suffering from abdominal pains. The first diagnosis was pregnancy, but it was covered up as she was a spinster but rumoured to have been having an affair with two men. Anna and her friend spread the rumour of the pregnancy, but the diagnosis was wrong, and cause of the pain was actually liver cancer and the two women had blackened, not only Lady Flora’s name but also Sir John Conway, who was named as the father of the unborn child. This led to severe criticism of the gossiping women.