The Fascinating Origins of High Tea


From Humble Beginnings to Modern Elegance

High tea, a term often associated today with elegance and sophistication, has quite humble origins. Let’s take a journey through history to explore how high tea evolved from a practical meal for Britain’s working class to the refined ritual enjoyed in luxury hotels and tea rooms around the world today.


Humble Beginnings

17th-18th Century: The Working-Class Meal.

High tea originated in the 17th and 18th centuries as a hearty evening meal for the working class in Britain. After long hours of labour in factories and fields, workers needed a substantial meal to replenish their energy. Unlike the delicate afternoon tea of the upper classes, high tea included meat, bread, butter, pickles, and of course, tea. The term “high” referred to the high dining table at which this meal was eaten, contrasting with the low, comfortable chairs used during afternoon tea.

19th Century: The Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution played a significant role in popularising high tea. As people worked longer hours, the need for a filling evening meal grew. This meal provided a necessary break and an opportunity for families to gather and unwind. Regional variations of high tea emerged, reflecting the local culture and available resources, from farm produce in rural areas to fish in coastal regions.


Evolution into Elegance

19th Century: The Rise of Afternoon Tea

The concept of afternoon tea was popularized by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, in the early 19th century. This light meal served between lunch and dinner became a fashionable social event among the upper classes. As afternoon tea gained popularity, the distinction between afternoon tea and high tea began to blur, particularly among those unfamiliar with the working-class origins of high tea.

Early 20th Century: Blurring Lines

By the early 20th century, high tea started to be seen as a more substantial version of afternoon tea. Hotels and tea rooms began offering “high tea” as a luxurious experience, complete with savory and sweet treats, presented with fine china and silverware. This marketing played into the misconception that “high” implied higher status, leading to the modern-day posh interpretation.

Manners at the High Tea Table

Even in its working-class origins, certain etiquette was expected at the high tea table.

Table Setting: The table was often set with a clean cloth and the best available crockery, even if it was simple and modest.

Politeness: Good manners, such as saying “please” and “thank you,” were expected, reflecting respect and courtesy.

Serving Order: Food was usually served in a specific order, often starting with savory items and followed by sweets.

Pacing: Eating at a steady pace was encouraged to ensure everyone had enough to eat and to promote a relaxed, communal atmosphere.



Etiquette of Victorian afternoon tea.

 In the 19th Century, afternoon tea was more than just a meal; it was a social ritual that reflected the values and etiquette of the era. Here are some key aspects of the etiquette observed during this time:

Formal Invitations: Invitations to afternoon tea were often sent out in advance. They were usually handwritten and delivered by hand or post.

Prompt Arrival: Guests were expected to arrive on time. It was considered impolite to arrive too early or too late.

Appropriate Attire: Women typically wore elegant dresses with gloves and hats, while men donned suits with waistcoats and cravats. The attire was meant to reflect the formal nature of the occasion.

Table Setting: The table was set with fine china, silverware, and linen napkins. A central floral arrangement often adorned the table.

Tea Service: The hostess would usually pour the tea, serving her guests first before herself. Guests would indicate their preference for tea strength and whether they wanted milk, sugar, or lemon.

Holding the Cup: The teacup was held by the handle, with the pinky finger slightly tilted but not extended. The saucer remained on the table or in the lap when not in use.

Sipping, Not Slurping: Tea was sipped quietly, and slurping was considered bad manners.

Order of Eating: Food was typically eaten in a specific order: starting with savory items like finger sandwiches, followed by scones with clotted cream and jam, and ending with sweet pastries and cakes.

Scones: Scones were broken in half by hand, not cut with a knife. Each half was then spread with cream and jam, usually in that order, although some regions preferred jam first.

Small Bites: Food was eaten in small, delicate bites. Talking with a full mouth was frowned upon.

Polite Conversation: Conversation was kept light and polite, avoiding controversial topics. Complimenting the hostess on the tea and food was expected.

Manners: Guests were expected to display good manners, including using “please” and “thank you,” and refraining from resting elbows on the table.

Thanking the Hostess: Before leaving, guests would thank the hostess for the invitation and the lovely tea. A follow-up thank-you note was often sent the next day.

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