The obsession with drinking tea in Britain is said to have begun after 1662 when Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II. In Catherine’s native Portugal, tea drinking was popular among the nobility (who could afford the imported luxury good), and her dowry included several caskets of the rare commodity. The new queen’s bitter brew, served in her curious tea dishes, became a fad among the ladies at court, and from there the fashion spread.
Tea was not unknown in England before Catherine’s time. The famous (infamous?) diarist, Samuel Pepys recorded his first taste of the new drink in September of 1660:
To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Colonel Slingsby, and I sat awhile, and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland; where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1660/09/25/
At that time, tea was considered a medicinal drink, tea “bowls” had no handles like our teacups of today have, and the drink was often served with another expensive import, sugar, sold in loaf or cone shapes from which “lumps” were chipped off for serving. The popular, male-only, coffee houses began to offer tea as well, and soon the beverage began to cut into the sale of gin and ale. In 1717, Twinings opened their first tea shop in London, allowing ladies public access to tea. By the 1750s, tea had become the most popular drink in Britain, even outselling beer. By 1766, Britain was the largest importer of tea in the world.
Further historical occurrences followed in the wake of this energizing, yet comforting drink, including the rise of vast tea plantations in India and Ceylon; increased production of tea equipage from china factories, silversmiths, and linen makers; and the advent of faster sailing ships called Clippers (because they clipped time off the transport of tea from the Orient). Tea was taxed, smuggled, and symbolically at least, started wars across the British Empire. The custom of pouring milk into the delicate porcelain cups to protect them from cracking when boiling tea was added was the start of the Great Milk Argument – should it be added first or last? And then the addition of lemon further complicated matters.
Perhaps more important to the Victorian time period of my stories is the innovation of “afternoon tea.” Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford, a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, found herself famished during the long break between luncheon at midday and dinner at eight. In 1840 she began calling for tea and refreshments to be served in her rooms around four o’clock in the afternoon. Soon this small snack became a daily habit, and she invited friends to join her, including the Queen herself.
Afternoon tea, or “low tea” as it was known because it was served off low tables, became a popular and liberating experience, where women could entertain at home without male chaperones. They could wear less confining clothing made of light, flowing fabrics, casting off the heavily shaped corsets and many layers required when out in public. Designers of ladies’ wear began offering a style specifically identified as “tea gowns.”
A further benefit of afternoon tea was the female participants could speak freely outside of the societal restraints of mixed company. Radical subjects such as votes for women, dress reform, and public education were discussed, along with the usual fillip of gossip.
Tea has become a word of many meanings: A drink, a meal, a social event, and a symbol of refreshment, comfort, and sedition.
A quick note: For some inexplicable reason, when the notion of afternoon tea crossed the Atlantic, the custom became known as “high tea.” Another example of how two nations can be divided by a common language.