British Tea Time History
How Afternoon Tea Began

How did the British tea time love affair begin? You might be surprised to learn that Great Britain was one of the last European countries to adopt the beverage.



Today, no beverage seems more “British” than a steaming cup of tea. After all, what other nation loves tea enough to dedicate an entire meal to it? British tea time is an iconic cultural tradition. Although like many such traditions, it has declined in recent years due to the fast pace of modern life.

How did the love affair with British tea time begin?

Almost everyone knows that tea originated in China, but you might be surprised to learn that Great Britain was one of the last European countries to adopt the beverage.

From Teh To Tea

The first European to take a sip of tea was probably an adventurous Portuguese gentleman doing business in the East, where Portugal pioneered European trade routes. In fact, the first European to write about tea was the Portuguese priest Father Jasper de Cru, in 1560.

However, the Dutch eventually pushed Portugal out and claimed many of its trade routes for themselves, and it was Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe around 1610.

Tea quickly became a popular beverage on the continent, but it did not appear in England until the mid-seventeenth century, and even then it was still considered an exotic curiosity.

Celebrity Buzz

Tea drinking became fashionable in England after Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. She adored tea, and introduced it to the royal court.

Just as people today will copy celebrities, people in the 17th and 18th centuries copied the royal family. Tea drinking spread like wildfire, starting first among the nobles and then spreading to wealthy businessmen who liked to sit down for a nice “cuppa” in coffeehouses.

Better Than Ale?

Eventually, the middle classes and even poor laborers discovered the drink, and it began to supplant ale as the most commonly consumed beverage in late 18th century.

There were arguments back and forth among prominent intellectuals as to whether this was a blessing or a curse-some felt that tea might be harmful to health.

Tea Vice?

Many upper-class thinkers seemed to think that while the wealthy should be free to pursue whatever unhealthy habits they wished, the working class needed to be protected from these same “vices” so that they would continue to have the strength to do difficult physical jobs for the rich.

Of course, we now know so much about the positive health benefits of tea and the negative health effects of alcohol that this argument seems ridiculous!

Tea For All!

Really, the only thing that was unhealthy about the spread of tea drinking in England was the fact that tea was taxed so heavily and so expensive that it was often adulterated with other substances.

Also, high tea taxes allowed smuggling rings to flourish. These operated much like drug rings do today.

Finally, in 1784 the government relented and lowered taxes on tea, making purer tea products available to the masses, leading to an explosion of demand.

Afternoon Tea

Tea is a popular beverage in many countries, but why did England name an entire meal after it?

At first, the British really only had two daily meals-breakfast and dinner. Dinner was the heaviest meal of the day, and usually served in the afternoon. The custom of eating a regular “tea” began during the 1700’s, as people began serving dinner later and later in the evening.

People started serving a light lunch in the early afternoon to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner, but this still left approximately 6 hours between meals with no refreshment.

For the aristocracy, or at least for the Duchess Anna Maria of Bedford, 6 hours between meals was simply too long. She began to request a cup of tea and light snacks to be served around 5 pm, and then began to invite guests to join her.

The custom of afternoon tea was born, and it spread like wildfire among the upper classes.

National Beverage

For centuries now, tea has been the national beverage of Great Britain. Tea has so thoroughly integrated itself into British culture that is was actually rationed by the government during World War II to make sure the country’s morale didn’t suffer from the lack of it.

Although the customs surrounding British tea time have changed over the years, England’s love for tea remains eternal.

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