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Origin of British Tea Culture

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“There are few hours in life more agreeable than...
afternoon tea.” — Henry James
British Tea Time Fashion
British Tea Time Fashion
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than...
afternoon tea.” — Henry James

When most people think of Britain, they think of two things: tea and the Queen. The English upper class began drinking imported tea from China to Europe by the Dutch East India Company starting in the early 1600s.

Dutch East India Company ship brought tea into Europe and England
Dutch ships imported tea from China to Europe-ca. early 1600s

Rise of the British Tea Culture

The Victorian era saw the incredible rise of tea throughout Britain. Tea was not only for the wealthy; the beverage was something people of all classes could enjoy. You could tell a person’s status in the English home by what tea they served, how they dressed, and which tea accessories they used.

Black tea (today’s English Breakfast tea or Earl Grey) was the favored tea type, invented in the mid-1500s in the Wuyi mountains, China. Victorian-era British tea culture and high tea fashion greatly impacted society and women for centuries to come.

English ladies drinking tea
“Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.” — Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Beginning of Tea in England

Tea in the UK-british tea culture

Tea in the UK began with Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza bringing tea leaves as part of her dowry when she married King Charles II in 1662. However, tea remained a luxury item for more than a century, reserved for the royal and wealthy set.

A lavish tea party

Tea In Victorian Era

During the Victorian era, British tea culture flourished. Queen Victoria, at 18, took the throne and became the second longest-reigning monarch after Queen Elizabeth II. During Victoria’s reign, Britain became the world’s most powerful empire.

The Victorian era saw the world’s industrial revolution, such as the railway boom and the first telephone and telegraph, along with sweeping social changes.

Tea cultivation and production spread from China to northeastern India under British rule.

Darjeeling tea region, mid 1800s
Beginning days of Darjeeling tea region, mid-1800s

How the English Brought Tea to India

So how did tea spread from China to India? She was stolen from China. The history of tea is fiercely fascinating, filled with twists and turns.

In short, the world-changing tea-heist involved a Scottish plant-hunter disguised as a Chinese nobleman smuggling tea seeds, plants, and secrets out of the heart of China.

Wuyi Shan Wuyi Mountains Fujian Province-the heart of tea
Wuyi Mountains-The Heart of Tea. © ActionFliks Media.

Two Opium Wars were raged against the celestial kingdom, and the island of Hong Kong became part of the empire where the sun never set. All that to secure the Queen’s supply of her favorite cuppa.

First Opium War-Chinese Junk Boat Sunk by British Battle Ships-Canton Harbor

This fantastic, untold story is revealed in 9 DRAGONS TEA, a documentary unraveling these long-buried mysteries. Watch the trailer here.

Birth of Afternoon Tea

The Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, is credited with inventing Afternoon tea around 1840. As Britain became increasingly urbanized, dinner time was pushed later and later among the high class. Soon, dinner was served around 8 or 9 at night.

Although the English were having dinner so late, lunch was still served around noon.

The Duchess, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, decided the void between lunch and dinner was too great. She wasn’t interested in intermittent fasting. So around 4 pm, she requested some tea and bread, butter, and cakes be sent to her room. From this, Afternoon tea was born.

In the early days, Afternoon tea was held in boudoirs of wealthy ladies’ homes, indulged by herself or shared with friends. From there, Afternoon tea poured out into more public areas of the estate to accommodate increasingly lavish tea parties.

Afternoon Tea in Boudoir

Then, Afternoon tea moved into the posh hotels of London, where ladies dressed to the nines for fabulous tea-time gatherings with friends, festooned with gloves, hats, and fancy shoes.

afternoon tea in hotels of london-victorian era

Having that stop-gap tea-time became popular, and this practice spread throughout Britain. The upper class would meet at 4 pm for Afternoon tea, while the working class had High tea at 5 pm, after work.

Afternoon tea was a big deal for women in the Victorian era, as ladies could entertain friends without their husbands about. They do take up a lot of space.

A transforming sense of liberating freedom for women began to simmer.

Tea-Ware Accessories

Chinese Tea Things in British Culture

During this period, tea was enjoyed in English homes, tea shops, and coffee houses. High-class hostesses employed a wide array of imported elegant Chinese tea accessories to brew tea, demonstrating sophistication and status.

If you were well off, your tea drinking came with many beautiful, decorative “tea things” (as Jane Austen calls them) that you could show off.

tea things-tea cups-tea scoops-tea pots-tea pouring devices
Chinese tea-set. Courtesy of Lok-Cha Tea House Hong Kong & 9 Dragons Tea.

This tea-ware included fine porcelain bowls, teacups, saucers, beautifully painted teapots, tea caddies made of the finest mahogany, silver tea urns, and even personalized tea blends!

tea thing-tea caddy-19th century
Tea caddy from the 1800s. Courtesy of 9 Dragons Tea/ActionFliks Media

Jane Austen uses tea time and tea things to bring characters together. The author understood how tea could be a bonding experience for characters and adeptly used tea in her stories.

Milk or Tea First?

This question seems to brew great debate. Do you put your milk in your cup first or your tea first? As a tea-purist, I drink tea in Gong Fu Cha Chinese style. However, sometimes I fancy a tea latte, and of course, that requires milk and sugar. But in all tea cases, I put tea first. I’m an unabashed Tiffy!

milk and sugar-pouring milk into tea

Because early-European porcelain teacups were soft and sensitive to heat, it was sensible to put milk in first. Here’s a fun fact from the past:

Fun Fact

“Milk-in-first” prevented the hot tea from cracking the soft-porcelain European teacup, giving rise to the term “Miffy.”

Of course, my fellow purists wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. Hence, the term “Tiffy” was born—”Tea-In-First.” So calling all the Miffy’s and Tiffy’s in the tea-realm, which custom do you think makes a better cup of tea? Answer in the comment section below.

British Tea Fashion

Now let’s dive deeper into how Afternoon tea affected fashion on the social tea scene. Tea and style, fashion and tea, they have not always gone hand in hand. But in the Victorian era, this was a time to show off your fashion style for the other ladies attending Afternoon tea.

Fun Fact

Although Afternoon tea started in 1840, tea time fashion flourished three decades later, with a flurry of tea gowns in 1870.

By this time, ladies established tea drinking as a social event and a sophisticated form of hospitality to maintain relations with friends and family. Afternoon tea became a dazzling, jubilant tea occasion where ladies could show off their fancy tea gowns.

Tea Gowns

Tea Gowns

Before Afternoon tea became the social event of the century, tea time primarily took place in homes, where you could wear a gown that fell into the category of “undress.”

Fun Fact

The term “undress” classified clothing as the least formal in fashion categories; it’s the equivalent to modern-day sweatpants and tank tops.

Before the 1870s, tea gowns were considered interior gowns—dresses just formal enough to be seen in public. The crucial difference between interior gowns and other Victorian dresses is that interior gowns were looser fitting, without the usual corset in the bodice.

Thus, tea gowns were much more comfortable to wear, and ladies could put them on without a maid’s help. In addition, the tea gowns had high necklines to maintain modesty. But for evening tea, the gowns had lower necklines, considered daring for those times.

Continued Popularity

Tea gowns grew increasingly popular and lasted through the Victorian era, all the way into the 1930s. They became a staple in every woman’s wardrobe for tea time fashion.

As the years went by, tea time became more flexible throughout the day; meetings occurred on porches and in gardens. During the summer months, fashion houses often made tea gowns of white eyelet material with lace or embroidery.

In the cooler months, tea gowns came in darker colors and heavier materials. Finally, in the 1920s, tea gowns were shorter to about mid-calf or just above the ankle.

Current Tea-Times

Tea is infused richly into British culture to this day. Afternoon tea is quintessentially British, and luxury hotels worldwide follow suit, offering excellent tea services.

Today, tea is the most popular drink after water. And tea is something best shared with fellow tea-lovers. As we all experience COVID isolations, hosting your virtual tea party is a great way to stay connected with friends and family.

Afternoon Tea Service

I hope this article provided a few fun tea bits about how tea changed in the Victorian era. Or was it the Victorian era that changed tea? Regardless, tea is steeped in all cultures globally. And thanks to the great influence of the fabulous British tea culture, Afternoon tea has become a beloved tea tradition enjoyed by people all over.

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