English Tea and polite manners

The afternoon tea table, a display of polite manners
“The afternoon tea table is the same in its service whether in the tiny bandbox home of the newest bride, or in the drawing room of Mrs Worldly of Great Estates.” Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, 1922

Tea in the afternoon – the 300 year social ritual

Tea, the old-fashioned ritual, still takes place in homes across Great Britain today. Originally it was the most frequent social interaction among the upper and middling classes. The afternoon English tea provided an opportunity to perform polite manners. Tea, as a social form, has almost died out. Today it is more likely to be used for a celebration.

Tea takes place after noon and generally occurs between the hours of 3 o’clock and six o’clock. Family and friends will gather at a pre-arranged time by the person hosting the tea party.

A Tea can take place anywhere. The focus point is provided by tea table. Sometimes a trolley or tray carries the tea paraphernalia. This provides a place where the ritual of pouring the tea takes place. This might be in a drawing room or sitting room, in the garden or even at the dining table (although this is not traditional location).

The focal point is the (small) tea table. Here, the hostess can sit and pour the tea. Some form of simple ‘bread’* is provided, designed to eat easily just using the fingers. Guests are provided with a small plate and a small napkin.

Generally one type of tea is served. If there are two, the choice will be “China or Indian”. Implicitly the China tea is the delicate, light option and Indian is more gutsy and strong.

English tea, polite manners and social interaction

The principal intention and activity is social interaction, not eating.

The food is simple to prepare. The number of people present and the importance of the occasion will dictate the quantity and the variety of the different ‘bread’* options

It might be as simple as a plate of biscuits or sandwiches. Scones are rarely served at a tea unless they have already been split and spread with butter (a form of bread-and-butter). If it is a celebration, the focal point is a cake. None of the food is too sticky, too creamy or too complicated to eat with the fingers.

For up to about 10 guests the hostess is likely to be the person pouring the tea. For a large party family members (or staff) may be present, handing round food and pouring the tea. There might be a large table on which various food stuffs are served. Guests can help themselves to whichever foods take their fancy.

A family gathering might take place round the kitchen or possibly dining table. There is little formality in terms of setting the table. There will be provision for a cup and saucer, a plate and a small napkin. The small knife is provided if providing a form of bread and butter that needs to be assembled. These might include freshly baked scones with cream or butter and jam. Crumpets, toasted muffins and toast all served with butter could be another option.

In winter crumpets, muffins and toast might be provided at an informal tea. Generally, children do not drink tea, having either milk or squash.

This tea has its roots in the early 18th-century tea parties that materialized in the day time hours recognized as being dedicated to social intercourse, the hours after noon.

Polite behaviour and the early 18th century English tea

From the late 17th century, the rich landowning elite classes throughout all feudal Europe embraced the practice of tea-drinking. Tea was one of the highly desirable, fashionable commodities that appeared from the mysterious land of Cathay (China). New mercantile activity was opening up in the East Indies (the region around Indonesia and the Philippines).

In Great Britain, an important social group, the emerging, newly-rich, urban merchant classes adopted tea. These were the people who aspired to be recognized as “gentlemen”, as having the implicit virtue and moral codes of the elite landowning classes. They wanted to furnish their homes with the objects, wear the same type of clothes, and live the life of a gentleman and his family. Tea provided an active ritual of display of genteel knowledge.

In genteel homes throughout the land, the tea table provided a focal point at which the performance of polite, civil and gentlemanly behaviour could take place on a daily basis. The priority was the social interaction, not consumption of tea and food.

Knowing the ‘right’ people

The implicit protocols of Morning Calls and Visits** also had links to the tea table. It was very important to make good social connections, associate with and ‘know’ the ‘right’ people.

To behave the ‘right’ way was to behave as a member of the landowning or professional classes. They followed the implicit correct moral and proper codes of chivalry and home life of the feudal knight, already out of date in the 18th century.

The domestic tea table provided a social space for the households of gentlemen to meet on a regular, if not daily, basis. It was the most frequent social event to take place. The tea table components were of a similar form and easy to assemble, whether in the the rich or impoverished home. The desire was for homogeneity, and recognition of belonging to the ‘polite’ classes.

The implicit values of these polite, civilized gatherings continued well into the mid 20th Century, and certainly within my lifetime. Today they have all but disappeared, except perhaps among the very much older generation.

Other English Teas with polite manners

There are variations on the theme of this type of tea (some people still call it a five o’clock tea).

A tea, even if it does not go by that name, is a privately-hosted, day-time event. There is an anticipation that ‘polite’ sociability will take place. The consumption of food and drink is not the focal point.

Queen Elizabeth still holds garden (tea) parties at Buckingham Palace each summer. Weddings receptions, birthday parties and christening parties, often take the form of a tea . Champagne or wines, coffee and soft drinks supplement the basic tea and foods. A celebration cake is often the centrepiece. The food is usually simple, inexpensive and easy to prepare and delicious in its freshness and care in its production. Learn more about Victoria Sponge Cake or Cucumber Sandwiches.

To learn more about the evolution of the English tea table, you might consider the Afternoon Tea Study Course.

To make your own simple scones, sponge cake and shortbread, take an Afternoon Tea Party Baking class.

Please let me know your thoughts on the different English Tea rituals.

  • * I use the words breads to encompass bread, sandwiches, sponge cakes, buns, scones, biscuits. They are of the bread family.
  • ** Morning calls. These are so called because, up until the late 19th Century the word morning covered the day time until the evening. The afternoon covered the hours of the morning after midday. The hours of the day prior to midday were dedicated to household management and readying the house for the social visits that would take place after noon.


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