Tea the evening meal

Tea and the labouring classes
Tea the evening meal: Oil painting, ‘A Cottage Interior, an Old Woman Preparing Tea’, William Redmore Bigg, 1793 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tea, the daily meal of one social group

The majority of the population in Great Britain enjoy tea as the daily evening meal. This commonplace term is used by the wage-labourers that descended from rural areas and the industrial working classes.

This is not the Tea that provided a fulcrum for a performance of sociability. Nor is it the High Tea of that evolved out of educational establishments. This Tea is the meal of the silent majority.

All British Teas evolved from the early 18th century ritual, with its serving of Chinese tea and bread-and-butter.  The original Tea embodied the performative social ritual of polite and civil behaviour. These are the implicit attributes of a gentleman and his family.

There is less evidence of how the evening Tea evolved. It is likely to have been shaped by the priorities of the social group who participate in this ritual, a group that had no voice until the 20th Century.

For those whose ancestors had a heritage of manufacturing, heavy industry or farm labouring, the meal structure of the day is likely to be as follows: Breakfast on rising in the morning, Dinner, the main meal in the middle of the day, and Tea, an evening meal.

Breakfast and dinner remained in the same time slots as three hundred years ago. There is a level of ambiguity around the term Tea being used describe this evening meal.

This tea has gone on a journey driven by necessity. Its path has little to do with the social rituals of the affluent landowning, professional and merchant classes.

An idealized vision of the poor having tea

The painting shown above, A Cottage Interior by William Redmore Bigg, provides us with an idealised image of the poverty of an elderly woman.  Everything is exquisitely portrayed. The little table is set with the old lady’s frugal meal of bread-and-butter and tea. She sits before a small fire of twigs, where her kettle is boiling. In this idyll of the simpler life, the basic tools used in the performance of polite social interaction are on display. We can see the simple teapot, bread, butter, sugar (brown in this instance).

The old woman’s body is turned away from the table. There is no anticipation of participating in the social tea ritual of the arbiters of the moral code, the rich landowning elite.

Objectification

Members of the Tory land-owning classes bought or commissioned these types of paintings. For example those who appeared in the Conversation Piece paintings of Arthur Devis in the 1730s. These each had their own props of beautifully-painted Chinese tea sets. These merchant classes aspired to the values of the feudal, land-owning knights of the earlier generations. The painting provided the image that they wanted to see. It was a reinforced myth of the feudal knight taking an interest in his hardworking tenants. The exquisite execution of the painting reinforces this fetishized perception. It lulls the viewer into a false sense of the bucolic value of poverty.

Did the contemporary viewer know, or even care, whether the old woman had anything else to consume apart from the tea and bread-and-butter?

In Cottage Economy of 1822, William Cobbett harshly rebukes ‘the poor’ for adopting tea-drinking. He felt the implicit values of tea were a totally inappropriate aspiration for the labourer’s family. Idealistically, Cobbett advocated the return to home brewing of ale. He felt this was a more nutritious staple for the domestic ecosystem of the home. The byproducts of brewing provided a starter yeast for bread nd food for any livestock.

In reality, the brewing of ale and other domestic chores took up time. This was time that the wage labourer, working on the land, in factories and other industrial industries could ill afford to lose. Tea was instantly available and far less effort to produce. Less time spent on domestic chores allowed more time to earn money.

The reality of tea and the poor

This diet of tea with bread-and-butter (or dripping or margarine) became a cheap staple of the malnourished factory workers and slum dwellers of the late 19th century. This was in the expanding industrial heartlands of the north of England, and the urban poor of large city slums. Many of these people had migrated from rural areas in their search for work of any kind. The hot cheap tea with lashings of sugar and served with bread, provided an illusory, short-lived panacea of warm comfort in a harsh reality of poverty. Any extra pennies went towards the purchase of meat for the man of the house (a meat tea). This afforded him slightly more nutrition to support him in his performance of the breadwinner for his half-starved, malnourished family. This tea takes place at the end of the working day.

The 20th Century saw major beneficial changes in the general living conditions of the wage-labouring classes. There was the rise of the Unions and legislated working conditions. Many factories provided a hot dinner in their canteens and a wider variety of cheap and plentiful food has become available for meals cooked at home. Tea as a meal improved and has become synonymous with the casual evening meal called Supper.

Today, this painting sits in a repository of exclusive valuable objects of the very rich. Perhaps it serves as a salutary example of the danger of seeing what we want to see.

A Scone is a quick bread that we often serve with butter.

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.

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