The English Tea Room

Exterior of a traditionally styled tea room: Newens, the Original Maids of Honour, Kew.

The Tea Room; tea tables outside the domestic home

In the latter part of the 19th century a new eating establishment began to appear, the Tea Room. The concept of the English Tea Room evolved from the implicit family values of the food and drink of the domestic afternoon tea table.

The Character of the food served in a Tea Room

A public tea room serves simple foods that you might find in the home. Often it will be home-made soups with bread, light salads, assorted egg dishes. The focus is often on different assorted cakes, pastries and bread related foods. Tea is offered along with other beverages such as coffee, chocolate and soft drinks and cordials.

A tea room is open to the public and during day-time hours. Customers pay to enjoy anything as simple as a cup of tea, up to an wide assortment of simple foods. It is unlikely for the tea room to serve and large meat-related dishes. It is normal to find light meals and snacks. Tea rooms welcome families and children. Good examples include Maids of Honour in Kew or Cassandra’s Cup in Chawton, Hampshire.

There is an implicit sense that there is something special here, something personal and nice to enjoy that has links with a family kitchen, home baking and the domestic afternoon tea table.

This tea table, with its cargo of assorted breads, sponge cakes, tea and sugar, was the fulcrum around which polite social intercourse would take between the members of one private household and another in the afternoon hours.

In the 19th Century, bread and cake-making shifted beyond the confines of the home and it was this that led the shift of Tea outside the home.

The transition of Tea beyond the home

The old fashioned household manuals of the Georgian period offer a variety of recipes for baked goods to serve on the afternoon tea table. These were a variations on a theme; simple sponge cakes, tea breads, buns, muffins and biscuits, shortbread scones etc. You will find the old-fashioned English bread shop offers these simple baked goods, not the patisserie of the continental bakery.

During the mass industrialization of the 19th century, the production of ‘breads’ started to shift out of the homes especially in large urban areas. The Aerated Bread Company was responsible for the new ‘sanitary’ bread-making methods that changed commercial bread production.

Respectability: The Bakery and the Tea Room

It was the Aerated Bread Company who is reported to have opened the first tea room. This was at the entrance of Fenchurch Street Station, 1864. The ABC as it became known, provided a space within which customers could sit down and pay a small fee to eat the food bought from the bakery.

The use of the word Tea conferred the implicit values of ‘polite’ behaviour of the domestic afternoon tea to a public place. The Tea Room, with its public offering of family foods of the domestic tea table, provided a public, ie non-domestic space, in which ‘respectable’ women could eat outside the home.

Aerated Bread Company menu circa 1900
The first Tea Room: Aerated Bread Company Menu circa 1900

The offerings listed on the ABC menu card is mainly bread/cake based. There are five cold meat options. Boiled or poached eggs (served with toast) provide a hot dish. The Tea Room provides a home-from home with its air of familiarity of the domestic space. The menu offers tea, coffee, milk and non-alcoholic drinks. There is no discrimination between different types of tea, just tea.

The Tea Room provides a home-from-home.

In the late 19th Century, days trips out of the big cities became more popular as living conditions slightly improved for the worker. These people flooded out to the seaside or inland picturesque resorts. Local bakeries opened tea rooms that welcomed these new customers, providing the implicit values of family life. They served home-style tea, breads and cakes (for a fee). A transaction was taking place. Maids of Honour in Kew provides a good example of an old-fashioned public English tea room.

The presence of the word tea also afforded a means of income for impoverished gentlefolk, with their horror of being seen to practice trade. Opening a tea room was a respectable (gentlemanly) endeavour. It was easy to open a home in your house in the summer months to serve light home-made snacks and teas in pleasant surroundings. There was no shame in providing a financially transacted ‘social’ event. The priority for the tearoom owner was to make money without being seen to actively work to gain financial reward. The amount of hard work involved was not the issue as that could be hidden.

Other places to eat in public

The Coffee House

The values and associations of an English Tea Room are quite separate to those of the earlier, old-fashioned public Coffee House. Again the clientele was male. This housed the performance of coffee-drinking activities; business discourse; the making of money, the exchange of ideas. It was beyond the influence of the family home with its social codes of ‘polite’ etiquette, where business and money-making was not conducted.

Taverns, ‘ordinaries’ and chop houses addressed the necessity of eating outside the home for a predominantly male clientele. These often had communal and the food on offer limited to basic bread and meat dishes. These places had no associations with family values. They provided men, the clerks, labourers, and travellers with a place to have a simple meat meal. The food was very similar to the functional midday dinner described in Tom Brown’s School Days.

Today the boundaries between business and social life has become blurred. People now work from their homes and in offices. Most socializing has moved beyond the confines of the domestic space.

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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