The Social Space of The English Tea Room
Many of my students over the years have dreams of opening an English tea room, whether this be here in the UK or in their own country. They have attended classes with me to find out how they can make their tea room authentic or traditional. It is a fascinating subject to talke as we sort out the truth from the myths.
Family Respectability and the Tea Room
The Tea Table and its cargo of assorted breads, tea, sugar, was the focal point of the particular ritual or event that occurred during the implicitly recognized hours of social interaction. These are the hours after noon. The domestic tea table provided the conduit for the performance of respectable (gentlemanly) behaviour. It was at the tea table that polite discourse between one private home and another would take place. The hours of sociability took place after noon in the polite social space of the home.
Breads and Cakes of the Tea-Table
If you look carefully, breads and cakes are displayed on the tea-tables in the 18th Century Conversation Piece paintings. This has taken me on a journey to study contemporary cookbooks. I have found that the words cake and bread describe assorted spongy textured ‘bread’. These breads included variations on a theme; simple sponge cakes, tea breads, buns, muffins and biscuits and it is these that be found in the old fashioned British-style bakeries.
The likelihood that is that the role of the bread as one component of the ritual of polite (respectable, gentlemanly) behaviour associated with domestic tea table led to concept of the public Tea Room.
Respectable Tea and the Bakery
The earliest Tea Room is attributed to the Aerated Bread Company, and opened at the entrance of Fenchurch Street Station 1864. The ABC, as it became known, was responsible for the new ‘sanitary’ bread making methods that changed commercial bread production with its revolutionary new production methods. With the increasing number of women starting to work, and the new pastime of shopping, these tea rooms with their implicit moral values with foods associated with the home, became the place that women could frequent without the risk of not being respectable. The Tea Room fulfilled the role of providing the implicit values of respectability and polite behaviour of the family home in a public place.
As you can see the ABC menu card provides foods produced in the bakery plus a few hot dishes that were easy to prepare. This food is loosely based on the staple diet of the home, bread. There is no alcohol on the menu. There is little focus on the meat of the Chophouse, a mainly male preserve. The Tea Room almost provided a home from home during the the working day thus providing an air of familiarity. It was and is not open in the evening hours. The menu offers tea, coffee, milk and other soft drinks. The focus is on the food and there is no discrimination between different types of tea, just one offering.
The Tea Room provides a home from home.
In the late 19th Century, day trips out of the big cities became more popular. Workers flooded out to the seaside or inland picturesque resorts. Alongside village bakeries who might open a tea room, private individuals started to open tea rooms to supplement their income. The heading picture to this page displays the problematically themed Rhodesia tea rooms opened in Alford, Surrey. The tea room provided a space that welcomed the public with its implicit values of family life. There was a promise of enjoyment of home baked fare, tea and coffee(for a fee).
The presence of tea also afforded a means of income for genteel folk, as opening a tea room is a respectable trade. Somehow it did not carry the attendant stigma associated with commerce and trade.
Never underestimate how physically demanding it is to run such a food related business as it is exceptionally hard work!
Why not read more about Caroline’s Complete Tea Course.
Or join one of Caroline’s free online tea parties here -see which subject topic might interest you.