The drinking of tea and nibbling of tiny sandwiches is an indelible image of English life. One would probably assume that “tea time” is a necessity deeply entrenched into English history, dating so far back that it has become written into the genetic code! Well, not necessarily.
A brief history of that magical leaf: The first European to encounter tea was a Portuguese Jesuit in 1560, Father Jasper de Cruz, while traveling as a missionary. Gradually over the subsequent century tea would be imported from the Orient, but the cost was outrageous, only decreasing as trade grew less arduous. Popularity of the beverage swelled, tea leaves creeping westward in stages, until finally reaching Paris in 1636. Quickly it became a fashionable drink, so prevalent that Madame de Sevigne often mentioned tea in her famous chronicles of the aristocracy—
Saw the Princesse de Tarente, who takes 12 cups of tea every day… which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. ‘But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.’ ‘No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.’
We can also thank the French for adding milk to tea. The founding of the British East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 opened trade to the East, but it would not be until somewhere in the mid-1650s that tea would reach England. King Charles II had developed a passion for tea during his years of exile in Holland, bringing the custom with him when he assumed the throne in 1662 and expanding the East India Company’s focus on tea. Almost immediately tea was added to the menu of coffee houses throughout England, tea mania spreading as a wildfire. Queen Anne chose tea as the royal drink of choice, replacing ale, in 1700, thus establishing once and for all the importance of the beverage. But it is interesting to note that tea created a controversy of sorts with many praising the health benefits while others claimed it was harmful, too expensive, and may even lead to moral decay! Many of the tax issues surrounding tea import/export were due to the varying opinions leading to major debates in Parliament.
However, the love of tea had taken over! Yet, as common as it became it did not replace coffee nor was the drinking of it originally attached to a particular time or ritual. That change started toward the latter decades of the 18th century.
Working class folks started drinking strong tea as part of their evening meal of meats, side dishes, breads, cheeses, and desserts. This was their main meal of the day taken as soon as they returned home from a long day of labor, usually without a break for food. Therefore they were very hungry and this was a full-course meal! It came to be called “meat tea” or “high tea” – the latter term because it was consumed at a high, dining-type table, not because it was fancy, as we now see the term used!
Afternoon tea – or “low tea” due to being drank while sitting on chairs in front of low tables laden with scones and pastries – originated during the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the young queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with creating the afternoon tea party atmosphere. It is said that she suffered from “a sinking feeling” late in the day since the two meals traditionally taken at that time (luncheon and then a very late dinner) were spaced so far apart.
Fascinating! But what does this history mean for the Regency? There is no doubt that tea was a popular beverage by the Regency years. Certainly people of all classes drank tea, but probably no more so than coffee, cocoa, or the various alcoholic options. Tea Gardens, such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall in London established around 1733, popped up all over the place with dancing and entertainments enjoyed while drinking tea. Exclusive Tea Shops, now an integral part of British life, did not exist until the Aerated Bread Company opened one in 1864. I could not find a single reference to an afternoon “teatime” being a customary part of Regency life. Every reference gives that credit to Anna, although there is not a precise date known other than somewhere in the 1840s.
Within the text of Pride and Prejudice the drinking of tea is mentioned numerous times but at various hours of the day and not associated with a standard activity or ritual. I think we are safe in asserting that tea and snacks may have been consumed in the afternoon from time to time before Duchess Anna, but not necessarily as a formal tradition.