The History and Culture of Afternoon Tea

The great novelist Henry James once said, ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’ But where does the tale of the tea begin, and what does it look like now? Here is all you need to know about the great afternoon tea, it’s history and what it looks like today.




Afternoon tea was first popularised in England in the 19th century, when Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, became rather hungry during the period between lunch and dinner (dining for the upper classes usually taking place at 8pm). Through this, she came to discover that a tray of tea, cakes and sandwiches was an excellent stand-in during the empty time slot. Keen to share her new-found ritual, she soon began to invite friends along to enjoy it and so the craze became iconic. 


Now, any Brit would say that nothing says Great Britain like a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Naturally, it makes sense that afternoon tea has become one of the nation’s favourite culinary traditions and although considered a luxury social occasion when coming into fashion, this fashion hasn’t run out of steam.


So, the scrumptious activity remains relatively unchanged. Why is this? It turns out that there are a few reasons, reasons that go along the lines of communal dining, the experience and its ability to evolve into both a tradition and a trend.




Sharing concepts relieve the decision-making pressures people can feel, as well as offering the chance to try a variety of sweet and savoury food options. Millennials are one of society’s largest generations ever, and they’re eating out more than their predecessors. One thing we’ve learnt from this age group is that they LOVE to share. And this isn’t just food we’re talking about, they’re sharing cars, houses and an unimaginable amount of experiences on their social media. However, millennial dining habits are a driving force behind this ‘food-to-share’ trend, hence afternoon tea is now attracting a much younger audience than before. 


So, what better way to share food than over an afternoon tea? The savoury sandwiches, the various types of tea to choose, from Darjeeling to Earl Grey, the cheese, classic and/or contemporary British scone, not to forget the stunning pastries that earn their place on the stand…afternoon tea is here to stay, as it highlights an occasion or acts as the centrepiece when meeting with friends or celebrating special life events. 




So, we love to share our food. However, this doesn’t always mean in the physical sense (because that would require you to give away something delicious!) We cannot deny that we live in the golden age of social media; what once was perhaps seen as a platform to stay connected to people, has presented us with a growing amount of opportunities, from affiliate links to an established love for brunch and other foods. 


As stated, this means that afternoon tea is attracting a much younger audience than before, despite perhaps having an unattractive price tag a lot of the time for this demographic. There are other challenges that the younger generation carries including specialist diets and ever-changing palettes – as a consequence, venues have had to become more innovative with what they create and provide.


Food isn’t just something you eat now. You have to visually enjoy it, something that takes up way too much space on your camera roll. Once these social media-friendly foods go viral, they can completely change the way we eat. Breakfast, for example, has shifted from a decidedly un-photogenic cereal or marmalade on toast to the bright hues of avocado toast and smoothie bowls. 


Afternoon tea is one of the most popular vessels to display art in food form. The three-tier stand and its various elements of colour as it basks in the British sun proves why this has earned a spot in the world of ‘digital food’. As we use our eyes more, aesthetics and themes are climbing high on the priority list for consumers - afternoon tea can certainly satisfy those needs.




Yes, the occasion is steeped in tradition, but it is a tradition that is both quintessentially British and deep rooted within the growing trends and changes in both society and the gastronomic world. Tea, along with its variations, is kept alive all over the world now, from ‘gong fu’ tea service in China, to iced tea originating from the US. But it’s the Great British afternoon tea, along with its entire sensory experience, that we back in the tea discussion…and we haven’t even got started on the ‘jam or cream first’ debate!


What is your most memorable afternoon tea experience? We’d love to know! Tag us in your afternoon tea experiences on social media with @payneandgunter and @nevillholtopera or send us a message about your favourite afternoon tea memory.