I find I am constantly asked about the etiquette of taking afternoon tea. Many visitors to the UK have a perception it is a meal to be taken along with a dose of ‘best behaviour’ – that we should sit up straight, dress elegantly and exude an air of refinement. There’s a sense of being on display to the world and our behaviour is being judged. But all we are doing is having a cup of tea and a cake, there’s nothing fancy about it, is there? Actually, there is. To understand the custom, we need to go back a few centuries…
Tea Drinking Takes Off
In a very brief précis, tea drinking became all the rage in Great Britain in the early 18th century. It was a time of change, when the Industrial Revolution was taking off – a period that spanned more than 150 years.
Tea had an increasingly important role to play in the lives of the emerging wealthy urban ‘middling’ classes. Up until this time, wealth was mainly derived from and held in the hands of the small elite of (predominantly aristocratic) landowners. With the business boom of the 17th and 18th centuries – along with new scientific advances and access to coal fuelling industrial expansion – the distribution of wealth shifted to the rapidly growing cities. A ‘nouveau riche’ urban middling class began to emerge who emulated the fashions of the monied landed gentry and aristocracy.
Keeping Up With The Jones’
This newly rich group desired opportunities to behave in public in a polite, genteel manner and drinking tea became a wonderful way to demonstrate this. Mothers would train their daughters in the art of the tea ceremony. We may laugh now, especially when we think of the present day teabag being dunked in a mug, but this social custom was steeped in importance. The customs around drinking tea provided a means to show the were good enough to mix with old money whilst also elevating themselves above the ranks from which they had come. Think of it like the modern day equivalent of having the latest iPhone 6 – there is that element of ‘being in the know’.
Take a look at Hogarth’s ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ series of paintings from 1735 (pictured below). Despite the subject, Moll, falling into moral ruin as she sells her body, she is still drinking tea to maintain an air of genteelness. The tea paraphernalia decreases in quality as her circumstances decline, but it shows how tea – despite its expense at the time – was such an easy way to demonstrate polite elegance, whoever you were. All you needed were china cups and a pinch of tea.
Shall I Be Mother?
I think taking tea still has an air of gentility or genteelness about it, which has been passed down through the ages, from the early Georgians, to the popularity of serving afternoon tea in the late 19th century – another period of social change and a growing middle classes.
Etiquette still has a role to play today. If I were visiting someone in their home for tea, for example, I’d happily help myself to food on the table. I would never dream of pouring tea from my host’s teapot, though. It could be seen as a mark of disrespect. Similarly, when out for tea in an hotel or cafe, we often use the expression “Shall I be Mother?” One person takes on the ceremony of pouring the tea.
I recently saw ‘Charles III’ in London’s West End and I cringed a little when he said, “Shall I be Mother?” to a visiting minister. There was no need to say it, he was already the host, but maybe that is just me – I am picky when it comes to taking tea and minding your manners!
You can learn more about tea customs, tea tasting and afternoon tea at one of my workshops or demonstrations. If you would like to join me for the special event at the Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe on 26 April – then use the code SCONES to get a 15% discount because you are one of my readers.