Table manners for an English tea party

Table Manners at the English Tea Table

The aim of using good table manners is to show respect for your fellow guests, your host and be aware of those around you. In different countries there are different priorities of which we may not be aware. It is also worth remembering that certain customs or rituals are more relevant in a domestic setting in which you might be a guest or host as opposed to a hotel or tea room setting.

Afternoon Tea is really like a buffet on the table – you are helping yourself to food. This finger food is often served on a three tier cake- stand or many different plates.



CLEAN HANDS Wash your hands before you come to the table – you will be eating most of the food in your fingers.

FINGER FOOD. At an afternoon tea party the food is usually served as ‘finger food’.  When food is eaten with the fingers it is the left hand that is traditionally used. But don’t worry too much – many people use the right hand – perhaps try to avoid eating hamburger style ie with both hands. You might have a knife, especially when eating scone.


KNIFE. This the most important tool at the European dining table – this goes back hundreds of years when guests used to bring their own knife to a banquet. They would cut their meat with the knife and then eat it with their fingers, using the left hand. Waiters would walk around the table with long naps (big cloths) on their shoulders so the guests could wipe their fingers. Today the napkin (small cloth) is placed on the table.

 NAPKIN. Put your napkin in your lap. It is there to wipe anything sticky off your fingers.

TEA POT This is the domain of your hostess. She or he is responsible for pouring the tea.

TEA CUP AND SAUCER. This is placed on the right hand side of the plate – ready to use with your right hand.

TEA SPOON. This sits on the saucer, usually on the right hand side of the cup. If you add milk and/or sugar, use this spoon to gently stir back and forward to mix in the milk and dissolve the sugar. Put the spoon back on the saucer when you finish stirring.

TEA PLATE. This is small – it is not designed to take lots of food. Just take one or two items of food, then eat them and then start again.

CAKES These are usually simple sponge cakes and can be eaten with the fingers. Your plate is too small to have a fork as well as a knife.

SUGAR BOWL AND SUGAR TONGS – Use the tongs to pick up the lumps of sugar and drop carefully into your cup.

MILK Add milk to your tea if desired.

SANDWICHES – these were created to be able to eat with fingers without any ‘tools’, such a knife.

CAKE STAND Frequently used in a hotel to stack up lots of small morsels of food into a small space, rather than spreading out across the table.


Today scones have been idealised as a must for every single tea party. I would suggest this is more of a farmhouse delicacy as they can be difficult and messy to eat. You need to be seated at a table to eat them and you will need a plate and a knife.

Help yourself to cream and jam, using the serving spoons (that are the size of a tea spoon)  provided. Place a spoonful of clotted cream or butter on the side of your own plate. If the cream is very thick, use your own (clean) knife to scrape the cream off the cream spoon onto your plate.

If you can, break the scone in half horizontally. If this is difficult to do – the scone might be very crumbly – be practical and use your knife to cut it in half.  Then use your knife to spread clotted cream and jam on a mouthful-size on to one half of the scone.  Eat this morsel and repeat the process.  You want to eat with small mouthfuls.

Passing food to your fellow guests.

Always remember to offer food to other people before you help yourself – you don’t want to look greedy.

If someone offers you a plate of cakes, always take the one nearest to you. It is regarded as bad manners to take the largest slice of cake that is furthest away from you on the plate. If you touch any cakes or food on the main serving plate with your fingers, take this. It is bad manners to touch each item of food and not take it.

If someone offers you food at the table always either accept or politely say no thank you AND offer it back to them. This is an example of old-fashioned politeness when it was regarded as rude to ask directly – you offer to get it offered back to you.

Never stretch across the table. Ask someone to pass it to you and always use the word ‘’Please’. For example: “Please would you pass me the cream?”  and then “Thank you” when they have done so

Pouring the tea.

If you are a guest in someone’s home it is advisable not to try to pour the tea from your hostess’s tea pot.  Pouring the tea is the duty of the host, her daughter or perhaps a close personal family friend. You also never ask for another cup of tea – firstly you are asking for something directly and secondly you highlight your hostess’s failure to watch your tea cup.

In a hotel it is different – because there is no hostess. Sometimes the waiter will pour the tea. If you are all having the same tea, then one person might say “Shall I be mother?” This person then takes on responsibility for pouring the tea.