Britain’s Love of Tea: Where it all Began
Although there are many tales and legends, no one can pinpoint the exact origins of when tea was first taken as a drink. What we do know is that its popularity began in the Far East, carving trade routes all over China and Southern Asia throughout the second and third centuries AD, and later spreading overseas to Japan.
During this early period, Asia and Europe were very inward-looking. There was little interaction between the two until the 16th Century when Portuguese explorers, having mapped the coastline of Africa, encouraged by the bounty and wonders of the Spice Islands and India, continued onwards to China.
The age of discovery had excited the taste-buds of European gentry. Civilised society now demanded their food doused in pepper, nutmeg and cloves. Tea, in particular, became a symbol of wealth and status.
In 1664 the British East India Company began to import tea into Britain, following the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess - and tea addict. The drink became popular in coffee houses where middle and upper class men would do business, and was later enjoyed by women of affluent families in their homes.
The Ritual of Afternoon Tea
From the middle of the eighteenth century, it became fashionable for the upper and middle classes to eat dinner much later than they had previously, leading to a large gap between meals. Anna, the Duchess of Bedford is said to have introduced afternoon tea as a way to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner.
Her afternoon snack soon became a social ritual once she began inviting friends to join her in Belvoir Castle at 5 o’clock for an additional meal of cakes, sweets, delicately cut sandwiches (as recently made popular by the Earl of Sandwich) and tea. This practice was then adopted by other members of high society who enjoyed the opportunity for informal business meetings, socialising and idle gossip.
Once the industrial revolution had taken hold and long, substantial lunches became less convenient, afternoon tea drinking was also picked up by the working classes. Workers would return home from the factories to a spread of various foods, accompanied by strong tea. As they took the meal at a (high) dining table rather than a (low) tea table, it was termed “high tea”.
Tea; A Fact of British Life
By the early 19th century, increased availability allowed tea drinking to become widespread, bringing households and friends together around the table in a shared ritual that creates a sense of community and familiarity. As is still the case today, tea became a fundamental part of English domesticity and daily routine, such a part of British life that many can’t imagine getting through the day without it.