English Tea and Polite Manners

"The afternoon tea table is the same in its service whether in the tiny bandbox home of the newest bride, or in the drawing room of Mrs Worldly of Great Estates."  Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, 1922

Tea in the afternoon,  a three hundred year social ritual 

The custom of the  old-fashioned tea still takes place in private homes across Great Britain today. Originally  the most frequent social interaction among the upper and middling classes,  The afternoon English Tea provided an opportunity for the performance of polite codes of behaviour.  

Tea, as a regular social family event in the home has almost died out. Today it is more likely to be used for a celebration in a public place. 

Tea generally occurs between the hours of three o'clock and six o’clock, with family and friends gathering at a pre-arranged time by the person hosting the tea party. 

A tea can take place in any room  in the home. The focus point is provided by a small table that carries the tea parphernalia, the tea table. Sometimes, for convenience,  a trolley or tray is used to carry the tea paraphernalia. This trolley or tea table provides the location where the ritual of pouring the tea takes place. This might be in a drawing room or sitting room, in the garden or even at the dining table (although this is not  a traditional location). 

The focal point is the (small) tea table. Here, the hostess can sit and pour the tea. Some form of simple ‘bread’* is provided, designed to eat easily just using the fingers. Guests might or might not be  provided with a small plate and a small napkin. 

Generally, one type of tea is served. If there are two, the choice offered might  be “China or Indian”. Implicitly, the China tea is the delicate, light option and Indian tea is more gutsy and strong. 

English tea, polite manners and social interaction 

The principal intention and activity is that of social interaction, not eating. The food is simple to prepare. The number of people present, and the importance of the occasion will dictate the quantity and the variety of the different ‘bread’* options.  It might be as simple as a plate of biscuits or sandwiches. Scones are rarely served at a tea unless they have already been split and spread with butter (a form of bread-and-butter). If it is a celebration, the focal point is a cake. None of the foods is too sticky, too creamy, or too complicated to eat with the fingers.  For up to about ten guests the hostess is likely to be the person pouring the tea. For a large party family members (or staff) may be present, handing round food and pouring the tea. There might be a large table on which various foodstuffs are served. Guests can help themselves to whichever foods take their fancy. 

A family gathering today might take place round the kitchen or possibly the dining table. There is little formality in terms of setting the table. There will be provision for a cup and saucer, a plate and a small napkin. The small knife is provided if providing a form of bread and butter that needs to be assembled. These might include freshly baked scones with cream or butter and jam. Crumpets, toasted muffins and toast all served with butter could be another option, especially in the winter months. Generally, children do not drink tea, having either milk or squash. 

This tea has its roots in the early 18th-century tea parties that materialized in the daytime hours recognized as dedicated to social interactions, the hours after noon. 

Polite behaviour and the early 18th century English tea

From the late 17th century, the rich landowning elite classes throughout feudal Europe embraced the practice of tea-drinking. Tea was one of the highly desirable, fashionable commodities that appeared from the mysterious land of Cathay (China). New mercantile activity was opening up in the East Indies (the region around Indonesia and the Philippines). In Great Britain, there was an important new social group emerging, rich urban merchant gentlemen. They carried great power amongst the establishment and political classes beyond the confines of the home. . These were the people who aspired to be recognized as “gentlemen”, as having the implicit virtue and moral codes of the élite landowning classes.  

They wanted to furnish their homes with the objects, wear the same type of clothes, and live the life of a gentleman and his family.  Tea provided an active ritual of display of genteel knowledge. 

In genteel homes throughout the land, the tea table provided a focal point at which the performance of polite, civil, and gentlemanly behaviour could take place on a regular basis. The priority was social interaction, not the consumption of tea and food. 

Knowing the ‘right’ people 

The implicit protocols of Morning Calls and Visits** also had links to the tea table. It was important to make good social connections, associate with, and ‘know’ the ‘right’ people.  To behave the ‘right’ way was to behave as a member of the landowning or professional classes. They followed the implicit correct moral and proper codes of chivalry and home life of the feudal knight, already out of date in the 18th century.  The domestic tea table provided a social space for the households of gentlemen to meet on a regular, if not daily, basis. It was the most frequent social event to take place. The tea table components were of a similar form and easy to assemble, whether in the rich or impoverished home. The desire was for homogeneity, and recognition of belonging to the ‘polite’ classes. 

The implicit values of these polite, civilised gatherings continued well into the mid 20th  Century, and certainly within my lifetime. Today these teas have all but disappeared, except among the very much older generation. 

Other English Teas with polite manners 

There are variations on the theme of this type of Tea (some people still call it a Five o’clock tea).  A tea , even if it does not go by that name, is a privately-hosted, day-time event. There is an anticipation that ‘polite’ sociability will take place. The consumption of food and drink is not the focal point.  Up until the latter part of the second decade, the late Queen Elizabeth still hosted garden (tea) Parties at Buckingham Palace each summer. Wedding receptions, birthday parties and christening parties often take the form of  tea. Champagne or wines, coffee and soft drinks supplement the basic tea and foods. A celebration cake is often the centrepiece. The food is usually simple, inexpensive, and easy to prepare. It is delicious in its simplicity and freshness, and the care in its production and presentation.  


* I use the words breads to encompass bread, sandwiches, sponge cakes, buns, scones, biscuits. They are of the bread family. 

** Morning calls. These are so called because, up until the late 19th Century the word morning covered the daytime hours until the evening. The afternoon covered the hours of the morning after midday. The hours of the day prior to midday were dedicated to household management and preparing the house for the social visits that would take place after noon.