In the 1840s Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford had an idea that would revolutionise British culture and invented a national institution all because she was hungry. It was customary for the elite of the time to eat just two meals a day but the Duchess felt that she could not go the twelve or so hours between breakfast and supper without having a mid-afternoon ‘sinking feeling’. Her solution – now seemingly obviously – was to have a lighter meal in between, typically before her afternoon promenade. This was the birth of afternoon tea and she was soon inviting her friends to indulge with her in a pot of tea accompanied by sandwiches and small cakes at around 4pm.
Society women from across Britain’s major towns were changing into hats and long ‘tea’ gowns to congregate for a snack and a chat by 1880. It is then unsurprising that businesses seized upon this ‘At Home’ tradition, commercialising it with the opening of public tea rooms and broadening its reach to both the middle and upper classes. The first of these was established by the Lyons Tea Company in Piccadilly in 1894 but it wasn’t long before they had over 250 branches across the country. They were fashionable establishments in which men and women could meet without chaperones and the trend was soon taken up by luxury shops and hotels including Fortnum and Mason’s, the Ritz and the Savoy.
Tea drinking and an afternoon snack developed into a cultural ritual that Britons could not do without. With the rise of patriotism in the twentieth century inter-war period, afternoon tea emerged as part of the national identity and was crucial to British wartime morale, as epitomised by Jack Buchanan’s 1935 song: ‘help ‘em pour when the clock strikes four, Everything stops for tea!’.