Few things scream British quite like the tradition of Afternoon Tea. No surprise then, that Afternoon Tea Week is a national foodie holiday in the UK, held each year during the second full week of August.

Yet for something seemingly so integral to British culture, you may be surprised to hear that the custom only dates back to the 1840s. Originating amongst the upper social classes in England, the invention of afternoon tea is widely credited to Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria.

Over the course of the 18th century and into the early 19th, dinner in England came to be served increasingly late – keeping different hours was just another way for the wealthy to differentiate themselves from the middle and lower classes; It asserted their ability to change life’s rhythms to suit their wants, rather than being dictated by work or other factors.  

As such by the early 1800s, the normal time for the evening meal was between 7pm and 8:30pm, which left a long stretch between what used to be the only two main meals: breakfast and dinner. An extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill that long stretch, but this meal was very light, and still left many hours between it and dinner.

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography 

As such, the Duchess found that a light meal in the mid-afternoon comprising of tea and cakes, or bread and butter was a perfect way to tide herself over until dinner. She soon invited her high society friends to join her, thus sowing the seeds of a new national tradition.

This simple afternoon meal soon grew into a bona fide event, particularly once Queen Victoria herself adopted the practice. Members of the elite could dress up and convene to share lavish treats like finger sandwiches, scones with jams and clotted cream, pastries, and various cakes and teas, or share a more intimate afternoon tea with just close friends.

The tradition continues today, though it has become more of a rare treat than an everyday occurrence. The food tends to be served on a tiered stand, and even more recently, may be accompanied with a glass of Champagne or cocktail.

Afternoon Tea Week is just as good an excuse as any to treat yourself and your loved ones to a light, celebratory affair. Whether you opt to make your own or go out, be sure to check out Hawkker for independent shops, cafes, and restaurants to fulfil all your afternoon tea needs!

Header photo courtesy of Jelleke Vanooteghem