Tea, Afternoon Tea, and High Tea: What’s the Difference?

Afternoon Tea Party by Mary Cassatt, c. 1891

The English love their tea, but what is tea? Everyone knows it’s a beverage, but the word tea might also refer to a meal: It could be a snack or light meal around 4:00 pm which is called afternoon tea, or tea can be another name for dinner. And both of these very different meals might simply be called tea. Let’s see if we can sort it all out…

Tea, the Drink, and Queen Catherine

In 1660 the English Civil War ended, and the monarchy was restored. Charles II took the throne and two years later, he took a bride. Catherine de Braganza, daughter of the King of Portugal came to take up residence with her new husband and king. When her ship landed at the British port her Royal Highness sorely needed some refreshment and asked for a cup of tea.

To her shock, no one was able to locate even a single tea leaf to brew her a cuppa. Instead, they offered her an ale. Being a gracious Royal, she thanked them and drank it down, all the while wondering what barbaric country she had landed in.

She pondered this on the carriage ride to the castle which would be her new home. In her room, she nervously paced the floor while her maids unpacked the possessions she had brought with her. She breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted what she was looking for. Packed in among her silk gowns and jewels, she had tucked away a tin of tea leaves and some porcelain cups. She immediately sent a maid to the kitchen to brew her a cup of tea. How could she handle this new life without her tea?

Catherine was used to her daily cuppa because Portugal had a trade agreement with China and imported tea and porcelain from them. But, as she soon found out, England didn’t have any such agreement, and tea was prohibitively expensive and rarely drunk there.

The tea she had brought, got her through the wedding. After the ceremony, a messenger was to be sent back to inform the King of Portugal. He would then dispatch several ships loaded with luxurious and expensive gifts as the new Queen’s dowry. But before the messenger went off, Catherine slipped him a note for her father: “Be sure to send lots of tea.” Fortunately, her father obliged, and several trunks of tea leaves soon arrived for Catherine.

With her tea supply secured, Catherine was confident she could handle anything her new life might throw her way. The new Queen was considered exotic, and everyone wanted to emulate her dress, hairstyle, and even her tea drinking habit. It became a custom among the rich ladies of the court to have a cup of tea with the Queen. A few years later, England began importing tea and the tea-drinking custom took hold among the upper classes.

Summer Afternoon (Tea in the Garden) by Theo van Rysselberghe, 1901

Afternoon Tea and the Duchess of Bedford

By the mid 1800s tea was an affordable drink that could be enjoyed by all. But the Duchess of Bedford was soon to give the word “tea” a second meaning.

In 1831 Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, became Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber. She ate her meals at the appointed time of the court like everyone else. They ate a light lunch at midday and then dinner was served around 8 pm. That left a long gap between meals, and the Duchess often found herself feeling a bit peckish around 4:00 in the afternoon. So, to calm her grumbling tummy, she would have a tray of tea, bread and butter, sandwiches, and cake brought to her room.

This became her habit, and she enjoyed it so much, she began inviting friends around to join her for her “afternoon tea.” When the Queen joined the gathering, everybody wanted in on it. The light meal became known as afternoon tea and was soon copied by other socialites. It became a ritual for the upper class and turned into a formal occasion. Ladies would change into their best gowns, gloves, and hats for afternoon tea.

The tradition of having an afternoon tea has stood the test of time. Today many people partake of it in various forms. It can be as simple as a cup of tea and a biscuit at home, or you can go out to a restaurant for a much fancier version.

Many hotels and restaurants serve quite substantial afternoon teas. They usually consist of a tiered tray of finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, various little cakes. And, of course, tea. Champagne is often an option and going out for afternoon tea is a special treat.

High Tea and the Working Class

Traditionally high tea was a working-class dinner. While the upper crust had time to sip tea and eat dainty sandwiches around 4:00 in the afternoon, those working for their living didn’t have that luxury.

The common folk had their tea later in the day, after they had finished work around 6:00 or so. It was also their dinner and usually consisted of bread, vegetables, cheese, and meat, all washed down with a cup of tea. In some parts of the UK, dinner is still called tea.

Dinner is still called tea in some areas — and (apparently) sometimes even pets are invited. Painting: One of the Family by Frederick George Cotman, c 1880

One theory about the names of these repasts come from the height of the tables around which they were enjoyed. High tea was eaten by the working classes at their dinner table, and low tea (or afternoon tea) was often served on lower coffee tables in luxurious salons.

Not to Confuse the Matter But…

It seems that some countries, including the United States, refer to afternoon tea as high tea — possibly because afternoon tea seems high class. Whatever the reason, a few hotels, mainly in London, might list their afternoon tea as high tea to cater to their, mostly foreign, clients.

Just to be clear:

  • Tea could be a drink, an afternoon snack, or an evening meal.
  • Afternoon tea (also referred to simply as tea) could be a snack of tea and biscuits or a light meal with sandwiches, scones, and cake.
  • High tea (or simply tea) could be dinner or an afternoon tea in a London hotel.

So if you are ever invited to tea in England, be prepared for anything… Not really, just note the time of day, and that should clue you in on what you’ll be having.

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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England

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Margo Lestz
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  1. You have done a great job ‘ironing that out’, Margo. Now, perhaps you might like to investigate the different times dinner and supper are eaten in different parts of the UK and other parts of the English speaking world? While tea may be dinner if served around 6pm, dinner may be in the middle of the day, at around 6pm or around 8pm. And Supper may be dinner (at around 6 or 8 pm) or a light snack late in the evening, sometimes after the theatre or other evening entertainment. And I am sure there are more variations. All very confusing.
    Best wishes, Paula

    1. Oh my goodness! My head’s spinning. Sorting out tea was much easier. 🙂
      Thanks for your input on dinner and supper times – another confusing subject – but I think I’ll leave that one for now. 🙂
      Take care. Best -Margo

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