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What Is the Origin of High Tea?

Megan Shoop
Megan Shoop

The origins of high tea were actually quite practical. According to various historical records, high tea began in the early 19th Century. Allegedly, a member of Queen Victoria’s court, Anna Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford, disliked the long period of time between the noon meal and dinner, which was often eaten in at seven or eight o’clock in the evening. She began the practice of taking a small meal between three and five o’clock to help stave off hunger and prevent moodiness.

Anna Stanhope originally observed high tea as a secret ritual wherein servants were instructed to bring her a small meal of hot tea, cheeses, fruit, and sandwiches. Noting that other members of the Queen’s court suffered from afternoon peckishness as well, Stanhope let them in on her secret. Soon, most of the members of Queen Victoria’s court were taking part in this light meal.

Sugar cubes are used to sweeten tea.
Sugar cubes are used to sweeten tea.

When Stanhope left the Queen’s court to return to her home in London, she’d grown used to her afternoon meal and wished to share it with others. She invited other women to dine with her daily, and the idea of high tea caught on. Spreading from the high ranks of nobles into the lower castes of society, a light five o’clock meal became something to look forward to for all of those that could afford it.

A tea pot and cup.
A tea pot and cup.

Generally, the first high teas were very small meals indeed. Light, crunchy cookies, along with spongy cakes, toast, jellies, and fruit were among the foods of choice. The meal rarely contained meat or alcohol, centering mainly on items that would stave off hunger without being overly filling. As high tea gained popularity, the light fare that came with it became something of a fashion statement. Those with status flaunted it by serving a variety of exotic teas and gourmet finger foods.

Cakes and sandwiches for tea.
Cakes and sandwiches for tea.

Workers lower in society couldn’t afford such extravagance, especially after the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Factory workers had little use for delicate finger sandwiches and sugary treats. This began a tradition of expanding high tea into a full meal. Cold meats, light soups, and wine made their way into high tea, along with dense breads and meat-filled pies. In the lower classes, these meals were filling but simple. Wealthier individuals used this new trend to create even more exotic and elaborate spreads.

Loose leaf tea.
Loose leaf tea.

Today’s high teas are often as large and filling as a full meal, occasionally replacing dinner. Afternoon tea, which is usually served around two o’clock in the afternoon, has replaced high tea as being a light, energizing meal. Both kinds of tea are still social affairs in much of the United Kingdom and in parts of Europe. Women are primarily the ones in attendance, though formal teas may also include some men.

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Discussion Comments


This is essential incorrect. An erroneous Americanized explanation. Afternoon tea is what the Duchess of Bedford created. Add champagne or sherry and it is Royal Tea. High tea, that people often think is the elite version, is the lower class version and more of a meal eaten standing up or on high stools, thus its name.


The British took the high tea tradition to the Indian subcontinent as well. My Indian friends have Indian chai (tea with milk and spices) after arriving home from work, along with fried snacks and cookies.


@turquoise-- That's a good question but I don't know.

I want to clarify however that high tea is not afternoon tea. It is actually the evening tea, usually observed around 5pm at the earliest. I suppose some people might have high tea earlier but I don't think this is common.

High tea is actually very much a meal for most people, especially for workers who arrive home around 5pm to 7pm. When people arrive home, they are hungry an cannot wait for a late dinner. So a light meal with bread and butter, ham and jams are usually preferred along with tea.


I'm not British and even though I know what high tea is, I didn't know anything about the origin until I read this article. My family is actually Turkish. Interestingly, my mother and I observe a type of high tea ourselves. Around three o'clock, we make black tea and always eat something with it, such as crackers, cheese and bread or dried fruits and nuts. I had not realized that this is very much high tea until now.

We also have dinner late in our house and there is that time, several hours after lunch where one feels hungry, but not hungry enough to have a whole meal. So snacks work best. As for tea, tea drinking is a major habit among Turks. It is the preferred drink for breakfast and is drank again in the mid-afternoon and in the evening after dinner.

I wonder if the tradition of high tea in Britain has anything to do with frequent tea consumption of Turks. Does anyone here know?

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      Sugar cubes are used to sweeten tea.
    • A tea pot and cup.
      By: Volodymyr Vechirnii
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      Cakes and sandwiches for tea.
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      Loose leaf tea.
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      A high tea held in the afternoon may be a formal social occasion.