Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford (image: Wikimedia Commons)
We all want a bit of sophistication in our lives now and again.
If you fancy trying your hand at a social pastime steeped in tradition, look no further than the humble afternoon tea.
Whether you want to get dressed up in full historical attire or just have a casual get-together with friends, here are some components to consider when hosting your own Victorian-style afternoon tea party.
Afternoon tea originated in the 1800s, as the popularity of gas lighting increased and the wealthier classes started having dinner later in the day.
They would often eat close to nine o’clock at night, but lunchtime remained at midday, leaving many hours to grow hungry between meals.
In 1840, Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, complained of a 'sinking feeling' she would get at around five o’clock.
She insisted that some tea, bread and butter and cake was brought to her room in the late afternoon.
She started inviting guests to join her and the idea quickly caught on amongst the upper classes of Britain, becoming a fashionable tradition.
How you set up your afternoon tea is up to you, but for wealthy Victorians, tea drinking was an opportunity to express their personal identity and taste.
They would bring out a whole host of accessories — the finest porcelain teacups, saucers, bowls, tea caddies, table linens and more.
So if you have been waiting for a chance to show off that lovely teapot you received as a wedding gift, or perhaps your favourite cake stand, afternoon tea is the perfect excuse!
Speaking of cake — you will need to decide what snacks to serve your guests.
Food traditionally served at afternoon tea includes an array of dainty sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, as well as cakes and pastries.
Of course, you can put your own spin on this, but having a range of items helps to account for your guests’ preferences.
But what about the most crucial element of all?
Time for tea (image: The Grill on the Square Instagram)
We cannot possibly forget about the tea itself.
Black teas such as English breakfast, Earl Grey and Darjeeling are viewed as traditional choices for afternoon tea.
However, you can use any tea you like, from chamomile to gingerbread. Loose leaf tea is best, though, if you want to remain true to the custom.
If you do not know your guests’ preferred teas, offer a variety. For example, you might want to have one type of black tea, one herbal and one green.
It was once usual to pour the milk first to prevent the hot tea from cracking the delicate glaze of the teacup.
This is no longer necessary with modern teaware, so feel free to add the milk after the tea. It also means each guest can decide whether they want milk and how much.
Manners were of the upmost importance in Victorian society (image: Pexels)
To really immerse yourself into the Victorian vibe, you and your guests might choose to abide by the elaborate manners of the era.
Some etiquette rules documented in The Ladies’ Book Of Etiquette And Manual Of Politeness (1860) by Florence Hartley include:
- If your tea is too hot, do not blow on it. Wait patiently for it to cool.
- Take small bites of your food and small sips of your tea, making sure to limit noise while eating or drinking.
- Do not pile your food up on your plate, as it could suggest that you fear there will be none left by the time you get a second helping.
- Be careful not to interrupt someone while they are talking. If you have any questions, wait until they have finished before asking. Equally, never interject a conversation already happening between two people.
- Always try to speak clearly and distinctly, finding a ‘happy medium between mumbling and screaming.’
- It is the ‘height of meanness’ to speak ill of an absent friend. If others like them and you do not, keep your opinion to yourself, or you may appear cruel and envious.
- Make sure to dress neatly. Dirty or creased clothes can ruin the effect of a nice outfit.
- Choose clothing which is suitable for the occasion.
- Always make sure you are comfortable, as even ‘the most exquisite ball costume will never compensate for the injury done by tight lacing.’
These rules are obviously outdated now, but it could be fun to incorporate some of them into your event if everybody is willing.