June 28

The History of High Tea


Have you ever wonder what is the history of high tea? When and how di the British tradition began ?

Well, wonder no more, as once you’ve finished with this article, you’ll not only be an expert at differentiating the two, but you’ll have a better understanding of where the phrases come from and how they came about!

Here’s a scene that might be familiar to you. It’s a little after three o’clock, and a buy day in the local town center has you feeling hungry, thirsty, and in need of a rest – all rolled into one! Then, in the distance – a savior! A sign for a lovely looking little tearoom, serving all kinds of delicious looking treats just begging to be washed down with a strong cup of tea.

But oh no! As you get closer, the sign outside appears to be offering not one but two different kinds of meal for this time of the day. Afternoon Tea and something called “High Tea.” What could the difference be, you wonder, as your brain goes into overdrive at the idea of complicating something so sacred as tea?

Tea Gift Sets | Tea Samplers | Gifts For Tea Drinkers
Tea Gift Sets | Tea Samplers | Gifts For Tea Drinkers

from: Art of Tea

Crossing the Teas – 1800’s

The phrases “High Tea” and “Afternoon Tea” are often seen as interchangeable, but their origins couldn’t be more different. I won’t go into too much detail about Afternoon Tea (that’s not what you’re here for, after all!), but there are some key differences that a little history will clear right up.

Afternoon Tea is typically served in the mid-afternoon, so around two to three o’clock. It is the sort of thing you associate with a tearoom whose windows are laden high with scones, cakes, and other sweet treats (my mouth is watering already!) It’s a tradition that was introduced in the 1800s through the power of one hungry woman!

Who invented Afternoon Tea?

The legend goes that Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, would find herself becoming painfully hungry around this time every day thanks to the usual evening meal becoming a later fixture. Thanks to gas and industrialization, people were working longer and eating later. So, dinner could be as late as nine PM!

Anna wasn’t having this, and when hunger struck, she took action. She demanded a simple fixture of bread, tea, and cake were brought to her in that terrible long space between breakfast and dinner – lunch wasn’t really a thing at this time either – and so the idea of taking an “Afternoon Tea” was born. As it developed and habits changed again, the time it took place moved around the afternoon until it settled around where it is now.

But how did we go from Afternoon Tea to High Tea, and what’s the difference? Well, you might be surprised to know that we didn’t go from one to the other in that order. We took the reverse order, going from High Tea’s small and functional beginnings to the stylish Afternoon Tea we still find today.

Yes, that’s right – Afternoon Tea is the younger sibling of the two teas! To find the start of the High Tea, we must go back about a hundred years.

The History of High Tea, Humble Beginnings – 1700’s

Contrary to the lush surroundings of the origins of Afternoon Tea, the High Tea has its roots in the working class. Now you might be thinking, High Tea sounds much more like the title of what a few noblewomen would sit around and enjoy each afternoon – so why is it called High Tea if it has nothing to do with the rich and famous?

Well, that answer is a surprisingly simple one! It’s called High Tea because of the way it was eaten. The worker would usually eat it standing up, perhaps leaning on a counter or tabletop, or on the high stools that would usually be found surrounding a counter at the time. So, they ate higher up, and the name came about from that!

High tea would usually be taken later in the day, closer to when you would expect to have dinner – around five PM or a similar, early evening slot. This would line up with the breadwinner coming home from whatever job they did.

What did they eat?

There are many different opinions, reports, and findings of exactly what would be eaten at a High Tea. Some say it was a similar selection to the Afternoon Teacakes, loaves of bread, or other sweeter treats.

However, the popular line of thought is that High Tea was much more typically a hearty meal, which makes sense. I know after a hard day’s work, I’d rather have a full meal than a cucumber sandwich! So, the more “filling” foods would consist of meats, cheeses, savory pieces of bread, and vegetables. The combination of these dishes was incredibly varied, so they weren’t spoiled for choice!

Meats could be made into pies or put into casseroles with chunks of vegetables. There were also fish dishes, depending on what was available. High tea wasn’t just for the worker themselves, either. This sort of meal would be shared with the family, so High Tea became much more of a supper that was shared out. This also highlights another difference between High Tea and Afternoon Tea.

 Afternoon Tea was seen more as an opportunity to socialize with friends over lighter food, whereas High Tea was about sustenance than it was the focal point of conversation!

Tea-volution – Back to the 1800s!

As time went by, the High Tea of the working class evolved. The years went by, and it wasn’t only the working class who enjoyed it. Now, everyone from the highest nobleman to the poorest worker saw the advantages of having a hearty meal in the evening to sustain them until dinner time.

For the higher classes, High Tea became a bridge between the afternoon’s events and the evenings. Given the time it was usually eaten, it left plenty of time in the day to partake in activities such as sports (cricket was very popular for both men and women at the time) or trips out to the theatre.

 In a very similar vein to the story of Anna, Duchess of Bedford, a late dinner was becoming more and more common. So, it made sense to stock up on something to keep you going, especially if you had evening plans!

And it wasn’t just the time or the people who changed. The meals began to vary too. Cold cuts of meat and salad became popular with higher classes. Around the same time, a man named John Montagu (who you might know better as the Fourth Earl of Sandwich) changed the meal game forever with his idea of putting fillings, usually cold cuts of meat, between two slices of bread. From this revolution, the sandwich was born, which became a hugely popular staple of both the High Tea and, in later years, the Afternoon Tea too.

Tea Gift Sets | Tea Samplers | Gifts For Tea Drinkers
Tea Gift Sets | Tea Samplers | Gifts For Tea Drinkers

from: Art of Tea

So what’s the difference between High Tea and Afternoon Tea?

With the changes in how High Tea was served and the widening of the amount of people eating it, how it became much closer in style to the Afternoon Tea that became popular in the mid-1800s.

The big, filling meals were being substituted out for quicker, easier meals that could be prepared and eaten before doing something else in the evening.

But the difference in Afternoon Tea and High Tea remained in what they were used for. Afternoon Tea was – and is still – a very social affair. Cakes, teas, and jams would be shared over an afternoon of 18th-century gossip. Who wore the petticoat best, that sort of thing! Whereas High Tea, no matter the class, remained a much more filling meal, designed more for purpose and function than visitors.

So, if Afternoon Tea is a “luxury” while High Tea is closer to a proper meal, how have the two been confused so often? Nowadays, High Tea is often just confused with Afternoon Tea, or both terms are used to describe the same meal. How has this come about?

Why do people keep calling them the same thing?

There’s a good chance the evolution of the High Tea took it into the reach of the higher classes, and its crossover with the rise of the much more indulgent Afternoon Tea has contributed to this.

 High Tea sounds, well, fancier than Afternoon Tea does (or it does to me at least!), and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that as more of the higher class took part in it, that the name was misunderstood and its origins in the working class were ignored.

Of course, let’s not discount good old misunderstanding. English and the roots of terms are wild, changeable things that seem different depending on who you ask! It’s just as likely the phrase “High Tea” is used now to make the event seem more exciting and fancier. So what does make up the traditional High Tea as we know it today?

Here and Now – High Tea Today

In the modern-day, High Tea as a practice is one that has faded from popularity. Unlike the Afternoon Tea, which has kept its place as an English staple, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere offering a traditional High Tea unless it’s closer to the variant later in the 1800s.

As such, you might wander into that tearoom we mentioned earlier, expecting a hearty meal to keep you going (though with our much earlier meal times, maybe that wouldn’t be so good after all!) and be presented with cakes and teas and very small sandwiches. Now, as much as they are delicious, they might not be quite enough to make sure you can play cricket later that evening!

Or perhaps the other way around, you might go somewhere expecting a sweet treat with a tea to have a conversation over but end up with a menu of very filling arrangements not long after you’ve had your lunch! But now you know the key differences between the two, you’re much less likely to make this under-filling or overfilling mistake.

So, there you have it, the answer to the confusing question I’m sure at least one tearoom menu or sign has thrown out into the world and directly into your way – what is High Tea? And what is the difference between it and Afternoon Tea? I’m sure (and I hope!) you will come away from this article informed, entertained, and ready to correct the world!

If ready about the history of hight tea got you inspired to throw a tea party check out this post.



About the author

I'm Su, a tea enthusiast, long-term traveler, business strategist, and furry mom of two. I'm on this journey to learn the "right" and the "wrong" ways to tea, to ask the "dumb" questions, to hear the stories about people & their connection to tea & to find ways to incorporate it into my life. The Tea Tasting Club is all about tea & product reviews, tea recipes, and providing helpful tea information.


You may also like

Leave a Reply
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Join the club to get exclusive tea content!