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Tea Time: Tea in English Culture

Tea Time: Tea in English Culture

Tea was first introduced in England by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II. But it wasn’t until the East India Company started filling its ships with tea, after selling British-manufactured fabrics in China, that tea was sold in England commercially.

In fact, the chief reason we have black tea today is because green tea could not be transported without spoiling. Black tea – a fully-oxidized form of Camellia sinensis – lasts a lot longer than green or white tea, making it a perfect tea for export.

Due to its exotic origins, tea was first consumed by the upper classes only. But during the course of the 18th Century, tea became available to everyone. It also became a major part of British life, and several meals and customs soon evolved out of the consumption of tea.


Elevenses is a 19th Century custom revolving around a late-morning tea break. Usually served around 11 a.m., elevenses consists of a cup of tea and a biscuit or a piece of cake. Elevenses was once such a part of English life that it seeped into the British cultural cannon. Winnie the Pooh took elevenses, so did Paddington Bear.

Rarely practiced today, elevenses provided both a late-morning snack and a true break in the day for hard-working English laborers.

Afternoon Tea

The traditional “tea time,” afternoon tea originated in England in the 1840s. Afternoon tea served to fill the gap between breakfast and dinner (for the lower classes) and lunch and dinner (for the upper classes).

Afternoon tea can be anything from a small meal (similar to what’s eaten during elevenses) to the iconic English tea offerings such as finger sandwiches, cakes and pastries.

A rare indulgence now, traditional afternoon tea is served at fine English hotels and teashops.

High Tea

High tea is actually a large, early evening meal. High tea usually consists of traditional British offerings such as fish and chips, Shepherd’s pie and ham salads. Sometimes called “meat tea,” high tea was a staple for the British working classes, most of whom never had the time or money to indulge in an afternoon, or “low tea.”

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