High Tea: Not For Toffs, This Was A Working Class Treat
Image Credit: Wait, is this high or low tea?

THE term “high tea” evokes visions of Downton Abby-esque or Bridgerton-style gatherings, with fashionably clad and delicately perfumed ladies crooking their little fingers whilst sipping elegantly from fine porcelain cups. Around them, artfully arrayed platters of treats beckon: succulent seasonal fruit, fresh preserves and clotted cream, scones, exquisite cakes and pastries, thinly cut (crust-less) sandwiches. And of course, a veritable cornucopia of tea — from light, flavoursome brews to darker, full-bodied affairs.

However, a scene so envisioned would be entirely wrong. Or at least not if we were to insist on calling it “high tea”. Correctly, the refined setting we’ve described would have been part of an “afternoon tea” or “low tea” service, which is what members of the aristocracy and upper classes took at 4 pm. Why was high society being served “low tea”? Well, that’s because it’s a nod to the kinds of tables on which it was typically presented — low-slung parlour or coffee tables. 

Conversely, “high tea” referred to an entirely different kind of meal — one that was a distinctly working class phenomenon. The custom probably originated during the Industrial Revolution, as a large populace employed at factories and mines made their way home at 5 in the evening. A hearty meal was called for to replenish their weary selves. So, along with a pot of hot, dark tea, the men would be served a meal replete with those old staples — meat and potatoes. Think: Cornish pasties, shepherd’s pie, fish and steak pies, occasionally vegetables. Just as the “low tea” got its name from how it was served, “high tea” was called so because typically, it was eaten around a higher (dining) table or counter.

There was other essential points of divergence between the afternoon/low tea of the higher classes and the high tea of the lower classes, for which we need to delve into the history of both a bit more:

The practice of afternoon tea has a cast of characters that includes Charles II and his queen, Catherine of Braganza; the Duchess of Bedford; and the Earl of Sandwich. If the monarch and his Portuguese wife popularised tea in England in the mid-1600s, then the (seventh) Duchess is credited with establishing the practice of afternoon tea circa 1840 as a stopgap meal halfway between lunch and dinner. As for the Earl, well his name gives away his contribution to this ritual.

While popular, however, tea was very expensive and only the rich could afford the high quality Ceylonese and Assamese blends, or Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong. The working classes could buy black tea that was sold at a lower price point. Of course, the tea brewed with this blend was often too strong or bitter — which is where the workaround of adding milk/cream and sugar to it took hold. Meanwhile, the upper crust took their tea sans milk, with slices of lemon — another luxury item.

Today, the terms high and afternoon tea are often used interchangeably, and the three-course service (finger sandwiches — cucumber, smoked salmon, egg and cress — with a selection of teas; followed by scones served with clotted cream and jam; and fine cakes and pastries to finish) offered at posh hotels and tearooms is often thought to be the quintessential high tea. On the other hand, the original high tea — a meat-heavy meal accompanying a strong cuppa — is what a lot of Britons refer to as… dinner!