3 Women Who Made England Mad for Tea

updated May 24, 2019
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When the heads of the G20 nations gathered in London in 2009 to grapple with the economic crisis, angry British protestors demonstrated in front of the Bank of England … by taking tea. Their concern was not bloated bankers’ bonuses, the lending crisis, or the mortgage scandal.

To them, the disappearance of time for a nice cuppa represented everything that is wrong with modern capitalism. Citing the all-but-obsolete morning tea break, they cried, “We are here to reclaim elevenses!” as they passed cakes and cups on the sidewalk.

Nothing seems more definitively British than the tannic tea leaf. It greased the wheels of capitalism, fueling a once ale-drunk populace throughout the Industrial Revolution. It is the lubrication of polite society: When the Brits are at their stereotypically most awkward, tea eases conversation and gives one something else to do with the proverbial “pie hole” rather than having to find the right thing to say with it.

“It’s a universal rule,” observes Kate Fox, author of Watching the English, “when in doubt, put the kettle on.” But as British as tea seems, most of the country’s history was written without the benefit of Assam and Darjeeling.

The habit of tea first hit England in the middle of the 17th century, a good hundred years after Portugal and others on the continent had been steeping in it. But when the island did take it up, they did it with gusto: In 1700, about 50 years after first making landfall in England, the natives consumed it at a rate 200 times that of when it was first brewed upon those shores. By the end of the 18th century, Britons were downing 20 million pounds a year.

And the secret of why and how they all went so mad for tea is women.

(Image credit: Peter Lely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Catherine Braganza: Tea Comes to Court

First, there was Catherine Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married King Charles II in 1662 and brought tea drinking to the English court. It was because of these “high-profile women habitual users” around the queen, says Professor Markman Ellis at The History of Tea Project, that the drink “became associated with women and with feminine socializing.”

The habit then trickled down to other fashionable circles, and hostesses began to serve after-dinner tea to their female guests, explains Kate Colquhoun in Taste: A Story of Britain Through Its Cooking. Using a spirit stove to serve the pricey postprandial in the drawing room, they showed off the “valuable tea wares that trumpeted their wealth and taste.”

(Image credit: Michael Dahl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Anne: Tea and Politics

Next, in the early 18th century, came Queen Anne. During her rule, tea and politics went hand in hand. Dubbing her “Great Anna” in “The Rape of the Lock,” poet Alexander Pope commented on the queen taking counsel with her ministers while taking tea. Unsurprisingly, the East India Company’s tea imports rose dramatically.

Tea Gardens: Drinking in Public

Even as women ruled over the tea trend from the throne and at home, they were shut out of the 2,000 London coffeehouses where men gathered to drink both tea and coffee, read newspapers, and talk politics. As a result, “most tea was consumed in the domestic house, and that was the way it was coded as well,” says Ellis.

But Queen Anne gave way to the Georgian era, coffeehouses began to wane, and tea gardens to wax. For Ellis, these outdoor spaces were “notable for the way in which men and woman socialized together.” With fireworks, musicians, arbours, fountains, and designated buildings for sipping the brew du jour, gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh hosted mixed-gender mingling in spring and summer.

(Image credit: Unknown See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Duchess of Bedford: Afternoon Tea

As the Georgian era gave way to Victorian times, Ellis notes, “the fashion for something called ‘afternoon tea’ spread slowly among families of quality,” eventually “extending across the upper-middle classes during the final third of the [19th] century.” And yet another woman, the Duchess of Bedford, is usually credited with the trend.

The oft-told, if somewhat mythologized, story is that throughout the 18th century, dinner slowly moved from two or three in the afternoon to six or seven at night. Although “luncheon” rose up among the wealthy to fill the gap between breakfast and these new fashionably “late” dinners, it seemed a long time to wait until the big evening meal.

Enter the famed Duchess. In the 1840s, her influence helped popularize afternoon tea to lift us up from what she called that certain “sinking feeling” that comes around 3 p.m. each day.

Tearooms: Suffragette Headquarters

By the end of the 19th century, tea poured beyond the drawing room and into the commercial arena as tearooms — distinct from the coffeehouses and tea gardens previously mentioned — sprang up. One story credits an Aerated Bread Company (ABC) manager, whose name is now lost in the mists of time, as kickstarting the trend by offering cups of tea to her favorite bakery patrons. In 1884 the company gave her the green light turn it into a sub-business, and by 1930 there were 65 ABC tearooms. Plenty of others imitated this forward-thinking woman.

At a time of social transformation, these early female-focused caffeine parlors offered unchaperoned Victorian women a respectable place to meet and greet and take tea. Which is how many tearooms were called into service as ad-hoc suffragette headquarters when the century turned and modernity promised a new way of thinking and drinking.

Over tea and cake, political activists held meetings, planned rallies, and drew others to the cause. Tea rooms advertised in suffragette newsletters. And teapots, cups, and saucers with suffragette logos and slogans imprinted on them announced a new era — both for women and for tea.