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  • Writer's pictureBaroness Bolsover

25 of my Victorian Afternoon Tea Traditions | Baroness Bolsover

Updated: Apr 28

As the only remaining VICTORIAN AFTERNOON TEA LADY I'm thrilled to discover everyone is utterly curious about how one should behave at an Afternoon Tea Party!

So I’m delighted to answer some of your questions about my wonderful Tea Party traditions which will ensure your Tea Parties are simply the best!

What crockery should I use for an Afternoon Tea Party?

WHY, YOUR VERY BEST OF COURSE! Nice crockery never fails to impress. Minton, that’s my favourite, but I’m also partial to a little Royal Albert and I see that’s still popular and widely available. And you don’t have to look far to get a nice set of Bone China cups and saucers, many of the charity shops have some excellent sets at very reasonable prices.

I recall men being particularly fond of their crockery sets, showing them off as a sign of their wealth to the extent of having their portrait painted alongside them.

Did you Mix & Match your cups and saucers?

UNTHINKABLE! I’m flabbergasted to discover these days Mix & Match is IN! Mixing up your finest Bone China...excuse me whilst I reach for my smelling salts!

Mix and Match your crockery it looks FABULOUS!

Oops, I eat my words! Would you look at the above. On the right I've placed one of my traditional trios of cup, saucer and plate and on the left I've Mixed & Matched some of my oddments... and I'm sure you'll agree, they look rather splendid together! So if any of your crockery gets broken, you can pair it up with any old thing… and it’s FASHIONABLE. That’s all that matters!

Is it ok to drink tea out of your saucer?

CERTAINLY NOT AT AN AFTERNOON TEA! However, the habit of drinking tea out of a saucer has been around for a long time. Sometimes folks just didn’t have time to allow their hot tea to cool down and an easy way to achieve this was to pour it onto the wider surface of the saucer, instantly cooling the tea, and then tip the saucer into the mouth.

Saucers in some tea sets were made deeper purely for this reason.

This is a good, practical reason for drinking out of a saucer. But please, not at an Afternoon Tea party. You’ll understand why if you try it. Drinking out of a very wide brim allows for tea to escape out of the sides… and you really don’t want to dribble over your lovely silk dress…it would be a disaster!

Which hand did you use to hold your teacup?

RIGHT WAS RIGHT! In Victorian times we were forbidden to use our left hand for most tasks, including holding our teacups.

As an example of how society was geared up for this, in my Afternoon Tea Etiquette presentation I ask everyone to look in their cups. People are always surprised when they discover the pretty motif, found inside many Bone China cups, is only visible when you raise the cup to your lips using your right hand.

If you raise the cup using your left hand, you don’t get the added pleasure of seeing the manufacturer’s pretty motif. Everything was designed for being used with the right hand.

Baroness Bolsover explains in her Afternoon Tea Etiquette Talk who this little rose motif is for

Thank goodness times have changed, for I, Baroness Bolsover, am indeed left-handed, and it caused me all sorts of distress trying to use, or rather, being forced to use, my right hand when I was a child in the 1840's.

The saucer was held with your left hand. This was seen as a supporting role for the more important task of holding the cup.

Could you drink more than one cup of tea at an Afternoon Tea Party?

ABSOLUTELY! You could drink as much tea as you liked! Our cups were small and dainty, and all the gossip made for thirsty work. However, it was always best to show a little restraint. Remember we were wearing uncomfortably tight corsets and the concept of the ‘Ladies Room’ was very much in its early stages.

If we were visiting more than one Tea Party that afternoon, which was often the case, it would be wise to just have one small cup at any one party.

What did you do with any unwanted tea?

If you found yourself having a few sips of tea and then being left with cold dregs, there was always the slop bowl on the table into which you poured your leftover tea. This was perfectly acceptable and meant you were either ready for a fresh cup of tea or that you’d finished your tea. Leaving tea in the cup might indicate to the hostess that the tea was not to your taste.

That would be seen as a great insult and very poor manners. Avoid doing this at any cost as you may not be invited again!

You can't miss the slop bowl, it's larger than a sugar bowl and often has fluted sides. One mustn't be without one!

Was anything other than tea offered at a Tea Party?

DON'T PANIC! For the non-tea drinkers amongst you, coffee was always offered at our Tea Parties, along with a little fruit punch. The teas we offered varied and included Peppermint Tea, Vanilla Tea, Earl Grey, Jasmine Tea, Gunpower Green (we re-named this Pearl Tea for who wants to drink Gunpowder?) and of course a soothing Camomile was always helpful for calming the nerves.

Did you drink decaffeinated tea?

DECAFFEINATED? What’s the point in that? That most definitely would have been the outcry to that suggestion in the 19th century. Having said that, the herbal teas we offered, such as Peppermint and Chamomile tea are naturally caffeine free, so in fact, YES we did offer decaffeinated tea.

We could be prone to a little hysteria from drinking too much tea, especially if one was partaking in a few Tea Parties that afternoon so I’m moving with the times and have taken to having my tea half and half (half regular, half decaffeinated) then I get to enjoy the best of both worlds!

Did you offer alcohol at your Afternoon Tea Parties?

CERTAINLY NOT! The Temperance Movement would have have been banging at our doors. Though, I stand corrected… I do recall being offered a warming glass of Mulled Wine at a Christmas Tea Party. It was most welcome and warming in the cold depths of winter. And rest assured, I had no more than one glass!

On a more scandalous note, some of the ladies, and I’ll mention no names, were rather partial to adding a little gin to their tea. A small hit flask could be discretely hidden in one’s reticule and a tipple of ‘mothers ruin’ in tea was not uncommon!

What tea goes best with an Afternoon Tea?

A tea which is agreeable to as many of your guests as possible, therefore NOT TOO STRONG AND NOT TOO WEAK. English Breakfast Tea is a good example of this as it’s a little milder than say the stronger Yorkshire Tea blend which can be a little too much for some palates.

The Hostess would create her own tea blend to serve to her guests. I always had great fun doing this, but of course, one didn’t want to spend too much money, so you had to be a little careful. Blending small amounts of a more expensive tea, such as Darjeeling, with a cheaper tea such as Assam was the secret to creating a pleasing taste without breaking the bank!

Did you use teabags in Victorian times?

TEABAGS!!? Goodness me, NO, we didn’t have such things back then. We always drank fine loose tea, brewed in our finest silverware, and poured into our cups through a tea strainer. Ladies would have fainted at the thought of tea brewing in a little bag.

But let’s set the record straight about tea bags. They were in fact accidently invented in the early 20th century by American tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, who sent off samples of his teas in tiny little silk bags. His customers dunked these little tea-in-a-bag samples into their teapots thinking this was the intention and they proved rather popular. And hey presto, the teabag was born!

Teabags have been around in America since 1908 but they didn’t reach Britain until Mr Tetley introduced them in 1953 and even then, they took their time to gain popularity. The bags by this time bared no resemblance to silk, containing undesirable plastics and such to keep manufacturing costs down.

Whilst much controversy still surrounds the actual tea bag itself, let’s not forget its contents. Large loose tea leaves are undoubtedly the best quality and most expensive, whilst a tea bag allows for fannings and dust to be used which lowers the quality vastly and lowers the price dramatically.

Is it ok to put a teabag straight into your cup?

PLEASE WAIT FOR MY RESPONSE AS I PICK MYSELF OFF THE FLOOR! First, I’m asked if we used teabags in Victorian times to which the answer is an emphatic NO and now I’m being asked if it’s acceptable to dunk a teabag straight into one’s cup. NO NO NO! Has the world gone mad? What’s wrong with using a teapot?

Baroness Bolsover explains in her Afternoon Tea Talk that her Silver Teapot is excellent because it keeps the tea nice and hot as well as looking rather splendid

My silver one here is my favourite. The space allows the tea to brew beautifully, getting the aromas flowing and keeping the tea nice and hot! You can’t achieve that by brewing your tea in a cup! And if you haven’t time, please make it!

The 21st century is way too fast so what better excuse to slow things down than to take a break and make a brew. That’s 2-5 minutes of pure mindfulness.

Should I pour Milk or Tea into my cup first?

ONE OF THE MOST HOTLY DEBATED OF ALL TEA RELATED ISSUES and on which everyone appears to have a very strong opinion. This question causes nothing less than a riot at my Afternoon Tea Etiquette Talk.

So, may I put the record straight. If you’re making your own tea and pouring it for yourself in the comfort of your own home, it really doesn’t matter, tea or milk first. You make your tea the way in which you like it, that makes perfect sense.

However, if you’re at an Afternoon Tea Party and your tea is being made and poured for you MILK COMES SECOND. That is the done thing! No ifs, no buts, that IS the etiquette. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If someone else has made your tea for you, you don’t know how strong it is, so, by pouring the milk in second, you can add more or less than you would normally to achieve the taste you prefer.

Can you put boiling water into fine Bone China…wont it crack?

WORRY NOT! When you serve your tea it will have been brewing for 2-5 minutes and therefore cooled down a little. Rest assured your lovely fine Bone China, which has been fired at a high temperature, can take the heat… but please, never pour bubbling boiling hot water straight out of the kettle into your delicate cups. This may cause a problem.

Baroness Bolsover’s TIP: Always serve your crockery at room temperature. Whilst fine Bone China can tolerate high temperatures, it doesn’t like extremes… a bit like me, but then I am over 150 years old!

When should you add sugar to the tea?

LAST… it’s the icing on the cake so to speak. And talking of cake…

Did we use 3 Tier Cake Stands in Victorian times?

SOMETIMES. But, it would appear the order in which you place your food on the cake stand has changed over the years. In Victorian times we often had simple bread and butter on the small top plate, small crustless finger sandwiches in the middle and a few cakes on the bottom. This was the norm at a small gathering with a few friends.

At a larger party food tended to be offered on plates with sandwiches and small savouries at one end of the table and cakes and sweets at the other end.

I note that you like your sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle and cakes on top. This is perfectly acceptable. It’s a bit like Mixing & Matching your crockery, if it all looks aesthetically pleasing, that’s fine!

What cutlery did you use for your Afternoon Tea?

NONE! We ate everything with our fingers.

I beg your pardon, we did use teaspoons for it would be unheard of to stir one's tea with your finger!

So how did you cut open your scones and smother them with cream and jam?

WE DIDN’T! In fact, we didn’t have scones like the ones you eat at an Afternoon Tea. Our pastries were much flatter. We didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators in Victorian times so fresh cream wouldn’t be offered. The tradition of smothering scones with cream and jam came into fashion much later, certainly by the 1920’s. And I’m very glad it did, how delicious, so I’m delighted it’s become a staple part of the Afternoon Tea.

What sweets did you eat at your Victorian Afternoon Tea Party?

Prettily decorated little cakes with lots of coloured icing. We Victorians loved our swirly patterns, it made the little cakes look most interesting.

I do remember when the pretty pink and yellow Battenberg Cake was created to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to my Queen Victoria's niece in 1884. We loved it! And I notice it’s still on the shop shelves… SPLENDID!

What was Baroness Bolsover’s favourite Afternoon Tea treat?

VICTORIA SPONGE CAKE!!! What else!? I was there when this delicious cake was named after my Queen Victoria around 1862. Isn’t it wonderful that everyone’s still enjoying this scrumptious cake and I have a very special recipe for it.

Baroness Bolsover's special recipe for Victoria Sponge Cake is the best recipe for everyone's favourite cake. Baroness Bolsover is very surprised at how large your slices of cake are, in Victorian times cake was served in tiny little pieces.

On a more serious note, may I point out that at our Victorian Tea Parties it was served in teeny tiny pieces, not the wedges I’m seeing on today’s platters! We didn’t have room for a wedge of cake wearing our tight corsets, a shame really... it looks yummy!

Is it acceptable to dunk your food at an Afternoon Tea?

ABSOLUTELY NOT! Why on earth would you want to dunk freshly baked food? It should simply melt in the mouth without the need for dunking. Dunking is for stale, old, dried food and personally I find the habit rather offensive. So, if you must do it, please do it in private!

Is it OK to have more than one item of food on your plate at an Afternoon Tea?

OF COURSE! But remember we were wearing tight corsets so not much room for overindulgence and the focus of an Afternoon Tea was about the conversation, not the food. The food was only a few nibbles to keep us going until dinner was finally served at 8pm.

And one didn’t wish to appear greedy, that would be considered most rude and possibly result in you becoming the subject of gossip… something to avoid at all costs!

What did you gossip about in Victorian times?

WHO WAS SEEN DOING WHAT WITH WHOM, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY? Sherlock Holmes had nothing on us ladies. We got away with nothing… even one too many cakes on your plate would not go unnoticed! But you had to be VERY careful who you gossiped with, for it might well turn on you and there were some decidedly vicious tongues around.

My motto was to stay safe, preferring to engage in agreeable conversation at all times and which was most definitely expected if you were the Hostess of the party. It's also much more fun!

Baroness Bolsover loves to chat to everyone about her Victorian Afternoon Teas, she's explaining to a gentleman here how he should be using the moustache guard on his teacup.

Greeting your guests and exchanging pleasant chit chat was essential to your good reputation. It also meant you got invited to more tea parties!

What time did your Tea Parties start?

Anything from 3pm onwards. My friend, Anna 7th Duchess of Bedford had made the Afternoon Tea Party hugely fashionable by the mid 1850’s and they would start around 4pm. However, as they grew in popularity, with several tea gatherings happening on the same day, timings changed and it literally become a whole Afternoon Tea affair.

I see these days you’re enjoying an Afternoon Tea from as early as 12 noon. And why not, it makes for a very pleasant light luncheon.

How long should an Afternoon Tea Party last?

As long as you like! By the 1860’s everyone was having Afternoon Tea Party’s and you could visit several in one afternoon, as long as you were invited that is.

Sticking to timings could therefore prove complicated. However, an Afternoon Tea was a ‘drop-in’ affair and the Hostess would write down the timings on the back of her calling cards which were used as ‘invitations’ (no need for formal invitations to a casual tea party). For example, if I wrote Wednesday 8th from 3 o clock to 5 o clock on the back of my calling card, this would signify to guests that they may arrive for an Afternoon Tea any time between then. You would deliver your calling card the week before the event.

If you were finding the conversation a little flat at any one party and wished to move on to another, you could make a polite excuse and leave. But, only after at least thirty minutes, any less time would be seen as being most impolite to the Hostess. If the gossip was flowing however you’d be tempted to stay all afternoon. But never outstay your welcome! You certainly don’t want to be seen as a hanger on. When guests start leaving… make your exit!

Were Afternoon Tea Parties always in the house?

IT WAS ALL DOWN TO THE WEATHER. If it was a nice day we’d take tea out in the garden, if you had one that is. Our London homes tended to have small outdoor areas and the air wasn’t always too fresh in which case we would remain inside. The large Victorian houses did provide some cool and shade from a particularly hot sticky day so the general rule was to have your party wherever guests would feel most comfortable.

Small gatherings with just a few ladies were best, held in the lady’s private rooms, out of earshot of men or even a nosy maid. There we were free to discuss whatever, or whoever, we chose. BLISS.

At larger gatherings (over a dozen) and certainly if a gentleman was attending, we would take our party in the parlour.

The very large Tea Parties (over 30 guests) we would take in the garden whenever possible. This gave everyone the chance to mingle freely or have a private conversation if preferred. A room can be a little uncomfortable with a large crowd, especially if someone is smoking a pipe.


Victorian Afternoon Tea Traditions

So there we have it. Answers to some of your most popular questions from the Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady herself. You can find the answers to more delicious questions right here.

The Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady, Baroness Bolsover enjoys a cup of her very own tea blend which she creates to offer her guests at an Afternoon Tea Party.

If there’s any thing else you’d like to ask me about my Victorian Afternoon Tea experiences, do leave a comment or get in touch. I’d simply love to hear from you.

In the meantime, make time to relax, put the kettle on, sit back and enjoy a lovely cup of tea and perhaps a little biscuit…but please, no dunking in public!

Yours Truly

Baroness Bolsover

The Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady

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