25 Top Afternoon Tea Questions Answered | Baroness Bolsover
As the only remaining truly Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady I’m delighted to answer your questions about the Afternoon Tea Party tradition which I’ve been privileged to be a part of from the very beginning.
Let's get straight down to business shall we and by far the most popular question I'm asked is...
Did we invite men to an Afternoon Tea?
Why yes of course! It was an absolute necessity for a Tea Party was the perfect opportunity to introduce your daughter or niece to a possible suitor. Preferably a man with a vast amount of money, a nice title, and obviously single. This was a lot to ask so if all criteria couldn’t be fulfilled, it was wise to checkout the title bit as some young men squandered their inheritance and were left titled but penniless. Not an attractive proposition. So yes, we did invite men to our Afternoon Teas but only to the larger gatherings. Small gatherings would be held in our private rooms, where men were most definitely not allowed!
Which brings me to the next question.
How many people did we invite to an Afternoon Tea?
Initially, our little Afternoon Tea gatherings were just a few ladies meeting for a cup of tea and a few nibbles, as I say, in each other’s private rooms. A lady always had her own private rooms where she could relax and which were furnished with a combination of low sofa’s, small tables and one or two upright chairs. In fact, it was my dear friend Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, who’d made these little Afternoon Tea gatherings fashionable by the mid-19th century and as they continued to became more and more popular, the size of the Tea Party grew.
By the 1860’s we were also enjoying large parties outside in the garden with maybe up to 50 guests or more. The men liked these parties as it was an opportunity to show off their wealth to their friends, it was all about being seen really and not nearly as much fun as the little gatherings with just a few friends.
Our small tea gatherings were hugely important to us ladies. For the first time we had the chance to speak a little more freely, outside the confines of our homes on matters we couldn’t or rather, were told we shouldn’t, discuss with our husbands. And we loved a little gossip, who doesn’t?
But just to clear things up, if you’re Afternoon Tea was for around 12-20 guests, you’d probably take it in the parlour as your private rooms may be a little cramped with that many guests. And at this size gathering there may well be a mixture of both men and women. For very large numbers your party would be most suited to the garden.
What did you eat at an Afternoon Tea?
Firstly, may I say how thrilled I am to see that a traditional Afternoon Tea is now being enjoyed in many parts of the world. However, whilst it's now considered a 'meal' in Victorian times it was just a few nibbles to keep us going until dinner was served at 8 o clock. And of course, there was no room for over-indulgence when wearing a tight corset, even if you wanted.
At a small gathering, plates of crustless finger sandwiches with simple fillings such as cucumber, egg and cress and perhaps a little cheese, would be offered, nothing more. Two or three bites of these little sandwiches and they were gone. There’d also be a plate or two containing a variety of sweet pastries and cakes cut into tiny pieces.
You can imagine how shocked I was to learn how you serve your Victoria Sponge Cake these days… gigantic wedges, I’ve seen them! How an earth do you find room when wearing a tight corset!?
At a large Tea Party, the food was far more elaborate, remember it was all about being seen, so the smoked salmon and caviar would come out and the sweet selection was to die for. Diabetes was not a consideration back then and we drizzled everything in sugar as well as put copious amounts of it in our tea.
Did you use a Cake Fork?
Absolutely not, we ate with our fingers and as I’ve just mentioned, the food was served in tiny, small portions so cutlery wasn’t necessary. The habit of using a cake fork at an Afternoon Tea is something that’s crept in over time. I totally understand why you would want to use one and indeed MUST, considering the size of your cake slices!!
What did you wear for an Afternoon Tea?
Formal day wear was essential, and we would always keep our hats on. The hat I'm wearing here is my pretty Flowerpot Hat.
This lovely outfit was my favourite in the late 1880’s. The leg of mutton sleeves and peplum waist were the height of fashion. Fortunately, the full crinoline was long gone, the A-line was in and the bustle was getting smaller. A little padding was eventually all that was required!
Did you wear gloves?
All the time, but as I say, at an Afternoon Tea we ate with our fingers, so you’d take off your gloves to avoid getting crumbs all over them. Having said that, I do recall one or two ladies preferring to keep their gloves on, though I never saw them eat anything!
What about jewellery?
We kept our jewellery to a minimum during the daytime, say a modest pin broach, too much jewellery was considered vulgar. We couldn’t wait to throw on our finest string of pearls and diamonds in the evening. Well, if you've got them, flaunt them! And there’s nothing like a string of pearls to flatter one’s décolletage.
Did we get hot wearing such formal clothes?
Extremely! That’s why we always carried smelling salts in our reticule, we were forever fainting. In summer our dresses were a little lighter, but certainly not like these days. I pointed it out to a young woman the other day that she was practically naked, her bare arms totally exposed. Then I looked around the room and saw an abundance of flesh!! It was a rather hot day I admit, but we didn’t know what fresh air felt like other than on our face!
Did you wear a Tea Dress?
If you were the hostess of the Tea Party, then you wore a Tea Dress or Tea Gown as we called them. And trust me, our Tea Gowns were utterly liberating. They were much lighter, floatier dresses, with which you didn’t have to wear your hat, your gloves and guess what else you didn’t have to wear…. a corset!! HEAVEN!! No wonder we were all clamouring to be the hostess of our own tea party's. The one seen below is the Tea Gown I currently wear, based on a late 19th century French fashion plate. GORGEOUS!
Of course, you can only wear your Tea Gown in the house… it’s not for wandering the streets in.
Did you have to be invited to an Afternoon Tea?
Oh yes, you couldn’t gate crash! But the lovely thing about Afternoon Tea is that it’s a casual affair and so you don’t need to send out formal invitations. All we did was write the day and time of our next tea gathering on the back of our calling cards and deliver these to the houses of the guests we were inviting. The lady of the house would never come to the door herself so we’d simply present our calling card to whoever opened the door to us which would then be safely placed on the ‘card tray’ ready to be picked up and read later in the day by the lady of the house.
We loved dropping off our calling cards. It was the perfect excuse to get out of the house, take in some fresh air and hopefully bump into someone we knew.
If you wished to accept the simple invite to Afternoon Tea, you would take your calling card and drop it round to the lady who’s ‘invited’ you to tea. This signified your acceptance. Should you not be able to attend, a little note with your apology would be most appropriate.
What exactly is a calling card?
A white card much the same size as your Business Cards. It would have your name and your husband’s name printed on it, unless you were a widow of more than a few years, in which case it would just have your name, along with your address. And it really was for the purpose of letting someone know you’ve called on them.
How simple is that. And so much cheaper than buying a stamp!
How important was punctuality to an Afternoon Tea?
They were gloriously casual and drop in was perfectly acceptable from the start time given by the hostess. And you didn’t have to stay all afternoon, but please, no less than thirty minutes, it would be considered impolite to leave within that amount of time.
Did anyone outstay their welcome at one of your Afternoon Teas?
Not really… and there are ways and means of excusing oneself from your own Tea Party. Mentioning that you had an important guest coming for dinner…that worked well without causing offence.
What tea did you serve at your Tea Parties?
Nothing too expensive that’s for sure! You had to be careful otherwise you’d find yourself spending your monthly tea allowance all in one go. We all had our own Tea Caddy’s back then which we kept under lock and key as tea was so terribly expensive.
The secret was to learn how to make your own tea blend. It's easily done by mixing a less expensive tea such as an Assam, which can be a little strong on its own, with a lighter more delicate tea, say a Darjeeling. It was up to you do decide how much of each you put in. But you did want to create a pleasant tasting tea for your guests, nothing too strong and nothing that would break the budget.
I encourage everyone to have a go at making their own blends. A few spoons of 2 or maybe 3 different teas and bobs your uncle, you’ve created a tea blend. You just need to remember how much of each tea you’ve used, then you can either re-create it or adjust accordingly next time. Experiment, that’s the fun bit.
We also offered Fruit Teas, Peppermint Tea, Gunpowder Green, Vanilla Tea, a whole variety of teas to suit everyone’s taste.
What if you don’t like Tea?
Don’t worry, you’d still be invited! We always offered Coffee and a refreshing fruit punch.
When did Afternoon Tea become accessible to those other than the Upper Classes?
When tea became a lot, LOT, cheaper. Fortunately, the Industrial Revolution brought along vast improvements in transportation which led to the distribution of tea becoming cheaper and by the 1920’s tea drinking was a part of daily life for most.
Do you have to drink tea out of fine bone china?
Most definitely. It enhances the taste of the tea and keeps it nice and hot. Now it doesn’t have to be Royal Doulton or even Royal Albert, you can pick up odd bits of tea sets from charity shops at very reasonable prices and I believe mix and matching is rather retro!
If you have a tea cup you can put it to the test. Look at it against the light. If it looks a little translucent that’s good and is probably bone china, the more translucent the better.
Have a feel inside of the cup, it should be nice and smooth. That smooth surface will keep the natural tannins in your tea from sticking to the inside of your cup and that’s why you should never need to scrub clean the inside of a bone china tea cup.
Also, the delicate slim rim of your cup allows the tea to glide gently onto the tongue, giving your tea maximum exposure over your taste buds. There won’t be any slurping…trust me!
Hopefully, you’ll never want to drink out of a mug again.
What did you do if you needed to go to the toilet?
Please, a lady shouldn’t be discussing such things in public. But what the heck, it’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to.
Can I firstly point out, it was always wise to show a little restraint over the amount of tea one drank, especially if you were visiting more than one tea party that day. Thankfully, our delicate bone china cups were small and liquid therefore somewhat restricted. Unlike a mug that is! Which is another good reason not to drink out of one!
However, when you’re getting well into the gossip and your cup’s constantly being refilled then inevitably nature will call. But we didn’t have to cross our legs until we got home. No. Let’s bear in mind our houses were large and lavish with all the mod cons and although the flushing toilet as we know it today wasn’t around… we did have water closets.
These were your last resort but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. A polite request in your hostess’s ear, ‘Please may I use the Ladies Room’ and you would be discretely shown to this private little closet which would be prettily dressed in drapes and adorned with sweet smelling flowers.
Did you take a gift for the Hostess?
Most often yes, but only a token gesture. A small posy, or an embroidered handkerchief was always nice.
What were your essential reticule items?
I’ve just mentioned one, the handkerchief, most important and smelling salts of course. A few bits of loose change were always useful, but never carry more than a few coins, you didn’t want to attract undesirables. Your calling cards are a must as well as a pencil with which you can write a message on your calling card if you need to.
Your fan is also essential in the summer though you can use it in winter for a bit of flirting if you feel the need. I use mine, of course, for the purely practical purpose of keeping cool!
We had our fans wrapped around our wrists when using them, but if you weren’t using it, that could be rather annoying so we would put them into our reticule.
How big were your reticules?
Not very big, just enough space for the essential items I’ve mentioned. But my reticule seems to have grown in recent years. It used to have a simple draw string handle. Not anymore. So, what’s making my reticule so heavy that I’m required to have such a thick handle?
You guessed, my mobile phone! Unthinkable back in the old days. And of course, this new essential reticule item is not just my phone, it’s my purse, my pencil and paper, my dictionary, my encyclopaedia, my library, my diary, my map, my fob watch, my just about everything… well not quite everything…. I can’t blow my nose on it, nor will it revive me if my corset’s too tight, so it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed.
Are you the only remaining Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady?
I’ve not met any others, if I do, I suspect they’ll be impersonators, so yes, I believe I am.
Are you really a Baroness?
Indeed. I was made Baroness Bolsover of Bolsover Castle in 1880 when my son William Arthur Cavendish-Bentinck became the 6th Duke of Portland and inherited Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where we lived for much of the time and the magnificent Bolsover Castle where we would often entertain. During the summer months I still enjoy taking visitors on an historical Tour of Bolsover followed by Afternoon Tea so do come and join me and I promise to throw in a little gossip along the way.
Are you an expert in Afternoon Tea etiquette?
Undoubtedly. Remember, I was there when this little Afternoon Tea gathering was created or rather, should I say, when it was made ‘fashionable’ and I simply adore demonstrating the DO'S and DON'TS of Afternoon Tea Etiquette in my Afternoon Tea Etiquette Talk. I get everyone to join in and it's SIMPLY SPLENDID FUN!!
How do I get to meet Baroness Bolsover?
Call 07930 258 399
Email the Baroness via firstname.lastname@example.org
Or you can always leave your Calling Card!
If there’s anything else you’d like to know about Baroness Bolsover, do get in touch, or leave a comment.
It would be lovely to hear from you.
Until next time my friends
The Victorian Afternoon Tea Lady