The History & Customs of Afternoon Tea

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Thanks to Mary Berry, among others, afternoon tea is very much back in vogue. Social media is awash with snaps of people holding their teacups (pinkies extended, absurdly) and gorging on a 4-star hotel’s dry scone.

Tea appeals to all social classes, from the manual worker who prefers it as something to moisten his sugar, to the dowager Countess for whom it is an elaborate ceremony involving warming pots, strainers, and rules about adding milk.  Whoever is drinking it, the occasion we know as ‘afternoon tea’ remains one of the most civilised and pleasurable ways to entertain friends and family.

One of the principal advantages of hosting such an occasion is that it only need last a few hours or less; your guests are usually gone by 6pm, and you have the evening to yourself.  But do not be fooled into thinking that this form of entertaining needs any less effort and attention than a dinner party.  Finger sandwiches can be fiddly and are labour-intensive, and getting your scones and lemon sponge to rise can be a challenge for novice bakers.

First and foremost, you should be clear about the following: afternoon tea is not the same as high tea.  Many, wrongly, call sandwiches and scones ‘high tea’ as they think this sounds grander than just ‘tea’.  This is very wrong.  Those in the know will not say anything, of course, but eyebrows will be raised.  High tea was what the servants of a large house ate at around 6pm, after the upstairs had been given their (afternoon) tea.  It wasn’t cucumber sandwiches.  It was things like large joints of meat (often a roasted ham), slices of thick bread, potted shrimps, a big cake to share, and ale.  It was eaten at a proper table, rather than a lower, coffee table, and so it became known in the servants’ hall as ‘high tea’.  Later, for people staying in post-war, pre- package-holiday British hotels and boarding houses, it usually comprised sausage, egg and chips (distinguished from breakfast by the absence of fried bread).  There are no signs that this particular menu is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.  Those who call the more refined pastime high tea are perhaps best left off future guest lists due to their delusions of grandeur.

It is generally believed that a woman of privilege called Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is the person to thank for introducing the tradition of afternoon tea.  Back in the early nineteenth century meals were much further apart than they are now.  The upper classes would eat dinner around 8.30pm, and maybe slightly later.  Understandably, the Duchess frequently became a little peckish in the middle of the afternoon and so ordered her staff to bring her some bread, jam and tea.  As she sat alone, consuming this in her husband’s ancestral seat of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, she decided she’d much prefer to share the moment with her friends.  So carriages from neighbouring estates rolled up, ladies gracefully alighted, and the idea caught on.

What then happened was that the newly created middle classes adopted the practice as well.  But because they didn’t have sprawling houses with sitting rooms or conservatories to entertain guests for tea, they went to tea shops instead, which served as the first fast-food outlets of the day. These were popularised in large part by the Aerated Bread Company, which in 1864 opened the first of a number of tearooms in London, known as ABC teashops.  Then the Lyons teashop chain was established in 1884 and dominated the market for many years, opening its first famous ‘Corner House’ in 1909.  These were huge establishments arranged over many floors, with hairdressers, chocolate shops, theatre ticket booking agencies, themed restaurants, and of course the tearooms themselves.

If you find yourself in a discussion about teahouses, you can comment knowledgably that the original ABC teashop in London’s Fenchurch Street station is now a Tesco Express.  And although both ABCs and the Corner Houses have long since disappeared into the mists of time, the tradition of going out for afternoon tea is flourishing in Britain’s smarter hotels and specialist tea shops.

Sandwiches are the staple dish of afternoon tea and they too are thought to have an interesting history.  The story goes that the sandwich was invented by one John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and the man who went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1748.  Montagu was an inveterate gambler who was so glued to the card table that he opted to miss meals.  Instead he ordered his servants to bring him some salt beef between two slices of bread – the bread was there to keep his hands clean so he could handle the cards without them sticking to his fingers.

Ever since, the sandwich has been a finger food – whether served as part of tea or eaten at lunchtime.  The exception would be ‘open’ sandwiches, which are eaten with cutlery but not served as part of afternoon tea.  Everyone should (but often doesn’t) know that tea sandwiches must have their crusts cut off, and presented either in the shape of triangles, rectangles or – as the royal household prefers – in small squares.  Don’t ever serve them in large diagonal crosscuts, because they’ll look like something you bought in a garage forecourt.

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Christmas Card Etiquette

Monday, December 15th, 2014

One hardly knows whether to thank or blame John Calcott Horsley for inventing the Christmas card in 1843. From an original run of just 1000 cards, the Christmas card and its countless seasonal greeting variations (the Scots, for example, prefer to send New Year’s (Hogmanay) cards) have grown to 1.3 billion cards being sent in the UK alone in 2013.

Notwithstanding the proliferation of emails, texts, tweets and instagrams, there is a still a place for the traditional Christmas card. But there are social situations today that our great-grandparents never had to deal with, so let’s look at some new issues that challenge many and review old standards:

Writing the cards:

There is little more disappointing than to open a beautiful Christmas card to find only a signature appended to the printed greeting. If your family is of such stature that you send out more than 500 cards, these will no doubt have been specially printed for you (perhaps with a photograph of an important family event) and inside, the signatures printed as well as the greeting. In this case, your PA has probably collated the cards and stuffed and addressed the envelopes. But for the rest of us who send an average of 19 cards, taking the time to pen a few words of greeting or important news will be greatly appreciated. At the top of the greetings page (technically, page 3 of the card), write the names of the recipients, “Dear Mary and Robert” if addressing it to a couple (wife’s name first); “Dear Robert, Mary, Melissa and Grant” if addressing to the whole family (husband’s name first). Don’t use “and family” which is the equivalent of saying “etc.” Signatures should not confuse or offend. You expect your close friends to recognize your Christian names or signature but, if there is doubt, use your surname as well (perhaps in brackets to make it less formal and obviously just for clarity).

A word of caution on enclosures: use sparingly. A photograph of the children will be treasured by close friends or family members who have shown a life-long interest in your children, but such personal photographs are not appropriate for general distribution to everyone on your list. Comprehensive letters recounting your annual travels and the children’s school grades are never appropriate. The purpose of the Christmas card is to send greetings and best wishes for the season to your friends. Focus on the recipients. Christmas cards are an excellent opportunity, however, to send out change of address notices if you have moved.

Addressing the cards:

Don’t even think of printing off a set of mailing labels. Envelopes are addressed by hand, in ink.

Traditionally, envelopes of cards to married couples are addressed to the husband and wife as: Mr and Mrs Robert Brown (or other proper social title according to the peerage in the UK). Note that in North America, it is standard to use full stops (periods) after the abbreviations Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.

But many women no longer take their husband’s names at marriage and many couples do not declare their marital status, or lack thereof, and give no clues when each introduces the other as their “partner.” When the names of couples don’t match, you can safely address the envelope to both names, on one line, joined by “and”. For example: Mr John Smith and Ms Mary Brown. This guideline applies equally to same-sex couples, addressing the envelope to: Mr John Smith and Mr Robert Brown (or, Ms Sandra Smith and Dr Melissa Brown). Often, there is a dilemma about whose name comes first for same-sex couples. Those with surnames closer to the beginning of the alphabet will argue for alphabetical order. Couples often have an established order based on what simply sounds better, and this order could be used. There is no rule here.

There was a time when professional titles were never used in social correspondence, but nowadays social and business lives are so intertwined, most distinctions have been lost.

Persons who live together but are not a couple (e.g., house-mates, siblings, friends) are each addressed on separate lines on the envelope and their names are not joined by “and”.

Putting the card in the envelope:

First consideration is that the face of the card (page 1) faces the back of the envelope, then, where possible, the folded edge goes in first, towards the lower edge of the envelope. This is possible more often than not but occasionally, because of size and shape, the card simply doesn’t fit folded edge first, so just ensure that the front of the card is facing the back of the envelope.

Return address on the envelope?

In the UK, traditionalists do not put a return address on social correspondence. They trust Royal Mail to deliver the envelope as addressed and consider it a breach of confidentiality for anyone other than the intended recipient to know who the sender is. North Americans have no such blind faith in their postal services nor such finely tuned sense of decorum, and always put a return address either in the upper left corner of the front of the envelope or on the flap.  For Christmas cards, it makes it easier for the recipient to immediately send you a card in return when the address is readily available.

Stamp or frank?

Christmas cards are like small gifts. After taking all this trouble, take the final step of affixing a special Christmas issue stamp to the envelope, rather than the standard issue used all year. It may be necessary to get to the post office early in November to make sure you get them; they have been known to run out. In no circumstances be tempted to run your cards through the postage meter at the office (franking). A stamp, carefully affixed to the upper right corner of the envelope, will complete the presentation.

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Are Christmas cards a thing of the past?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

With the time for writing our Christmas cards (or not, as the case may be) let’s revisit a discussion I had on ITV Daybreak (now Good Morning Britain!) last year about whether they are here to stay or should be forgotten.

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The English Manner in China: One year on…

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The news this week that Debrett’s are to open an office in Shanghai has prompted me to reflect on the past year.  Always setting the trend where others seek to follow, 2014 is the first anniversary of our official launch in China.

Alexandra Messervy talking in Shanghai (Oct 2013)

Firstly, we visited regularly to give tuition on request to schools and private individuals, hotels and country club complexes and then private clubs in Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Chengdu, with an unprecedented demand for etiquette and business protocol programmes.  But it is so much more than that, and the cross cultural integration tuition for which we are so well known is as popular now as social graces, as the Chinese population realise that in order for them to be educated, live and do business with the West, they need to learn not only how their counterparts react, but also how to speak the lingo and walk the walk to social acceptance.  Money talks, and designer labels show a growing awareness of luxury and lifestyle, but without social and business know-how, acceptance, and therefore success, is sometimes hard to come by.

Angela Harwood teaches tea etiquette (April 2014)Our first office opened in Chengdu in early 2013 and I officially opened it in October when I was delighted to visit Chengdu and Shanghai.  We now have offices in both cities and have led various projects there as well as Beijing, Qingdao, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Guangzhou  over the past months.  Continuing our highly successful partnership with David Charles, we have enjoyed a wide range of media coverage, including CCTV, China News Daily, China Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle and Tatler, for whom our own senior tutor William Hanson is now penning a monthly column on Western etiquette.

This summer sees the launch of various summer school initiatives in the UK with our Asian partners as well as some fabulous cultural learning programmes based in England, Scotland and France.

None of this would have been possible without the support of our tremendous Chinese staff and our wonderful team of tutors and experts who continually clock up their air miles flying to clients around the world.

William Hanson teaches children's etiquette (April 2013)Manners maketh man.  There were a few years in the 90s when people seemed to think the age of chivalry and social grace was dead.  It didn’t last long: modern manners have evolved from tradition and the belief that we all like to be treated well, so it stands to reason that to conduct successful lives, at home and at work, first impressions set the tone, and in the end, we all respond to some grace, kindness and consideration; ensuring a more harmonious international and integrated environment.

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China office launch event – October 2013

Monday, January 13th, 2014

In October 2013, Jimmy Beale, William Hanson and I flew to China for the official launch of our China office, in Chengdu.  We have been operating in China (Beijing, Shanghai & Chengdu) since February 2013 and our exciting launch event cemented our commitment to bringing our training programmes and expertise to China.  Below is the text from the speech made by our Director of Operations & Educational Development, Jimmy Beale.  You may also like to view a video our Chinese partners produced of the event at the bottom of this post. 

Jimmy Beale, Director of Operations & Educational DevelopmentIt gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Shangri-La Hotel for this evening’s introduction to western etiquette through ‘A Taste of Downton Abbey’.  This is a significant event – one where people from many different spheres have come together to share thoughts and their interests in all that Prestige Education Consultancy and The English Manner have to offer.  This joint venture is all about education and opportunities for learning – that invaluable aspect of our society that touches us all.  Whether for our children, or for ourselves, learning never ceases and, as adults, we must never be too proud to think that we have learnt it all.  All that is happening with this company is very exciting indeed and I am delighted to see you all here.  I hope that you have a good evening, that you make the most of the good company and that you learn something.

The English Manner has been operating in the United Kingdom for over ten years.  The founder of the company and our CEO, Mrs Alexandra Messervy, has built the company to a position whereby it is the market leader for etiquette training in the UK, as well as a provider of training in many parts of the world.  In recent months, individuals and companies in Russia, Dubai, Qatar, Canada, the United States of America, Switzerland,  Kenya and Uganda have all benefitted from The English Manner’s outstanding support.  Individuals and groups form those countries and others have also visited the United Kingdom to visit and tour with Alexandra and her team – she is able to put together the most amazing experiences for any of you who might wish to visit England – through her one can experience activities and visit places that normal tourists cannot hope to access.

But you will be asking, why we are here?  Thorough our association with the team at Prestige Education Consultancy, we have a wonderful opportunity to bring our training and expertise to Chengdu.  I must take this opportunity to say a thank you to Lawrence, Ophelia and their team for making this dream a reality – they are simply outstanding.  They have recently moved to new offices at Square One, Tianfu Square – they would be delighted to welcome you there if you are ever passing.  A partnership with a company that has education at the heart of all they do is entirely appropriate – some of you will know them as they have placed your children in schools in the UK.

You might want to talk to us about how we can support you or your clients – please do so after the presentation.  I would now like to introduce you to William Hanson – our senior tutor.  He spends an increasing amount of time on television, particularly on the BBC, and has become to go to expert for the British media for anything related with etiquette.  May I introduce Mr William Hanson…

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