Drinking tea itself first became popular because it’s something King Charles II enjoyed doing – along with his wife Catherine of Braganza – in the 1660s. One of the gifts to Charles from Catherine’s family when they first married was a chest of tea, which is likely to have kicked off the tradition. One of the most popular kings of England, he was also known as the ‘Merry Monarch’, although it’s unclear how much the caffeine from the tea had to do with this…
The following century, it was another notable society male who invented the sandwich. The Earl of Sandwich – a keen gambler – refused to leave the gambling tables when he was playing. Also known for his incredibly long gambling sessions lasting 24 hours or more, the only way he could eat was to order food at the table. He developed a habit of asking waiters for two slices of bread with a piece of ham in the middle. And so in a gambling den somewhere, the sandwich was born.
As such, both tea drinking and sandwich making have a very masculine history. Putting it all together to create the afternoon tea tradition itself was the Duchess of Bedford in 1840. She used to become too hungry in the middle of the afternoon to wait for dinner, so she started drinking tea and eating sandwiches and cake at around 4 o clock. Soon she was inviting friends to join her and it quickly became a social ritual for upper-class ladies.
The female-only enjoyment of afternoon tea didn’t last for long, however. During the warmer months of the year, the ladies wanted to enjoy the weather and take their afternoon tea outside. Moving the afternoon tea tradition beyond closed doors was all the encouragement the lords and men of the households needed. They soon joined in and it subsequently became an occasion for anyone.
In the 19th century, tea rooms opened up to accommodate the afternoon tea trend, although these were mostly frequented by groups of ladies. Tea dances also sprang up in hotels, where both men and women were invited.
While there was no official afternoon tea occasion just for men, the gentlemen’s club comes a close second. These members-only private clubs started appearing in the middle of the 18th century and were frequented by upper and middle-class men. The clubs varied in terms of theme. Many were characterised by an interest such as politics, by vocation such as the Armed Forces, or by particular school or university backgrounds. However, what they did all have in common was that men went there to socialise, eat and drink. And that’s pretty similar to the afternoon tea tradition, isn’t it?
Eating, drinking and being merry is what afternoon tea is all about. While it’s a combination of men and women behind the afternoon tea ritual still observed in Britain today, there’s no reason why either men or women should enjoy it more than the other. With memories of the gentlemen’s clubhouse and the Earl of Sandwich’s invention that has influenced generations of hungry tummies, we say afternoon tea is for gentlemen too. Hear hear!