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8 August 2023


In the UK, afternoon tea is big business for many hotels and restaurants – it’s prevalent world-over, too, especially in Japanese shopping malls. It’s no wonder that many myths have developed about it, and it’s hard to untangle the real history of afternoon tea from the popular misconceptions.

According to Google, and many enthusiastic afternoon tea bloggers, afternoon tea was ‘invented sometime around 1840.’ Some are more specific, citing 1841 or 45, but it’s all rather woolly. One thing that unites these dates is that Anna Maria Russell, aka the Duchess of Bedford, invented afternoon tea.

Why Anna?

Anna is a very easy character to make a claim. She was an Earl’s daughter, married to a Marquess, and soon to become a Duchess. Anna was also a Lady of the Bedchamber and a close confidant of Queen Victoria, so why shouldn’t it be her? Google says so!

When we begin to look at actual afternoon tea history things more closely, it all falls apart. Anna was dismissed from Royal service in 1841 following the Lady Hastings scandal, and whilst the Queen remained close and chose to visit her after her dismissal, Anna had lost her place in society and, to use a modern term, was no longer an ‘influencer’.

What did Anna do?

Whilst we do know that Anna Russell did serve tea in the afternoon (‘five o’clock tea’ as she referred to it), this isn’t unusual for aristocratic ladies of that and earlier eras. If the Duchess of Bedford did invent afternoon tea, why did Victoria, when staying with Queen Elizabeth of Prussia, write in her journal on 15th August 1845, “We went down to what is called the Painted Room & had tea, quite in the German way. We Princesses sat down to a table, on which there was no cloth, & excellent cakes of all kinds were served, whilst the Queen’s Ladies made the tea.”

Tea ‘in the German way’, (a cup of tea served with cakes) sounds very much like an ‘afternoon tea’, which was supposedly invented by Victoria’s friend, the Duchess of Bedford. Whilst no time is given in the journal, we know it is the afternoon and after they had dressed for ‘supper,’ so we can suppose it will be late afternoon. If Anna Russell had invented this kind of tea, you’d imagine her friend the Queen would say ‘in the Bedford way,’ or similar, but she doesn’t.

If not Anna then who?

If The Duchess of Bedford didn’t invent afternoon tea, then who did? Could it be Countess Anastasia de Circourt who introduced it to Paris in 1837? Sadly not, as there are many, and much earlier mentions; most English Spa towns, such as Bath and Harrogate, served ‘Afternoon Teas’ in the 1750s and 60s

The truth is we just don’t know, and humans much prefer to know, so it’s much easier to pin the invention on Anna Maria Russell even if she didn’t really invent it.

Read more about afternoon tea history in our online Afternoon Tea History and Etiquette course, co-authored by Steven Moore. Save 33% during Afternoon Tea Week using code TEAWEEK (offer valid until 14th August 2023).

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