What Is High Tea?

To put it straight and simply, most people misunderstand the British term “high tea”. They mistakenly refer to afternoon tea as high tea, because, admit it, high tea sounds lofty and regal.  So, what is high tea then, if it’s not the posh British tradition?

High tea was the evening meal for the industrial working class during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Served about 6 pm after arriving home from a hard day’s work, this meal consisted of a cup of tea, along with bread, cheese, vegetables, and meat.  

If this seems confusing and counter-intuitive, you’re not alone.  Read on to discover all about high tea and to find out why it’s so often confused with the more fancy afternoon tea.

What Is British High Tea?

When high tea originated,  it was essentially a “meal” that was meant to serve as a supper for the working-class. So, it can be said that it was less posh and less refined. The working class in Britain, at that time, had two meals a day; a breakfast, and an early supper.

When Did High Tea Start?

We can track high tea in British culture to as early as the 18th century. Who Invented High Tea?

Actually, we can’t trace any particular person who can be credited for the introduction of high tea. It was just the need of the time for the working class. However, it is commonly believed that high tea was the middle-to-lower-class version of the afternoon tea, which was mostly limited to the elite and royal classes.

The introduction of afternoon tea, however, is credited to Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840.

At that time, in the elite class, there was a long gap between lunch and dinner with dinner being served late at 8 in the evening. The Duchess would become hungry at around mid-afternoon or 3-4 o’clock and would get to tea with light snacks.

Can you detect the oddity?

It can be said that Anna borrowed the concept of afternoon tea from the lower working class. I say that because high tea was common among the working class in the 18th century and the royals didn’t get their afternoon tea until the mid 19th century, so who got the lead?

What Was Served at High Tea?

Since high tea was a proper meal for the working class during the 18th and 19th centuries it consisted of hearty foods like meats, pickles, bread, butter, cheese, and tea.

What Is The Menu For High Tea?

As high tea was basically an evening meal, the emphasis was on simple, filling foods.  Common foods for this meal were:  

  • Cold meats, steaks, and kidney pie
  • Vegetables
  • Pickled fish
  • Potatoes 
  • Salads
  • Bread or crackers with butter
  • Teacakes
  • Fruitcakes
  • Tea

If you include bread in any form, you can have sandwiches or simply bread and butter. Plus, you can have ham or cheese and possibly hard-boiled eggs.

Salad finds its place, but it does not have to be complicated or fancy. A bowl of sliced cucumber, some tomatoes, and some lettuce will do. You can have sweet things too such as jam to go on bread and cakes.

There are no courses in high tea, so all of this has to be on the table from the outset. To drink, there can be tea. However, it should be a lighter tea.

high tea menu

How Did High Tea Get Its Name?

Most of the time, high tea, in the 1700s, was served at tables with high-back chairs and this is from where it got its name “high tea”.  This was in direct contrast to the more posh afternoon tea that was served while sitting in low sofas and cushy chairs. 

When Is High Tea Served?

Traditionally, high tea was served between 5 and 7 o’clock in the evening, after workers returned home hungry from a long day at work. 

Is High Tea Still Practiced?

Nowadays, high tea, in its original sense, is a term that is being used less and less because of changing customs. Most of Britain now has three proper meals in the form of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Britain’s rich tea culture is alive by continuing the more proper afternoon tea tradition. 

So, there is no high tea in its true sense, but you would find them referring to essentially the same thing as dinner or supper. 

In fact, now, many British hotels and tea rooms, just like the States, use afternoon tea and high tea interchangeably. 

High Tea Vs. Afternoon Tea

If you are invited to an afternoon tea, believe me, the last thing you would want to do would be to mistake it for a high tea. I say this because they are two different terms with different foods to be served and what is expected of you with regard to etiquette.

High tea is definitely not the same as afternoon tea.  Afternoon tea is the more formal version, and probably what most people think of when they mistakenly say “high tea”. 

Afternoon tea also referred to as “low tea”, is typically served in the mid-afternoon. Foods typically served in an afternoon tea includes:

  • Finger sandwiches (such as cucumber sandwiches)
  • Scones with clotted cream and fresh preserves
  • Small pastries or cakes
  • Cookies
  • Bread and butter
  • Fresh cut fruit
  • Tea

What Sandwiches Are Served at Afternoon Tea?

At a more formal afternoon tea, you might find:

  • Ham and tomato with butter sandwich
  • Cream cheese and cucumber sandwich
  • Egg and cress sandwich
  • Smoked salmon sandwich
  • French jambon beurre sandwich with cornichons
  • Roast beef sandwich with dijon mustard
  • Coronation chicken sandwich
  • Curry chicken salad with mango chutney 

As you can see, it is little tidbits and finger foods and definitely not a heavy meal. Low tea gets its name from the tradition when it was created to be enjoyed at a low table such as a coffee table. 

Initially, afternoon tea was mostly limited to upper-class ladies, so the emphasis was on etiquette, rules, and dress. It can be said that afternoon tea is a more formal tea. This is where you get your fancy China out with cups and saucers.

High tea, on the other hand, is where you bring your appetite. It is a substantial meal rather than formal afternoon tea. High tea is served in the early evening, as opposed to low tea which is served around the mid-afternoon.

Foods served in high tea are heartier as opposed to lighter foods in afternoon tea. In this, you can serve tea even in a mug.

high tea vs afternoon tea sandwiches

What is High Tea Attire?

So this is a bit of a trick question….true high tea attire would be whatever an industrial era working person arrived home from work in – basically their everyday work clothes. 

Afternoon tea attire is quite a different thing entirely.  Your attire depends on where you are going for tea. It is generally an informal event, but people view it as an opportunity to dress up.

Afternoon Tea Attire for Men

If you are in Britain and invited to a high-end place like Ritz or The Randolph Hotel in Oxford, it is better to dress smart. For such places, you could wear a full suit and tie and you still won’t feel out of place. There should certainly be no denim, sneakers, or baseball caps.

Afternoon Tea Attire for Women

Women can go with a dress or a skirt,  business casual or something more modern, but it should be tasteful and not revealing.

The Takeaway:  British High Tea

While often confused with British afternoon tea, high tea was actually a traditional supper-type meal served for industrial workers of the 18th and 19th centuries.   

These hard workers punched the clock every day and would come home to a hearty but simple meal designed to fill them up and give them energy for their next workday.  

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!

high tea attire