Legend has it that Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is the mother of high tea. During the 1860s she is said to have complained of “having that sinking feeling” in the late afternoon and would request a pot of tea and some light snacks to be served in her rooms. She began inviting friends to join her and soon all of London society was hosting afternoon get-togethers, sipping tea and nibbling on delicate cakes.
In reality, the evolution of afternoon tea was probably more organic.
During this period most households only ate two meals per day – breakfast and a dinner served fashionably late. That left a lot of time between meals, so people began to introduce an afternoon snack to tide them over.
This ties in with the invention of the sandwich in the mid 1700s by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Instead of eating a full meal, people would place some cooked meat between two slices of bread. It would be eaten with a cup of tea, which had become popular in Britain around 100 years earlier.
By the middle of this century, taking tea had become a fashionable social event. London’s society ladies would dress in long gowns, gloves and hats to take tea in the drawing room around 4pm. It became quite a grand affair with expensive teas imported from China, scones, pastries, cakes and sandwiches with different fillings (including, of course, cucumber).
The name high tea also arose at this time. It was initially applied to the afternoon meal that working men would eat from a high table, with the diners either sitting on tall stools or standing. The term gradually came to be applied to the more refined high tea eaten by the upper classes, using similar tables. It set it apart from afternoon tea that would be taken while sitting on low chairs or sofas and eating off a low tea table.
London’s hotels were quick to adopt this popular new pastime, inviting ladies to take tea in their dining rooms rather than in their own home. More than a century later, high tea has spread around the world and is still synonymous with British elegance and refinement.
In partnership with the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in celebration of the 2016 Archibald Prize, guests have the opportunity to experience an exclusive art-themed high tea at Sofitel Sydney Wentworth. The Archibald High Tea also includes a ticket to the Archibald Prize exhibition for each guest, completing a magnifique afternoon of artistic indulgence. Find out more about the gallery-worthy delicacies at Sofitel Sydney Wentworth on their website.