Queen Victoria’s Afternoon Tea

Victoria Sponge Cake is a perennial favourite. The classic Victoria sandwich is the most traditional of all our cakes and a safe bet when sending as a gift. Why do we call it “Victoria Sponge Cake”? There are no prizes for guessing that it’s to do with Queen Victoria. Which got us thinking about the whole tradition of English Afternoon Tea and Victoria’s role in its development.

The afternoon tea ritual started in the 1840’s and, according to legend, it’s all down to Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Afternoon tea was a way of having a snack between lunch and the evening meal (which was typically not until 8pm). The Duchess used to get hungry in late afternoon and would have a little snack of tea and cake to dispel the hunger pangs. Friends of the Duchess joined in the ritual and it spread through aristocratic circles. At first it was only for those rich upper class ladies living in large houses with beautiful gardens. Black tea was a special delicacy imported from India and only the rich could afford it. The ladies would dress in elegant clothes and enjoy cake with tea served from silver teapots. As the Duchess was a friend of Queen Victoria, it’s very likely that she introduced the Queen to the delights of afternoon tea. Later on, at the height of her reign, Victoria would entertain hundreds of guests at Buckingham Palace with formal afternoon tea gatherings she called ‘tea receptions’. No doubt the guests also enjoyed Queen Victoria’s favourite sponge cake. As supplies of tea became more plentiful in the early 20th century, the taking of afternoon tea became a popular ritual all over England.

It’s hard to beat the delicious combination of tea and cake at four o’clock in the afternoon. Or, as Henry James put it: “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”. Henry James probably enjoyed a Victoria Sponge as much as we do.

Tea and Cake Duchess
Anna Maria, The Duchess of Bedford (Wikimedia)
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