Is the Duchess of Bedford a Fraud?

Everyone in the English-speaking tea industry has no doubt heard that Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, invented the ritual of afternoon tea. However, recent events have led me to question what I’m calling the Bedford Orthodoxy. What did the good duchess actually contribute to tea culture? Let’s take a closer look.

First, some biography of Anna Maria Russell. She was born in 1783, and was 25 years old in 1808 when she married Francis Russell. Her husband became the seventh Duke of Bedford in 1839—she was 56 years old when she became duchess. Anna was a friend of Queen Victoria, serving as her Lady of the Bedchamber for some time. Anna’s husband was related to the Prime Minister. All very high up in society.

The key fact here, though, is her birth in 1783. It’s unlikely that she did much shifting of social custom before, say, 1800 when she’d have been 17 years old. Possible, but unlikely. So we’ll consider the 19th century and later to be a time where she had influence, and the 18th century and earlier to be, in a sense, pre-Anna.

According to volume 2 of Ukers’ famous All About Tea (Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935):

A possible seventeenth century origin for the custom of afternoon tea is suggested by some lines in Southerne’s The Wive’s Excuse (1692), as well as a reference in one of Mme. dé Sévigné’s (1626-1696) letters to “thé de cinq heures.”

In 1763, Dr. Alexander Carlyle, also referenced in Ukers, wrote “The ladies gave afternoon tea and coffee in their turn.” And, in our final look at pre-Anna traditions in England from Ukers, after saying that the term “tea” referring to “a light repast” dates to the eighteenth century:

In 1780, John Wesley, the religious reformer, wrote that he met all of the Society “at breakfast and at tea,” implying that tea had become a definitely recognized meal by his time.

But there are known inaccuracies in Ukers, so let’s look at other sources. For example, The Historical Journal published a paper entitled “Elite Women, Social Politics, And The Political World Of Late Eighteenth Century England” by Elaine Chalus. In it, she describes how Lady Rockingham attempted to forge a political alliance with William Pitt in 1765 by inviting supporters to take tea with her (which she thought “would seem less premeditated than the form of a dinner”).

Finally, a review of “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World” by Ross W. Jamieson, it states:

By the 1740s, Jamieson reports, “afternoon tea was an important meal in England, the Netherlands, and English America.” Women monopolized the drink and presided over the tea ritual, which brought families together and provided opportunities to teach children good manners and to demonstrate the decorum and respectability that were essential to status in the new social order.

So just with these brief references, we have some evidence that before the famous Duchess of Bedford was even born, taking tea was known in social and political circles. It was recognized as a ritual women did in the home. Tea was a distinct meal, so we know the tea was served with food, and was done around 5:00 in the afternoon, at least in France (thé de cinq heures).

So what is it that the Duchess of Bedford is supposed to have “invented”? Certainly not that she had her tea at 5:00. Not that she invited other members of society to join her for tea. Not that she served food with her tea. Potentially, it could be what kind of food she offered—maybe she marked a shift to sweeter offerings compared to what was being served elsewhere. Or, maybe it was that she had it on a daily basis, whereas others were less diligent in their tea service. But it certainly seems a stretch to say that the ritual was invented by Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford.

If you have documents that would clarify exactly what it is that can be accurately attributed to the Duchess, other references to show what was being done before her era, or questions/ideas, please leave them in the comments!

Special thanks go to Verity Fisher, who asked for references on the Bedford Orthodoxy while going through the Tea Geek Certification Program. That question got me started, and now I have to go clean up the resulting mess in the Tea Geek wiki and any of my classes that mention the Duchess. Also, thanks to Michael Sullivan who fed me some JSTOR sources because my local library is closed this entire week due to budget cuts. Support your local library system (and your friendly neighborhood Classics grad student)!