Soon after tea’s explosion in popularity, there were some major changes in the world of British cuisine. Strangely enough, these changes had to do with the English seeing the light, literally. During the 1800s, gas or oil light was introduced to many homes in England. Prior to this, there were two main meals during the day. One was breakfast and the other, significantly larger meal was dinner. Since lighting was poor in the evening, people ate dinner around noon and went to bed relatively early. The advent of artificial lighting allowed people to stay up later and, consequently, to eat later. Fashionable people of the upper classes ate their dinners as late as 9 PM. Though the later hours corresponded with a later start to the day and a later breakfast, this shift still left a large, foodless gap in the middle of the day. Legend has it that in 1840 Anna, Duchess of Bedford (one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting) began to request tea and “breadstuffs” (assorted baked goods, which were often served as a refreshment for visitors) each day from her servants. She began to invite friends over to join her for these refreshments and the tradition of afternoon tea commenced. It was a highly social occasion centered around the low tables of withdrawing and sitting rooms (hence the name “low tea”). By 1880, afternoon tea had spread to the homes of the upper classes and to tea shops across the country.  

Middle and lower classes had afternoon tea whenever they could, though this was often a challenge, given the labor laws at the time. Midway through the Industrial Revolution, working classes adopted a variation on low tea for themselves: a heavier meal served with tea at 5 PM, upon their return home from work. It was, of course, served at high tables and known as “high tea.” Most of the foods were somewhat bland and the overall occasion was considered to be utilitarian and melancholy, a (possible*) end to the drab working day of the clerk or factory worker who had little or no time for a lunch break.  

*Some farmers and laborers returned to work after this meal. So, yeah, life was pretty bad and high tea was just a less bad part of it.