Butler history Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, January 2021, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

Steven FerryThe Wisdom of Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry

PART 44 English Afternoon Tea

The refined tea experience of today was born out of what can only be described as a more-rudimentary experience two centuries ago, where the butler was admonished to do his best to remedy the major complaint, that by the time the tea reached the guests, it was no longer hot. They obviously had not worked out the logistics and techniques for presenting hot tea, even though, at the time the book was written, tea had been served in the wealthier households for over a century.

The butler was also admonished to carry a cloth on his person to wipe any spills, and to provide a «slop-basin.» Only bread and butter were served with the tea, none of the fancy cakes and eclairs etc. that were provided a century later. They also added cream instead of milk, which would have done no justice to the flavour of the tea but probably approximated more closely the way Indians in the Himalayas make their tea, with yak milk and butter!

They were already providing a pot with hot water to deal with tea that might be too strong—i.e. stewed and bitter/overly tannic—meaning that they had not worked out how to present tea that was steeped for exactly the right amount of time. No mention, also, of lemon slices for black tea, which obviously was a refinement that came later.

On the other hand, refinements like the use of a small waiter (tray) to present teas were in use, and the idea of having tea (or coffee) at all, with the high pricing of both, showed some level of refinement and the appreciation of the finer things in life.

One curiosity: The butler would know when the guest had had enough tea when she either refused any more, obviously, but also if she left the spoon in the cup.

Extracted from the 1823 book, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer, re-published in hardback by Pryor Publications. You may obtain your discounted copy (with free s&h) by emailing the publisher: Mr. Pryor (alan AT

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