Tea and Social Class

Tea And Social Class in England

 updated 11 July 2018

 England And Class

One feature of English society which has always been controversial is that of class. The general assumption is that the upper class are “upper” because they have inherited wealth and do not themselves have to work. Their life is supposedly on a higher plane because they have leisure, better education, and understand the world better.

By contrast the working class work hard to avoid starvation and are at the economic mercy of the rich. One colliery owner told his colliery work force in the 1920s that if his son did not win election to Parliament in the constituency where the miners lived he would close the colliery. The son did lose, and the coal owner did close the colliery.

Only a few years ago, during the current century, the Barclay brothers on Sark were so cross at their candidates losing an election on Sark that they closed all their businesses on Sark for a period. This caused considerable hardship to their workers, most of whom probably supported the Barclay candidates anyway.

There are of course gradations of class, based upon income, education, life style, property ownership and the like. There are many indicators of social class such as clothing, accent, vocabulary, and conversation content.

Outside Wales, Rugby Union is a middle and upper class sport played by amateurs. Rugby League is played to different rules by professional players, who clearly cannot be gentlemen. The followers of Rugby League and Rugby Union are socially distinct. As a socialist I regard it all as nonsense, but it is part of the society in which I live.

Tea And Class

Tea was at first incredibly expensive, and so only the rich could drink it.

As tea became a little cheaper the middle classes could afford it, and eventually even the working classes could afford tea.

Social class was indicated by which tea you drank, whether you had milk or lemon, and whether one put milk into the cup before or after the tea.

The upper classes, having more delicate palates, drink the more delicate teas, which generally speaking come from China or from plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) or Assam specialising in the more delicate teas.

By contrast the working class drank thick black tea.

The upper classes did not use milk at all. Sometimes they would use thin slices of lemon to accentuate the delicate taste of the tea, This was at a time when ordinary working class folk rarely saw lemons because they were expensive.

The working class used milk. To ensure a good mix the working class would put milk in the cup first.

The more refined drinkers would add milk to their tea in small quantities because of their delicacy of taste.

The Mitfords were a famous or infamous aristocratic family who sometimes referred to unsuitable young men, potential suitors, as “M.I.F.”, (Milk In First) meaning they put milk in their tea first, displaying their lack of breeding and their lowly origins.

In England now there is still a divide between those who use teabags where the manufacturer decides how much tea goes into the bag, and the better house where the household decides how much tea to put in.

Elderly working class people may still use loose Indian tea, betraying their poverty and old fashioned thinking.

In many parts of the UK it is quite difficult to purchase loose tea.

There is even a company, Ringtons, who deliver loose tea in tea caddies to discerning tea drinkers. One pays more of course, but Ringtons provide reliable tea of excellent quality. For many people life would be distressing without Ringtons.

Is This For Real?

Sadly, yes. There are people in England who will look at how you make, pour, and drink tea and draw conclusions about your social class from the observation.

The upper class, drinking delicate fine teas, tended to use no sugar because sugar spoiled the taste of the tea.

Working class people drinking black strong tea used milk and used sugar to improve the taste – being too coarse to use weaker or finer tea to begin with.

Does one drink tea out of a fine china cup? Or out of a mug? When holding the fine teacup, does the little finger stand out like a sailing jib, or is it tucked neatly under the other fingers?

Do Not Forget The Biscuits

If one is drinking fine tea, one’s biscuits will tend to be thin, delicate, and not too sweet. Whereas working class tea drinkers will have thicker biscuits, sweeter, and sometimes even covered in chocolate.

Really uncouth people dip their biscuit into the tea. This is a class memory of hard biscuits that needed soaking before one could bite them. What a giveaway – even lower class than “M. I. F.”

You are very welcome to visit England.

Foreigners are automatically lower class so you cannot lower yourselves further by how you drink your tea..