Jenolan Caves

The Bittersweet History of a Decadent Delight

June 24, 2020

Nowadays, when we order ‘High Tea’, we can usually choose from an assortment of tea blends or coffee, hot chocolate or even maybe sparkling wine!  But in the past, tea boiled down to social status.

Way back in the 1600s, tea was one of the first goods Dutch merchants brought back from their trips to the Far East, where the Chinese had been drinking tea for millennia.

In the 1660s in Britain, tea drinking became the height of sophistication, made popular by King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine de Braganza [i].  Tea became popular, first as a medicine and then as an exotic new menu item in the coffee shops of European capitals, as far as New Amsterdam (New York).

Milk was probably not commonly drunk with tea before the 1720s, but to counteract the bitterness of tea, sugar was added from a very early stage. Since sugar was produced by slaves on huge West Indian plantations, the growing popularity of tea and sugar helped fuel the slave trade.

Shelley tea cup showing Caves House

Tea was a very costly luxury, the preserve of the aristocracy. A pound of tea usually cost more than a skilled craftsman might earn in a week. Tea became something to show off, allowing a host to display his wealth and command of etiquette, while extending hospitality to guests [ii].  Among the higher classes, tea was the only item made in the dining room or drawing room by the mistress of the house, who then locked the tea caddy away from servants, and kept the key.  

A huge industry grew around tea-drinking. Tea urns were expensive and were often displayed on specially designed tables (tea poy) made of rosewood [iii].  In 1747 English bone china was invented.  Hundreds of fine porcelain companies sprang up in England - Spode, Royal Crown Derby, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Mintons, and Worcester, to name but a few. Rich families would get their portrait's painted with fine china cups and exquisite tea sets, so people would recognise their extreme wealth.

In the 1820s Shelley began producing china items in Staffordshire.  One of their customers was Jenolan Caves. Until 1966, they produced numerous items for Jenolan, and a large collection of examples can be seen in the Guest Lounge, on the ground floor of Caves House, courtesy of the Jenolan Caves Historical & Preservation Society.

The British addiction to tea indirectly lead to the Opium Wars. By 1768, The East India Company was importing tea into Britain from China, at the rate of 10 million pounds per year, creating a massive trade imbalance. To redress this, the British started selling opium into China, from Indian. In the 1830s, the first tea plantations were established in India, using Chinese plants, and making Britain less reliant on Chinese tea. In 1833, The East India Company lost its monopoly in the China trade (most of it in tea) by an act of the British prime minister Charles Grey. (Earl Grey tea was later named after him.) But by this time, China was paying so much to Britain for opium that the resulting economic crisis lead to the Opium Wars. [iiiv] [v]

Meanwhile in England, ‘Afternoon tea’ was introduced by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. Due to the advent of kerosene lamp lighting, dinner could be served late, and the evening meal in her household was served at eight o’clock, leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread, butter and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit, and she began inviting friends to join her. When Anna went to London, she brought her ‘afternoon tea’ custom with her. Lifelong friend Queen Victoria loved the idea and enjoyed having light cake with buttercream and fresh raspberries – later known as Victoria sponge – to accompany her cup of tea. [vi]

Examples of tea gownsThis pause for ‘afternoon tea’ became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their ‘afternoon tea’ in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.

Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford‘High tea’ (as opposed to the fashionable ‘afternoon tea’) appeared in the late 19th century, among the working class. For workers in the newly industrialized Britain, tea had to wait until after work. With more physically demanding jobs, labourers needed an extra dose of energy in the late afternoon. This ‘high tea’ often involved a sandwich or pie – something heartier than tea and cakes. [vii] It was accompanied by a pot of good, strong tea to revive flagging spirits.

Today, the evening meal in working-class households is still often called ‘tea’. The addition of the word ‘high’ to the phrase ‘high tea’ is believed to be about chairs.  ‘Afternoon tea’ was traditionally served on low, comfortable, parlour or garden seating, while the worker’s after-work ‘high tea’ was served at the table where people sat on high back dining chairs.[viii]

In Australia, ‘high tea’ that we all love bears little resemblance to its traditional origins. In Australia, ‘afternoon tea’ is simply a reviving mug of tea or coffee with a snack, quickly downed at around 3pm every day. However ‘high tea’ is an upscale, leisurely affair, featuring lively conversation, and a range of tempting, mouth-watering, home-made, bite-sized tid-bits - some sweet and some savoury - usually served on a multi-tiered ‘high tea’ stand, where presentation is absolutely paramount. A range of tea blends are offered, plus other hot drinks and even champagne. ‘High Tea’ is mainly taken in the afternoon, but can be enjoyed any time of day. 

Now that historic Caves House has reopened after fire, flood and pandemic, we are offering 'High Tea' every afternoon, served in the perfect setting - Chisolm’s Restaurant.  Our ‘High Tea’ includes sweet treats, scones with jam and cream, trimmed sandwiches, savouries, and tea or coffee – maybe even a relaxing glass of sparkling wine!

Although tea has a bittersweet past, there is no doubt that ‘High Tea’ is a now decadent delight! Enjoy it with friends or family.

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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