Recently, in late August, Michael Coffey, the Tea Geek, published a criticism to the legacy of Anna Russell (1783-1857), Duchess of Bedford and Marchioness of Tavistock. According to legend, Anna is given credit for “inventing afternoon tea”. More specifically, the ritual, dress, manner and occasion of the event is often credited to Anna. Mr. Coffey coins the excellent term, Bedford Orthodoxy, as a phrase used to describe the ritual and decoration of a traditional afternoon tea.
In his well argued post, Mr. Coffey states: “…it certainly seems a stretch to say that the ritual was invented by Anna Russell.”
Of course, we think he’s lost the plot and that his assault on Anna is rather scandalous.
Tea drinking among Britons was well established by the time sweet Anna was born, there is historical evidence to suggest that some daily traditions of tea had already been in place for over 100 years throughout Britain and even America. Because of this, it is disingenuous to declare that the Duchess did not invent the afternoon tea ritual.
Anna’s importance isn’t that she invented afternoon tea, but how she may have influenced it in becoming part of popular society and a token of status for the rising middle-class of England and America. Anna’s importance goes beyond the legend – her effect on tea is so enduring that 153 years after her death, Miss Manners is giving guidance on how to serve a proper tea – in a way that is not unlike the Bedford Orthodoxy.
Who was Anna Maria Russell?
The simple version (via Wikipedia):
Born September 3, 1783 and died July 3, 1857. Anna was the daughter of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington and Jane Fleming. She was the wife of Francis Russell, Marquess of Tavistock and later the 7th Duke of Bedford (married in 1808), and sister-in-law to the Prime Minister John Russell. She was also the mother of William Russell, 8th Duke of Bedford. She became Duchess of Bedford in 1839 when her husband acceded the dukedom (ascending from Marchioness of Tavistock, which she gained upon her marriage in 1808). In 1841 through 1847 she served, her friend, Queen Victoria as Lady of the Bedchamber.
The better version:
Looking at Anna’s parents offers a perspective on who Anna was and the background in which she developed. Anna was born a member of the British socialite royalty and enjoyed her position in life in Victorian England. Her father was aide-de-camp to the British General who led the failed British Saratoga Campaign, and his earlier military career had him commissioned in the prestigious Coldstream Guards after an education at Eton College. There is no doubt, that despite the military failure, he was a royal who was well-connected and regarded. While little could easily be found about Anna’s mother, qualities in the painting of Jane Fleming displayed to the right suggest that she accepted being viewed as somewhat provocative in society. The clear visibility of the shape and form of her legs was likely considered racy and edgy in an era of conservative dress and manners. When we consider the legacy concept (meaning: how she wanted to be remembered), which was often ascribed to paintings of royalty – that edgy quality of Lady Fleming is quite telling.
What was going on in the world?
Understanding Anna is nothing without understanding the world which she lived in – not just the society, but also the greater events of the time. Tea was a troubled commodity during Anna’s era – it was a conflict product. The ports of China were still closed to British merchants who resorted to smuggling to move products in or out. Largely, they were smuggling in opium from India and bringing out large amounts of money, tea, silk and porcelain to meet the growing demand for it in Great Britain and on the continent.
It was against the backdrop a drugged Chinese population that Anna, probably unknowingly, had her influence on afternoon tea. In fact, it was in 1841, at the height of the First Opium war that Anna entertained, her friend, Queen Victoria at her home at Woburn Abbey. While China was violently rejecting Great Britain’s trade influence and British soldiers were slaughtering thousands to secure it, Anna was busy chatting and gossiping with the Queen, probably over a hot cup of China Black.
This was also an era of a significant growth of wealth for many Britons. The effects of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the previous century, was taking deep root and providing wealth opportunities for businesses and people everywhere across Europe and America. More people had more money, opportunity and privilege than at any previous time in history. British Imperialism during the Victorian Age was still in full force; while the problems in the colonies and with China may not have been on the forefront of news during Anna’s years, the burning desire for Empire still existed with businessmen and merchants.
What was going on with tea in England?
There is evidence which shows that tea was very much a part of English life. It was more for the upper-classes and educated, however, than for laborers who could not afford tea, nor the materials to brew it or drink it in. Research into inheritance inventories of the era suggest that tea equipment was a common item among certain classes, even in the late 1700’s, being passed down from generation to generation. This was not a throwaway society. A single teapot could easily see itself handed through two or three generations, making them easy to keep track of, and for later researchers to use in learning about how the culture managed its personal material goods.
Tea equipment was expensive. Historical links have been found linking ownership of tea equipment to ownership of other expensive items like books and musical instruments. There is also anecdotal evidence, in the form of letters and diaries, to suggest that certain casual tea rituals existed in which landowners would sit and sometimes share tea with their laborers during gathered mid-day meals in the late 1700’s.
This is also the Pre-Fortune Period in Britain. This is best described as a time when tea was still expensive because of the effort needed to bring it out of China. The price of tea dropped after the 1840’s when the East India Company sent the botanist, Robert Fortune, into China to secure a way to grow tea natively and cheaply in the British colony of India. This event made tea more accessible to Britons and helped secure its place in popular British culture.
How did Anna fit in?
Anna fit in right at the top. In her adulthood, she was a friend to the Queen who was over 30 years younger than Anna. It was Queen Victoria, her court, the social and political cultures which surrounded her and defined the age. It was an era of expanding British prosperity in which Anna Russell, given her connections and family background would have taken great part in. While Queen Victoria ascended to the throne when she was 18, there are reports that she and Anna where already friends and acquaintances before her ascension. This fact alone puts Anna in a clear position of cultural and social influence.
While a great deal of information about Anna cannot be uncovered, a 1998 biography of Queen Victoria (written from source documents, including the Queens diary) reveals a little about the influence Anna may have had socially. Reported in the book and in other sources is the story that Lady Flora Hastings, lady-in-waiting to the Queen’s mother, complained of abdominal pains in early 1839. The Queen’s physician suspected she was pregnant, though Hastings refused to allow him to examine her. Lady Hastings was unmarried and suspected of having an affair with John Conroy, aide to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the parents of Queen Victoria. It’s known from Queen Victoria’s diary that the Queen hated Conroy. After the death of the Queen’s father, the Duke of Kent, Conroy took responsibility for raising the young regent. Conroy’s methods, alongside those of the Duchess, the Queen’s mother, were hostile, abusive and manipulative. Rumors existed that Conroy and the Duchess had become lovers after the Duke’s death and the two of them raised Victoria in a harsh and difficult manner. Queen Victoria’s hatred of Conroy and her mother was so great that she banished them both from court upon Victoria taking the throne.
Of course, Anna would have been right there, in the Queen’s inner circle, as all this happened. When the possibility surfaced that Conroy had seduced and made pregnant the unmarried Lady Hastings, Anna took upon herself to spread the rumor around in her social circles. The Queen’s hatred of the man and her friendship with Anna, gave further push to the rumor. On February 2, 1839, the Queen wrote in her private diary that she suspected Conroy of being the father. Given that Anna Russell was already hosting gatherings for tea in the afternoons, it is reasonable to conclude that when the rumor started in 1839, Anna was sharing her suspicions with friends over tea.
Later, in the spring of that year, Lady Hastings relented and allowed herself to examined by the Royal doctors. They found that she was not pregnant, but severely ill with a cancerous tumor. Within a few months, on July 5th, she was dead. John Conroy and Flora’s brother, Lord Hastings, led a scathing and public retaliation against the Queen and Anna in the press. They deeply publicly criticized Queen Victoria and Anna Russell for defaming an innocent woman’s reputation.
Scandal. Notoriety. Gossip, rumors and lies. The Bedford Orthodoxy is a ritual of politeness, genteel behavior and specific decoration. What lies beneath it is conversation, dialogue, chatter and story-telling. By itself, it is a simple ritual that fits with the elite social customs of the Victorian Age. It served as a tool for networking, social wrangling and political involvement. It’s endurance as a permanent tradition in celebrating tea comes from Anna’s celebrity and friendship with the Queen. No doubt, an invitation to Anna’s parlor for tea would have been an honor by itself - it meant inclusion into a tight circle which counted Queen Victoria.
That Anna didn’t actually invent afternoon tea can easily be accepted when looking over historical evidence. However, in an era of British excess and Imperialistic attitudes, surrounded by wealthy social climbers, Anna and her coterie helped evolve afternoon tea, a simple habit and gathering of friends, into being the social event of the day.
The Bedford Orthodoxy established itself on the level of her celebrity and her connection to highest social elements of society. As tea became less expensive after the 1840’s, the Queen’s tea customs, as established over a decade before, filtered their way farther down into British culture. It is less important that Anna Russell didn’t invent afternoon tea, but that the tradition propagated itself because of her early celebrity involvements. The tradition seems dated and quaint today, but its relevance as an aspect of popular culture in 1839 is an important part of why it became a traditional part of drinking tea.
- Longford, E. (1998). Victoria R.I. London, United Kingdom: Weidenfield & Nicolson.
- (1980). THE DOMESTIC ENVIRONMENT IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND AND AMERICA. Journal of Social History, 14(1), Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
- Wikipedia, Various Sources, see links above
- Rose, S. (2009). For all the tea in China: How England stole the world’s favorite drink and changed history. New York, NY: Viking Adult.