No doubt, Carson was well-schooled in the myriad duties entrusted to his care at Downton Abbey. If a question of protocol did arise, he surely had the butler’s bible of the day sitting on his desk. 

Published in London in 1823, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer contained the answers to every bit of etiquette minutiae that might be needed in the manor house – including pouring tea.

Here’s a bit of tea service protocol that comes directly from this handy guidebook:

If the lady makes tea in the drawing-room, which with small parties is generally the case, have the tea tray well dusted, and the teacups and saucers put on, one for each, with a teaspoon to each put on the near side, so as to face the person who makes the tea, with the teapot, cream jug, and slop basin on the off side; and let the tea caddy be put near. 

If you have to wait at tea, that is, to hand it about to the company, you must have a small hand-waiter [tray]; if there is not one proper for the purpose, use the one with which you hand the glasses about at dinner.

When you take away the tea things, always take the urn off first, then put the tea caddy into its proper place, and then remove the tea things. Always have a cloth in your pocket to wipe the table with, in case it should be slopped, or crumbs of bread left on, and properly adjust the candles on the table.

Perhaps you may have to carry the tea and coffee upstairs to the company ready-made; if so, you must be careful not to slop the tea over the cups into the saucers; see also that you do not forget the spoons, sugar tongs, cream, or slop basin; have a teapot on the tray with hot water in it, in case any of the ladies’ tea should be too strong. 

Your tray ought to be pretty large, so that you can put the bread and butter, sugar basin, or anything else upon it; take care to arrange them so, that the ladies may take the cups with ease, and hold the tray low enough for that purpose; if it will not hold enough to go once round, you must serve it as far as it will go, and then get more. If you have not cups and saucers enough, you must wait in the room till the company have done with some of them.

Be quick in taking up the tea when it is once poured out, that it may not get cold before the company have it, which is a subject of complaint almost to a proverb; you will easily know when they have done, by their putting the spoon in the teacup, or refusing it when you offer it to them.

If there should be a fire in the room, look at it before you leave the room.

What teas would have been served at Downton Abbey?

The majority of tea sold in the UK at the close of the 19th century was sourced from India and Sri Lanka. Tea for the caddies at Downton Abbey might have been purchased in London from shops such as Twinings or The United Kingdom Tea Company, a favorite of the Duke of York. 

Earl Grey was available but herbals and fruit flavored teas were not to be had, and teabags didn’t come into vogue until the middle of the 20th century. Chinese green teas were no longer as popular because British-owned gardens dominated the tea market. 

All devoted Downton Abbeyists know that Irish Blend would not have been tolerated by Lord Grantham; however, English Breakfast was the invention of an American tea purveyor so Lady Grantham might have found that hearty blend to be her cup of tea.

An early 20th century tea table set with all the necessary tea equipage and an elegant selection of teatime foods.

Why does Carson never call teatime “High Tea.”

High tea was a working class term that was never uttered outside the servants’ hall at Downton Abbey. The Crawley’s enjoyed a sophisticated afternoon tea or cups of tea at breakfast or after dinner, but high tea was a Victorian era working family dinner accompanied by a big pot of tea. 

“Pardon me, M’Lady,” but may I remind you that ignorance of this fact would have immediately brought a rise to Carson’s bushy eyebrows!

Read more about tea’s impact on society, fashion, art and politics in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. 

Benjamin Press author Jane Pettigrew has recently received word that she is a recipient of the British Empire Medallion (BEM) in recognition of her services to tea production and history. The Queen will honor Jane and other outstanding citizens this year for contributions to British society.


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