Singing Tea in Nineteenth-Century Britain

This month I thought I’d share transcriptions of the lyrics for four tea songs published in London over the course of the nineteenth century. Each of these texts was published with a score designed to enable the musical rendition of the piece, presumably in a domestic setting (accompanied by a piano where possible), although the later songs also permit public performance ‘without fee or licence’ (except, in the case of Sitting Down to Tea, at ‘Music Halls’).  What interests me about these songs is the way in which they figure tea as both refreshing beverage and social occasion at the heart of middle-class family life in Britain.

In the two earlier songs, The Dish of Tea (1800) and The Song of the Tea-Pot (1855), tea is to be taken very seriously indeed.  The Dish of Tea celebrates the drink’s promotion of sober, heterosocial friendship: ‘good humour’ and calm ‘pleasure’ supplant the more ambivalent delights of male ‘Smoakers’ who ‘drink with noisy glee’ their ‘foaming liquor’.  In The Song of the Tea-Pot, tea’s function is perhaps even more explicitly to feminise men’s heated, raucous, and energetic public characters (left to their own devices they consume ‘French-fashion’d coffee at clubs’). In this song, the tea-table is quite clearly the province of the woman of the household; such matriarchs administer the pot at ‘the ev’ning meal’ to their husbands – ‘Philosophers, Statesmen’, ‘Poets, Divines, Men of Bus’ness’ – lending both a listening ear and the ‘strength’ of ‘mind’ imparted by their liquid refreshment.  Both songs seem intent on demonstrating that under the right conditions – within which tea is central – ‘Ladies can hold conversation with men’, and everybody benefits.

The two later songs are music hall satires from the end of the century, and are less about the qualities of the drink than about the social occasion of tea.  Both texts send up the middle-class afternoon tea as a hollow transaction characterised by gastronomic disaster and stilted sociability.  In Sitting down to Tea (1891), the forced politeness of social interaction is allowed absurdly to triumph against a dismal bill of fare.  Comic injunctions – barbed with sincerity – humorously implore the listener to maintain an illusion of enjoyment and respectability in the most trying predicaments.   Middle Class Society Tea (1894) is penned in a similar vein, only in this instance social niceties disguise the guests’ dislike not for the food, but for one another.  The singer concludes (although not without a hint of snobbery) ‘Oh! the Middle Class Society Tea | May be fun for some, but it is’nt for me’.

I’m neither a Victorianist nor a musicologist myself, but there’s some great material on The Victorian Web about the ‘Musical Soiree’ in the home, including an audio performance by Prof Derek B Scott of ‘Woodman, Spare that Tree!’ (1837), the nineteenth-century song cheekily referenced in Sitting Down to Tea.  There’s also a very useful online version of the second edition of Scott’s book The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlor, published by Ashgate in 2001.

Anyway, here are those lyrics …

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