‘Milk in First’: a miffy question.

The question of when to add milk to tea is a delicate one in British tea customs. Do you add the ‘milk in first’, pouring the tea on top of it, or do you pour the tea in first and add it later. There’s lots of debate: here yes, here no, and here, no idea. In general, the question of milk is one of the more intractable in the history of tea drinking in Britain. We’ve blogged about this before: our conclusion was that whether to add milk to tea is historically and geographically located. And so is when to add milk.

Albert Lynch (1851–1912) Teat-time

Albert Lynch (1851-1912), Tea-time (1910). The host is adding milk into her cup, but we can’t see whether she’s a Miffy or not.

Some authorities claim that there is an explanation in the physics of porcelain: that the ‘thermal shock’ of pouring boiling hot tea into a cup threatened to damage it, so adding the milk first saved the cup. This is wrong for numerous reasons: tea was consumed in Britain for almost two centuries before milk was commonly added, without damaging the cups, and in any case the whole point of porcelain, other than its beauty, was its thermo-resistance. Other authorities claim that the milk, or in other accounts, the tea, is changed (denatured) in different ways depending on which goes in first, and as such, it changes the taste of the tea.

In any case, the problem of milk in first has almost entirely disappeared from everyday life now that almost everyone makes their tea with teabags in single servings. The tea industry estimates that 96% of tea in Britain is made with teabags. Nobody, but nobody, puts the milk in before the teabag, and then adds the hot water. When you make tea with a teabag, you make the tea first, and then you add the milk. Around our office, some people add the milk before the tea is fully coloured, but that’s another story.

The question of ‘milk in first’ has an ideological dimension too, as all British tea drinkers know. This might explain why the question is still so hotly debated even when the problem has almost entirely gone away. Worrying about whether one should add milk in first is widely described as bourgeois and provincial, reminding one of net curtains and best china, Mrs Thatcher and the fete committee. It is middle class, and as such, infra dig. To some it is just common. Vulgar.

When did this happen? Evelyn Waugh captured the issue precisely in 1955:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic. We know a woman, far from conventional in other ways, who makes it her touchstone. “Rather m.i.f., darling,” she says to convey inferior social station.[1]

So here’s the rules according to Waugh, who thought himself a precise guide to British custom (though not much, it seems, of tea). He was writing in Encounter, the cultural magazine of the liberal left founded by Stephen Spender, later to gain notoriety for having accepted money from the CIA during the Cold War. Waugh was writing to Nancy Mitford, the well-known novelist of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s and ’30s. These were people who cared intensely about the minutiae of social mores, or, as such people are more usually described, they were snobs. Adding milk in first was a way of separating the classes in a period when simple wealth was not enough. To minor aristocrats and their hangers on, such social distinctions were highly interesting.

Martin Amis explained how this worked, or not, in his memoir Experience (2000), reporting a conversation with a posh friend of his, Rob, in his house in Perpignan in the late 1960s.

It was a bad thing to be miffy. Being miffy meant that you were the kind of person who, when pouring a cup of tea, habitually put the Milk in First. Martin: And that’s common [working-class] is it? Rob: Yeah. M: Why?. R: I’m not sure. It just is. M: What happens when you put the milk in second and the tea’s too strong and there’s not enough room in the cup to make it milky? R: Then you get up and pour some of it down the sink and go back and try again.[2]

Amis makes fun of the normative values of his middle-class up-bringing, with all its concerns about fitting in and not embarrassing oneself; he also, by pointing out its arbitrariness, satirizes the vulgarity of caring about such distinctions. This is what Alan Ross calls inverted snobbery: to ‘respect a person less the better bred he is’.[3]

Before this, in 1927, J.B. Priestley had alighted on the class consciousness of being a bit miffy. In a humorous column he ran for the Saturday Review, he set his readers a competition. They were to find examples of words and actions that would mark the ‘subtle division between two classes’ in England: a competition he admitted was about snobbishness. The next week, he announced that just as he was ‘snowed under’ with contributions sneering at people who say ‘serviette’ and ‘pleased to meet you’, so too he was

at people who pour the milk in first, who wet their thumbs, who shout “Miss” in teashops, who put knitted cosies on eggs, who eat chocolates at the theatre, who do not own a dressing-gown, and who put the names of their houses in inverted commas.

All this was, he said, an ‘orgy of petty snobbery’, that taught him almost nothing. In Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige of 1956, John Betjeman listed milk-in-first among his bourgeois commonplaces in his poem ‘How to Get On in Society’: imagining a middle class woman using the phrase ‘Milk and just as it comes’  to her tea-time companions.[4]

Before the First World War, however, it seems no-one made much of a fuss about when the milk was added to tea. Novelists of manners occasionally mention people who put milk in first, but without much sense of it being a solecism. A minor character in a minor novel called The Mercy of the Lord (1914) by the Anglo-Indian novelist Flora Annie Steel comments about himself that he is thought a bit peculiar because he ‘invariably put the milk in first’ when serving tea.[5] In 1910, Arnold Bennett, in his novel Helen with the High Hand makes fun of the modishness of a young woman who ‘had a caprice for pouring the tea on the top of the milk instead of the milk on the top of the tea’. When consumed it has ‘a peculiar flavor (owing, perhaps, to the precedence given to milk)’.[6] A short story by the women’s suffrage campaigner Evelyn Sharp (1869-1955) in Temple Bar in 1903 mentions a young woman who prefers her tea with ‘two lumps’ and ‘milk in first’: odd enough, she thinks, for it to be a marker of whether an old pupil remembers her and her preferences.[7] And even before that, in 1846, Charles Shirley Brooks depicted a bachelor as enjoying his eccentric taste for tea with ‘the sugar and milk in first’.[8]

All this suggests that the class issue of ‘Milk in First’ emerged in the 1920s, solidifying as a real distinction in the 1950s, before become a rather senseless meme in the 1970s. The continued fuss about milk in first or not has been almost entirely obviated in everyday life by the immiseration of the British way of tea by the tea-bag. And yet….

Waugh Open Letter Encounter 1955Evelyn Waugh in Encounter in December 1955

Martin Amis not enjoying tea with the British Council in Russia

Martin Amis having tea on a British Council jolly in Russia. A bit Miffy.

Miffy drinking tea

A Miffy at tea-time
Evelyn Waugh, anxious about class
Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige (1956)

JB Priestley in 1932b

J.B. Priestley: not a milk-in-first man.

[1] Evelyn Waugh, ‘An open letter to the Honble Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a very serious subject from Evelyn Waugh’, Encounter, 27 (Dec 1955), pp 11-16 (p. 15)

[2] Martin Amis, Experience (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 45

[3]Alan Ross, ‘Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen (Helsinki), vol. 55 (1954), 20-56 (25).

[4] John Betjemen, ‘How to Get On in Society’, in Nancy Mitford (ed), Noblesse Oblige: an enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1956), p. 114.

[5] Flora Annie Steel, The Mercy of the Lord (New York: George H. Doran, 1914), p. 269.

[6] Arnold Bennett, Helen with the High Hand: An Idyllic Diversion (London: Chapman & Hall, 1910) p. 82.

[7] Evelyn Sharp, ‘The First and the Second Isabella’, Temple Bar: a monthly magazine for town and country readers, 127:511 (June 1903): 671-677.

[8] Brooks, Shirley, ‘How Mrs Malmsey Managed her Uncle’, Ainsworth’s Magazine, 9 (Jan 1846): 153-159 (153).


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