What was the nature of the meals shared by the family in Jane Austen’s England? Truthfully, it was not as one might imagine. Food from the Regency Period, suggests for those living in the country, which was the vast portion of the population in Austen’s lifetime, breakfast for the family at home customarily occurred around 8 or 9 A.M. In the Austen household, most believe Jane Austen held the esteemed duty in her family of being in charge of the tea and the sugar; therefore, Jane held the responsibility of the first meal of the day. Customarily, by the Regency era, the large meal consumed by the laborers on the family farms, no longer was a large meal of meat, specifically beef, and ale. Instead, the Austens likely had thick toast, which had been toasted on a long metal stake, and/or muffins. Butter and conserves were also likely on the table. In the homes of the rich gentry or aristocracy, the meals were more elaborate. In the cottage and home farms, the tenants would get by with a porridge or what was known as penny loaf (a small bread bun, which cost one penny). The size of the bun/loaf could vary depending on the cost of flour at that time. Most of you might remember the line “Build it up with penny loaves” found in the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.”
A Brighton Breakfast or Morning Comforts, Charles Williams, active 1796–1830, British, 1802 ~ Public Domain
During Jane Austen’s time the afternoon tea would be served an hour or so after the meal, or from 3-6 o’clock, depending on when dinner was served. Suppers became light snacks, except in the case of a grand ball, where elaborate buffets might be served.
From Jane Austen’s World, we learn . . . “At Chawton, Jane Austen’s own especial duty concerned breakfast. We can imagine her insisting on sharing at least some of the housekeeping duty with Cassandra, and Cassandra’s giving way over breakfast but insisting that Jane had the rest of day free for writing. Breakfast in Austen’s era was very different from the cold meat, coarse bread and ale of earlier ages, or the abundance of eggs, kidneys, bacon and so forth under which Victorian sideboards groaned. Rather it was an an elegant light meal of toast and rolls with tea, coffee or chocolate to drink, all taken off a handsome set of china. Jane’s job would have been to make the toast and boil the kettle at the dining room fire. Like many ladies, not trusting to clumsy servants, she may even have washed and dried the china, and put it away, together with the precious tea and sugar, in a dinning room closet.
“In 1798 Jane Austen writes of half past three being the customary dinner hour at Steventon, but by 1808 they are dining at five o’clock in Southampton. There are many mentions of the timing of dinner in the novels, but none is so explicit as in the fragment The Watsons. Tom Musgrave knows perfectly well that the unpretentious Watson family dine at three, and times his visit to embarrass them, arriving just as their servant is bringing in the tray of cutlery. Tom compounds his rudeness by boasting that he dines at eight: the latest dinner hour of any character. At Mansfield Parsonage they dine at half past four and at Northanger Abbey at five. The effect of London fashion can be seen in the difference between the half past four dinner at Longbourn and that at half past six at Netherfield.” – Jane Austen in Context, Janet Todd, p. 264
Children, at least, the ones in one of the typical Regency upper classes, did not typically eat with adults. They were fed by nannies or nursemaids in the nursery. Their meals remained stable, probably because it was just easier that way. A nursery tea, therefore, was the children’s meal just before bath and bed–or just bed in the earlier periods when a daily bath was not considered next to godliness. Whether they called it “tea” or not in Regency times, I do not know—perhaps originally it was “supper.” Although Etymology.com attests to the use of the word earlier, I have never seen any reference to the children’s meal being a “snack” at any time, and, it seems to me, using “snack” might bring out the reviewers who love to ding an author for using a modern word in a historical story. (Just saying . . .) The English use the word ‘”tea” for a meal, as well as a simple noun for a beverage.
Use of “snack” is in period – http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=snack
verb – The meaning “have a mere bite or morsel, eat a light meal” is first attested 1807.
noun – Main modern meaning “a bite or morsel to eat hastily” is attested from 1757.
On the American continent we had what was called “cambric tea,” the term first noted in the Scottish settlers. According to CulinaryLore, “Cambric tea, sometimes called ‘nursery tea’ was hot water and milk, was an American slang term referring to a drink of hot water, milk, and a dash of tea, sometimes sweetened. It is also described as hot water with a little milk or cream and sugar, without any tea at all. It was given to children, supposedly to give them energy, or to help them feel grown up during tea time. It was also often served to the elderly. Cambric tea got its name from cambric fabric, which was white and thin, just like the tea. Cambric fabric gets its name from the French town of Cambrai, a textile center. Cambric tea was popular during the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It was also known as white tea, or hot water tea.”
For more information on English meals, there is a good overview of the history of “tea” as a social function here – http://www.foodtimeline.org/teatime.html
You can find recipes for “nursery tea” online with lots of milk, sugar, and vanilla–basically a way to add a little more nutrition to a child’s tea. In Regency era, children often took their meals in the nursery and not with the family–so they might have nursery tea with their dinner. However, remember tea in Georgian and Regency time tea was still more of a beverage to be served as a possible refreshment to callers–or a beverage for late in the evening along with possibly some cakes or a light snack type meal before bed, but not so much a social.