As mentioned in the introduction, gatherings involving tea drinking were clearly linked to early Sunday school activities and it would be good to know when they developed into what we now think of as a tea treat. Our story begins when such events were specifically organised both as a treat as well as an expression of devotion.
From the earliest reports, the procession or parade was an essential element. It usually began at the chapel from where it would wend its way to a favourite location where there would be a short service and a period of games and relaxation. Refreshments may have been provided there or perhaps that would await the return to the chapel or church. Music was an essential feature as no procession would be complete without it.
As we have said, tea was very much the drink of choice but in the early days, not all strands of Methodism were averse to alcohol. It may be surprising to hear that the Wesleyans were strongly anti-temperance at first and this report clearly shows the popularity of ale as a refreshing drink. “Sunday school officers resolved that at the annual tea treat each scholar should, among other things, be served a cup of beer”. (Newspaper report 1820)
Many newspapers from the early 1800s describe these events without referring to them as tea treats but Cedric Appleby comments that, whilst they may not have been referred to by name, “some of the ingredients of the later chapel tea treats were there” (1).
The “West Briton” newspaper in June 1827 reports on a joint event between Hayle and Angarrack Sunday School members when about 600 children went to the Towans to sing hymns and then returned to the chapel for “tea and cakes”. Following that, they went to the beach.
In July 1853 “The Cornish Telegraph” reported: “Previous to taking tea, the children walked in procession from the chapel to Lanyon and back, headed by the St Just Band [presumably the Artillery Volunteer Band]”.
There are many other newspaper reports where there was a parade to some distant location. Gradually, however, they began to be replaced by gatherings in or close to the chapel or church grounds and from this we have the sort of event which lives on in the memory of those who attended them. Cedric Appleby (1) commented, “By 1860, tea treats in connection with the Sunday school had become annual events and opines that, in many cases, the form did not change for a hundred years or more” (1).
The events portrayed the chapels and churches as a place where membership could be enjoyed, where fun was firmly on the agenda. In that, they were an excellent marketing tool that could introduce religion to a wide and receptive audience.
It may have been the tiresome task of carrying food and equipment to a remote site that persuaded some Sunday schools to hold the event, either in the chapel grounds or a nearby field. Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t the dislike of a parade as that essential element was seemingly engrained. However, it was then a march around the locality, always of course, accompanied by music.
This switch to home territory enabled tea treats to become more lavish affairs. However, it inevitably involved the adults, or some of them, in a lot more work. If the chapel grounds weren’t suitable then a field had to be found and this relied on there being a friendly relationship with a neighbouring farmer. From a practical point of view, it may also have depended on whether the hay had been cut as this report from the “West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser” of the 6th July 1883 shows. “…the hay crop had yet to be harvested at the time of the treat, which prompted Captain Richard Pryor to offer his field for the occasion. The arrangement with the Redruth Brewery continued in 1884.” Another potential obstacle could be that the previous occupants had been overly “productive”! From my experience, in later years, the latter was not a huge problem for these good country folk and a venue was not switched because of the odd cowpat, or two, or three! As an alternative to a field, the grounds of a local mansion were sometimes used, and this option was particularly favoured by the Oddfellows and Rechabites.
Although the First World War was mainly fought in foreign parts, Cornwall was greatly affected, not least by the departure of many of its menfolk. Those left behind had to carry on as best they could and for the sake of the children, try to put on a mask of normality. There was a great deal of fear, both for those involved in the fighting and at the eventual outcome. Despite this, many events continued to take place including the annual Sunday school tea treats.
The celebration on “home ground” remained the one of choice for many Sunday schools but some wanted a break from tradition: they took the children on a trip to a picnic area or the seaside. Here, the sand, sea and games guaranteed a day of fun. In a way, it was a return to the original concept of an away-day. For them, the procession was omitted or became of minimal importance. For the organisers of such an event, it involved much less work and with easier rail and road transport, several Sunday schools switched to this option.
1905: Redruth Wesley Tea Treat Outing by Train (Photo: courtesy Paul Phillips)
By the second half of the 19th century, Cornwall had a railway network and an 1880 Wesleyan Methodist Sunday school tea treat excursion was described as “involving a short parade from the chapel to the railway station where twelve railway carriages were waiting to transport the children and their teachers to Carbis Bay. A total of 800 cakes (were these saffron buns?) were needed and tea was served in an open field during the afternoon.”
A popular Tea Treat Venue (Photo: courtesy Val Thomas of St Ives OCS)
Val Thomas of St Ives Old Cornwall Society spotted an advertisement in the “Cornishman” of the 25th June 1891 for The Lower Poltair Picnic Grounds. “…open for private parties, school treats, bands of hope etc. There is a large pond for boating, a field for cricket, parallel bars and several swings. Adults provided with cups of tea and hot water at 3d each in the picnic-house. Children under 12, 2d. Milk, cream, junkets, to order.” It sounds like an idyllic location and a favourite choice for Sunday schools of that area, but it seems that the popularity of the “The Picnics” declined and it was left to deteriorate. It was neglected and became a muddy, boggy area.
Cedric Appleby refers to this idyllic setting which was created in the 1870s by John Payne who “cleared mining waste near the beach on which site emerged Payne’s Tea Rooms”. Cedric goes on to say: “They not only provided refreshments in the teagarden but there were also swings, seesaws and roundabouts as well as a shop selling buckets and spades and everything else for the beach”.
The Second World War was fought nearer to home than previous conflicts with dangers posed from land, sea and air. Despite the absence of many menfolk and the fear of invasion, life continued as did the annual events designed to lift the spirits of a worried nation. Coastal defences were in place and access to our beaches was severely restricted causing organisers to re-think how tea treats could continue to be celebrated. The answer for most, was a return to the tea treats on or near the chapel grounds. Now though, it was not by choice, it was a necessity. For many Sunday schools this option continued until the 1960s and are what many will recall when we talk about the traditional tea treat.
Another aspect of the wartime events was the swelling of numbers by the inclusion of evacuees. The sound of London voices must have sounded strange to the Cornish children but, by all accounts, they all got on well.
1960s: A tea treat on Swanpool Beach, Falmouth (Photo: courtesy Sylvia Rule of St Ives OCS)
Perhaps for the reasons mentioned earlier, the lure of the beach led Sunday schools to forsake the event in their own back yard and many will fondly remember boarding a coach and heading off towards one of their favourite seaside locations. Could it be that the children of this era had tired of the “old-fashioned” event or was it that they were seeking more freedom with less adult involvement? Whatever the reason, the days of the tea treat by the chapel were numbered. No longer would the lavish tea, the parade and the band be a part of the celebration. Perhaps though, the tea treat buns would linger, if only for a while. It was for some, a reversion to the treats of an earlier time. Rather than a train ride, however, it was a case of booking a coach and the Sunday school members were soon on their way to places like Carbis Bay, Prah Sands, Kynance Cove and St Ives in the west and Bude, Looe and Pentewan in the east.
Porthminster Beach (Photo: Terry Knight)
- Cedric Appleby quotes are taken from his paper “Methodist Tea-Treats in Cornwall” written for the Cornwall Association of Local Historians Journal No. 58 Autumn 2009