Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here and everywhere adored;
Thy creatures bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee.
A Methodist Grace by John Cennick, (1718-1755)
It’s easy to forget that in the nineteenth century many children worked from a very young age. In Cornwall this usually meant working in the ancillary jobs associated with mining, and even in the areas of Cornwall where there was little mining, children worked long hours in the fields. The Methodist Chapel Sunday School was often the only place were such children might learn to read and write.
The annual tradition of a ‘treat’ being laid on for the Sunday School Scholars started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the early days children were often marched to a hilltop to sing hymns and listen to a sermon after which they would be rewarded with tea and cake.
The Treats were often held at Whitsuntide or on the same day as the local fair in order to tempt the children and their parents away from more worldly pleasures. For the same reason many Tea Treats were held during the miners’ midsummer holidays, when the Victorian ministers believed that idle hands might fall into bad ways.
Tea Treats became the cause of much rivalry between different Methodist Chapels as to who could provide the most spectacular treat with the biggest band the most beautiful banners, the largest number of children and the best tea! By the 1860s some Sunday School Tea Treats attracted hundreds of participants and it’s important not to forget that they were hugely enjoyable social occasions, with everyone putting on their best clothes and looking forward to a spectacular tea.
The ‘Band of Hope’ became associated with many Tea Treats. With its aim of warning young people of the dangers of alcohol it recruited them with uplifting band music, banners and healthy outdoor activities. In 1876, the Bible Christian Sunday School in Penzance organized a joint Treat with the local Band of Hope Temperance Society. This would have involved a considerable amount of planning in order to obtain and serve over 200 lbs of cake, 18 dozen buns, 6 lbs of butter, 12 lbs of sugar and 5 lbs of tea!
In time, Chapels gathered together to hold their Tea Treats and with the coming of the railways, expeditions further afield became more common. On June 25th 1880 the ‘Cornubian and Redruth Times’ reported that twelve railway carriages took Sunday School children and their teachers from Redruth to Carbis Bay. Eight hundred cakes were also taken and the assembled company had both lunch and tea before returning to Redruth.
The normal fare at a tea treat was a great spread of saffron buns often called ‘Revel Buns’ and on this occasion only made ‘as large as cow pats’ ! Cornish splits with jam and cream, were usually on the table together with slab (ie fruit) cake and tea. The tea was sweetened as a special treat, Methodists not generally holding with sugar because of its associations with the slave trade.
These days scones are the norm for a cream tea but traditionally the vehicle for clotted cream and jam was a Cornish split. Here’s the recipe.
1 lb of plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 oz caster sugar
1/2 pint milk - or maybe a little more - flour varies as to its absorbency
½ sachet instant dried yeast
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and add the sugar and yeast. Melt the butter and warm the milk until tepid, mix together and then add to the flour. Knead for 10 minutes until really smooth then leave in a warm place until doubled in size – it takes about an hour and a half.
Knead again briefly and divide into eight ball then knead and mould each ball until it is perfectly smooth. Leave to rise again for about 45 minutes. Put into a hot oven and bake for 20 minutes. You may want to cover them with a loose sheet of foil or paper about halfway through – they should be a delicate pale gold not brown.
Leave to cool then split and slather with clotted cream and jam or with black treacle for an even more special treat. The Cornish call this ‘thunder and lightning’
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I'll be a sunbeam for Him.
Lyrics by Nellie Talbot (c1874-?)
Grateful thanks to Cedric Appleby and his 2009 article on tea treats in the magazine of the Cornwall Association of Local Historians.