One thing I think ti is important to remember is English children of the aristocracy and gentry classes were traditionally fed their main meal, meaning, usually the meal with meat, in the middle of the day. Such is when most households had dinner, the idea dating back to the time Henry VIII or, perhaps, before. Henry VIII is said to have had his dinner at 11:30 A.M. Children’s meals remained settled at this time of day, even as the adult meal shifted into the afternoon and evening.
During the medieval period dinner was eaten at midday, but this meal was slowly moved up to 3 in the afternoon, then pushed up to five. These meals became elaborate affairs of at least two or three courses, which Louis Simond, a French/American traveler to London, described in wondrous detail in his travel diary. During Jane Austen’s time 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.” It is said cambric tea was first noted in the Scottish settlers, but we all know it could have been from any hard-working group settling a new country. 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.” (Culinary Lore) As a small child, I recall have cambric tea with my great-grandmother, who also swore the tea was a way of fighting off the afternoon hunger every child experiences. She would sit with me, and we would have cambric tea together. Children were given cambric tea, which consisted of a scant spoon of sugar, a teaspoon or so of tea (poured from the pot, just like an adult’s) and then filled to the brim with warm milk.
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
Tea as a social even (as in tea time) really start off more in the 1830’s and becomes the more formal affair in Victorian and Edwardian times. During that later era “tea” became the working class meal as well.
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 event as in afternoon tea.
Also, if you’re looking for the children in a household to have something, it would not be too out of the ordinary for cook to have a treat for them–hot pastries or biscuits (the English version of cookies) or cakes. A child might well eat in the kitchen in a household that is not too formal.
Generally, in England, according to one of my close British friends, who tells me something of raising her children in England, “Nursery tea was the final meal for children during the day. They had a proper meal, dinner, at what we call lunch time. Nursery tea was half tea/half milk, bread and milk, and usually some cake for afters. I couldn’t restrain comment on my opinion of sending children to bed on nothing but milk and starch, and discovered that when my children were invited for tea at someone else’s house I was always assured that it would be an “egg tea,” meaning the children would have a boiled egg as well.
“This was of course long after the Regency and even the Victorians! But I would expect it was one of the meals that changed little. Probably since tea was so expensive it would be only a taste of tea or perhaps none at all–or some herbal tea. But I would believe that the base would most likely be bread and butter for the comfortable middle class and much the same for the wealthy–except perhaps in the north of England, Ireland, and Scotland, where oats were more commonly available than wheat, and then it would be a dish of porridge.”
Nursery tea” would then, in my opinion, most likely refer to a very simple meal, and it would probably be Victorian or possibly late Regency period, because it was only then that the grownups–the ladies!–started drinking tea in the afternoon. At that period, as I understand it, people routinely went from breakfast to dinner without eating in the meantime, except for “snacks” that eventually became known as elevenses and tea (as a time to eat, not a beverage). It was the advancing hour of dinner, from 5-6, which it was generally in the 18th century, to later in the day that gradually re-established the mid-day meal which had been called dinner before it moved later and later. In the days when dinner as the main meal was mid-day, there was supper in the evening. Nursery tea, therefore, could be considered an adaptation of supper for children!
Regency Redingote tells us, “Breakfast had been introduced into the beginning of the English day in the first decades of the eighteenth century. It was exactly what its name would suggest, the meal by which the fasting of the nighttime was broken. By the decade of the Regency, breakfast was well-established as a light morning meal. It usually consisted of bread, often toasted, or rolls with jam, preserves or marmalade, eggs and perhaps ham or bacon. Tea, coffee and chocolate were common beverages served with this meal, but ale was also part of many a gentlemen’s breakfast.
“. . . since up to the years of the Regency, lunch, or luncheon, was not a regular meal in England. The words “lunch” and “luncheon” entered the English language at the end of the sixteenth century, but with the meaning of a lump of bread or cheese. The words “nunch” and “nuncheon” are much older words which entered the language in the fourteenth century, when they had the meaning of a light snack between meals, usually accompanied by a drink. But none of these words had yet been chosen as the name for a meal which was taken between breakfast and dinner.
“As you might imagine, many people, particularly ladies, found it difficult to go from breakfast to dinner without sustenance. In the decade prior to the Regency, ladies of the leisure classes began to take a light meal around 1 o’clock, usually alone or with immediate family. Typically, this was a repast of cold dishes, usually bread, meat, cheese and fruit. Wine, tea or coffee were the most common beverages served at the meal, but seldom were beer or ale on the table. By the Regency, many ladies of the beau monde in the cities were sharing this meal as a social occasion, men seldom partook. It was during these years that this midday meal was christened lunch or luncheon, luncheon being the more upper-class and socially-acceptable term. Nuncheon was a term for the mid-day meal of the lower classes.”
Yet, I have again digressed. From The Cook’s Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort, and Elegance (1810), we learn . . .
For more of what was used for some receipts for different infant food, as well as some other interesting pointers for infant and children diets, check this article on Regency Reader.