BRITISH LIFE Festivals Traditions

“Shall I Be Mother?”

“Shall I be Mother?” means, in essence, “Shall I pour the tea?”. Another element in the four-act play that is the British way of drinking tea. ‘Being mother’ means taking charge of the teapot, making sure everyone has a cup, has milk and sugar as required, ‘topping up’ the tea and generally ‘mothering’ the group.

We can even be academic about it: ‘Mother’ is an actor-director role in the theatre of tea-time¹ (Markmanellis 2012)

The phrase probably originates from the Victorian child’s playroom, perhaps during the time-honoured tradition of the ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, where one child would take control of the theatre of the game. In ‘The Children’s Party‘ poet Elizabeth Sill demonstrates the point rather well.

          WILL you come to our party to-day, Carrie Wynn?

          The party is all ready now to begin;

          And you shall be mother, and pour out the tea,

          Because you’re the oldest and best of the three.²

The phrase soon made its way out of the playroom and into common parlance. Despite appearances, it can be used by people of any age or gender: burly rugby players could say it, as might the Vicar. It is always a welcome comment from someone you are sitting with – they will take charge, and you can sit back and let someone else do it.


In the UK, on the fourth Sunday in Lent (and three weeks before Easter) we celebrate Mothering Sunday. Or rather, we used to. Now we celebrate Mother’s Day. Our Mother’s Day is at a completely different time to those of you in the US, Australia and half the rest of the world (when you celebrate in May), in Eastern Europe (on 8th March, International Women’s Day), Thailand (August), Norway (February) … you get the idea.

Our Mothering Sunday, however, used to be a purely religious day. In the sixteenth century, it was the day that you returned to your mother church – perhaps the parish where you were born, or the church where you were christened, to give thanks on Laetare Sunday. It was a big deal, so much so that domestic servants were all given the day off, even the children in service. It was sometimes the only day in the whole year where families would actually all have a day off to celebrate the church. Children returning from their duties might pick a bunch of wildflowers for their own mother, and the family would sit down together for a meal after church.

It was a ‘day off’, not only from work, or domestic servitude, but also from the gastronomic austerity of Lent, and you were allowed a ‘proper dinner’. It was also sometimes known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’, for this reason, or ‘Pudding Pie Sunday’ in Surrey.³

By the 1920s, it had lost its religious basis, and had just become a day for the family to get together, probably jumping on the bandwagon for the new American ‘Mother’s Day’, which had appeared in about 1905 (ish). By the 1950s, the greetings cards manufacturers and florists had definitely got in on the game, and had begun to turn the day into what we now celebrate – our mums.

Whether you agree with the commercialism of it or not, I rather like the idea of Mother’s Day – school children making cards with flowers on, and presents, whether it be a bunch of cheap-and-cheerful daffodils or something much posher. But most of all, I like someone else doing the washing up.

So, to the perfect cup of tea. There is the ‘proper’ way to do it,  and then the ‘normal’ way to do it. We will talk at length about the ‘proper’ way to do it at a later date. And yet we won’t agree on it, because none of us ever do…




  • teabag of preference (some swear by PG Tips, some by Yorkshire Tea, others by Twinings. I prefer a Dorset Tea, but most Brits would agree it should never be a Lipton’s English Breakfast. They seem to reserve those for budget B&Bs, and anyone near the ‘British’ aisle of a supermarket in a different country.)
  • mug
  • kettle with fresh water in
  • milk
  • sugar (optional)


  1. boil kettle
  2. place teabag in mug
  3. pour hot (not boiling) water on teabag and leave it. Some like their briefly introduced to the tea bag, producing milky water with a brown tinge. (Brew Time: 30 seconds to a minute) Some like it with a bit more body to it (BT: 1-2 minutes). I like a very strong cuppa, one you could stand your teaspoon up in (BT: 3-5 minutes, depending on whether I have forgotten about it and gone off to do something else)
  4. Add milk and sugar (if you must)
  5. Sit down and attempt to relax enough to drink it, but probably just get distracted by the telephone, your work colleagues, the children, the dog, your Facebook notifications….

1 – Markmanellis Shall I be Mother? – Queen Mary University of London’s History of Tea

2 – Elizabeth Sill, The Nursery: A Monthly Magazine for Youngest People, February 1873, XIII: 2, p. 54. The poem is rather lovely, so we thought you might like to read the whole thing.

WILL you come to our party to-day, Carrie Wynn?

The party is all ready now to begin;

And you shall be mother, and pour out the tea,

Because you’re the oldest and best of the three.

My white cups and saucers that came Christmas Day

Are all set out nicely on Hatty’s gilt tray;

Real milk in the cream-jug, and real sugar too;

But only play-tea–we pretend that it’s true.

We’ve got a whole orange, and three macaroons,

And some blanc-mange–we’ll eat it with Hatty’s new spoons;

And we’ve carried our table out under the trees:

So come, Carrie Wynn, to our party, do, please!

Hatty’ll sit at one end, and the other you’ll take;

And I’ll cut the orange, and she’ll help the cake:

You’ll see something funny–the reason, don’t ask it–

When we’ve eaten the cake, we can eat up the basket!

We invited the dolls; but they both have the mumps;

And yesterday mine got two terrible bumps:

So we left them in bed; and I do not much care,

For dolls never will sit up straight on a chair.

Then, nicest of all, when our party is done,

We’ll wash up the dishes; and won’t that be fun!

Then scrub sticky fingers and sugary thumbs;

And the sparrows and robins may clear up the crumbs.

3 – A pudding pie was a sweet pie with currants and a set custard. Both Ka(y)tes live in Surrey and neither of us had heard of it. Perhaps we should start the tradition up again?

(c) Kayte & Nicer Kate 2017


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    March 23, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Very interesting , that is a great tradition

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