Reading A Murder of Quality by John le Carré, I came across the following remark by Mrs. Hecht, a detestable upper-class Englishwoman (emphasis mine):

"Though, of course, the Midlands are different, aren't they? Only about three good families between Ipswich and Newcastle. Where did you say you came from, dear?"


"How nice. I went to tea with Stella once. Milk in first and Indian. So different."

I can't even begin to parse "Milk in first and Indian," even to the point of determining what the subject of the sentence is. To my 21st-century American eyes, "first and Indian" looks like a street intersection, but that can't be right. Why is "first" lowercased? What are the implied missing words? What is "Indian" modifying? Does "milk" refer to actual milk, or to something else? So many questions!

While this might be considered a question involving literary interpretation, I contend that John le Carré, who wrote popular novels, would not have put words in his characters' mouths that were not intended to be plainly understood by the majority of his readership. So I put it to you, the ELU community: What does "Milk in first and Indian" mean? How would the average reader circa 1962 have interpreted this phrase?

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    She put the milk in first, and she used Indian tea.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 1:57
  • That sounds quite plausible! We don't really have "tea culture" here in the States. If you post it as an answer I'll upvote it, and probably accept it.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 2:05
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    @Alfred E. Guevara : Mrs. Hecht is remarking about how that dreadful Stella woman, so gouache, put the milk into the cup before the tea! And, egads, if that wasn't bad enough, the tea was Indian!!! Ghastly! Clearly nothing worse could be said about anyone, not ever. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 8:02

3 Answers 3


I went to tea with Stella once. Milk in first and Indian.

English tea is served in a cup, of course, and usually with added milk. When Stella served the tea she put the milk in the cup first, not the tea. And the variety of tea she served was Indian (vs the default which I would presume to be Chinese).

  • 1
    Also putting milk in the cup first is the Indian way of preparing tea
    – lesslazy
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 7:22
  • 3
    @lesslazy Milk in first is, in the UK, regarded as being the 'correct' way. When tea was first introduced it was very expensive and available only to the wealthy. There was no refrigeration for the milk so it was poured first in case it was off. If you poured tea first and added milk thst had turned, it was an expensive waste. So the story goes. Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:45
  • Another theory is that fragile china cups might crack if boiling liquid was poured straight into them. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 17:36
  • The alternative to Indian is China tea, which is certainly more expensive and probably better tasting. Commented May 6, 2016 at 13:25

I have been reading a biography of le Carré by Adam Sisman and come across the following passage in Chapter 9, which deals with the time le Carré was teaching at Eton College, and I presume Mrs Hecht's words were taken from the author's experience at the upper-class public school:

He [David Cornwell, i.e. le Carré] had been appalled by a colleague's report of an overheard conversation between two boys after one of them had been to tea at Wheatbutts [the Cornwells' home]:

"Had tea with Cornbeef the other day." "How was it?" "Usual stuff. Milk in first and then Indian."

"I don't think I've ever met so much arrogance," David concluded.

Both episodes are based on the premise that not putting milk in first and not using Indian tea is the socially correct way of making tea for the likes of Mrs Hecht and the Eton boys.


It means poor/cheap. When making tea, if you were poor and had cheap, low quality china the hot tea could crack it, so you would put the cold milk into your teacup first to prevent that from happening (as opposed to tea first then milk, which was considered the proper way to do it by English upper class). Tea from India was the cheap stuff, as opposed to better, more expensive tea from Kenya or China. Cheap tea served in cheap china, the poor man's brew.

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