Today, February 27th …
School dinners have never had a good reputation, but at Eton on this day in 1504 they were about to get a whole lot better. Provost Henry Bost, had just died and left a legacy of two pence a year per boarder, specifically to improve their dinners. His successor Provost Lupton followed suit, and since then the boys of Eton have gathered in College Hall every February 27th (“Threepenny Day”) to offer prayers to their benefactors.
Tuppence bought half a sheep per year per boarder, which does not sound much for growing boys, but until then students had had to feed themselves. Eton was originally a school for poor boys, so they would not have eaten well.
For some reason lost in transcription, mutton was the only meat provided to Etonians until 1820, when the rules were changed and they were to have chicken and greens twice a year (and raspberry tart once). There are a lot of questions going begging here, but we must focus on mutton. Eton scholars are commonly called “Tugs”, and this is either from the Latin togati, meaning "wearers of gowns", or alternatively from the “tugs of war” over scraps of “tough old mutton” in which they were frequently engaged.
If what Wellington supposedly said was true, that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton", it was probably because signing up for army rations sounded tempting after years of Eton mutton slops.
I shudder to think how the mutton was cooked, but think it is unlikely that it would have been anything like this rather delicious sounding recipe from ‘A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye’ from the same era (c.1545)
For to stewe mutton.
Take a necke of mutton and a breste to make the brothe stronge, and then scomeit clene, and when it hath boyled a whyle take part of the brathe and putte it intoanother pot and put therto a pounde of reysons, and let them boyle till they be tender, then strayne a little bread wyth the reysons and the broth all together, then chop tyme, sauery and perseley with other small herbes, and put into the mutton then putte in the streyned raisins wyth whole prunes, cloues and mace, peper, saffron and a lytle salte, and yf ye lyste ye may stew a chikin withal or els sparowes or such other lytle byrdes.
Tomorrow: The breakfast of diarists.