This little chap is my great-grandfather, Thomas Robinson Butler, in a photograph taken in about 1855. The curious garb he wears is the bluecoat uniform of Christ’s Hospital, where he was a boarder from 1853-61, first at the school for younger boys in Hertford, and later at Newgate. As readers of this journal will know, the adult Thomas became an assiduous collector and transcriber of others’ words, but I did not realise until the other day (when I visited my aunt on the way to Blackpool) that in 1920, aged 73, he wrote a lengthy account of his own schooldays. The original manuscript was donated to Christ’s Hospital itself in the 1950s, but they made a typed transcript, which I have borrowed for a while.
It makes fascinating reading for anyone who’s interested in what life was like at a public school at this period. The typescript is 94 pages long, but I thought it might be interesting to put up a few of the highlights. Corporal punishment, weird schoolboy customs, food and the lack of it, and dubious teaching methods all figure largely, but for today I shall start, as Thomas himself does, with words...
Typically, and many years before the Opies, TRB begins by providing not one but two glossaries of slang – one for Hertford and one for London. Here is some of the Hertford list. I wonder how many had or have wider currency?
“Backs”: “ I retract my agreement.”
A Bread: A boy’s allowance of bread
A brushing: A flogging with the birch rod
A cake: A cut on the hand with a cane
“Fin”: “I forbid”
“Fin backs”: "I forbid you to say backs”
“Over to the left”: “I do not mean what I say”
To pole: To disgrace as unclean [This doesn’t mean what I thought at first! It seems the boys treated as polluted anyone who ate meat from a blade-bone. Why, I don’t know.]
A puncat: One who tells tales of another
Puncat Day: The 2nd of May, when punning [talebearing] is allowed
To shark: To ask (for a piece)
A shoe: A bread with crug on four sides
Skyblue: Watered milk
Spicy words: Long, grand words
A taffy: A potato
A Titch: A caning on the tightened seat of the trousers
A Trade: A food-service, e.g. a Breadboy, Pailboy, etc.
Turf: A bread with crug on three sides
A Yellow: A Yellow undercoat, worn in winter.
Much of the London glossary repeats this, but there are some interesting differences and additions:
“Cuts for Hertford words”: Pinches for using Hertford words not used in London
A dab: An expert
To fudge: To secretly prompt one who is saying a lesson
Jicker: Salad dressing
To mag: To scold
Pigging: Removal from one ward to another
A prig: A thief (no other meaning at C.H.)
A scaf: One who does not give to an asker
To spadge: To walk in a stately manner, moving so as to describe in space waves with pointed summits, each step describing a gulf between the highest point of the wave, and that of its successor.
A swab: A servant. (Fag was not used in the sense of servant at Christ’s Hospital.)
A toughy: One who does not groan or utter a sound when put in pain by a bully.