steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Part 6: Games; or, Gentility versus the Lobster

... I think that the boys of Hertford were more fond of play and more spirited, and indeed more like boys than the lads of London. The reason was partly that on arrival at London their spirit was knocked out of them by the bullying of the bigger boys, and partly that the boys of Hertford were more favoured in their games than those of London by the possession of a field. Thus the Hertford boys were able to play cricket, whereas in London the scholars had to content themselves with the less manly game of rounders.

On a very hot day, however, when much running about is more a toil than a pleasure, the quiet amusement of Yards was very popular for the children to play in the field. It suited their childish fancy for it was a game of pretence. A portion of the field was marked out with string for an imaginary palace. This was sub-divided into a royal apartment for a sultan and his court to lounge in, and other apartments, which were for slaves. In order to get a comfortable lounge for the royal apartment, a great deal of grass was collected. Slaves were sent all over the field to barter for grass. The conditions of barter were sung to one C, followed by a downward cadence B, A, G, the time, tones and words being as follows: -

Grass bartering song

and, as each slave instinctively waited to commence his song at a suitable point of time, the effect over the field was that of weird round which was evidently enjoyed. One or two slaves were also sent to the shop to buy refreshments for the Sultan and his court, biscuits, sweets, sherbet, &c. When all the slaves had returned with their grass and refreshments to the Sultan, they settled in their own apartments in the palace, and had pieces of biscuit thrown to them over the string which divided them from the Sultan and his friends, who were reclining on mounds of grass, eating and drinking. Whether or not any sherbet was handed over to the slaves I forget. The expenses were paid by the Sultan and his court.

Other games of these little ones were Blindman's buff, Hop-scotch, Knucklebones, Marbles, Oranges & Lemons, School, and Skipping. A few of the children were very cruel to animals. They amused themselves by beheading beetles, which they called "soldiers and sailors", and by "taming flies" - cutting their wings off and making the insects walk with pins stuck through them. ... They never hurt a spider for they would have thought it unlucky to do so. ...

One day in the year the Governors of Christ's Hospital came into the field and showered all sorts of eatables for which the children scrambled, lobsters, pork pies, oranges, cakes and what not; also a great many halfpence. I never approved of scrambling, and I did not enter into it then, for I regarded it as ill-mannered. I noticed that the roughest and rudest of the boys got almost everything. When all was over I searched the ground and found a halfpenny concealed in the grass. "How very kind of these rich men" thought I, "to spend such large sums of money as they must have spent, to buy all these good things for us, poor half-starving children! But what a pity it is that they have not the sense to perceive that the scramble is no treat at all to many of us, but only a disappointment! What shocking bad taste these rich Governors of Christ's Hospital have! They ought to know that Christ and his apostles, though poor men, were gentlemen, and have left us instructions in good manners. ..."

What struck me as remarkable was that these rich men took a strange pleasure in the selfish low scuffle they caused for the things they threw. I was not angry with the poor hungry lads who got fed, for they acted according to their natural instinct. Like fowls in a barn-yard, they snatched their prizes, pushed, and kicked all who were near them. I was very glad that they were fed. What I thought was, "What is the gain of a lobster or a large pork pie, if, in order to obtain it, gentility must be renounced, and one's self-respect lost?" ...
Tags: family history, tom butler's schooldays
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