The Wards of Christ's Hospital, London, were 16 in number containing about 50 boys in each Ward. There was also a Sick Ward. I was placed in Ward XV, the Nurse of which was Mrs Stag, and after the Pigging (Removal to another Ward) in Ward X. Of these two Wards alone I can write, having had no experience of the rest except the Sick Ward. The rooms of Nurse Stag, and the bed and study of the Grecian* of the Ward may first of all be mentioned. The Grecian's study was small and his bed was outside it. The bed had a curtain round it to make it private. The Grecian had a swob (servant), some lad of the Ward, whose social extraction no doubt was plebeian. The swob made the Grecian's bed, blacked his boots, and when called, obeyed his orders. The Grecian had a lofty manner like that of a giraffe, and was a grand being. He took no notice of anyone in the Ward except his swob. It seemed very wonderful to the boys of No. XV that the Grecian in his study had actually condescended to have a pleasant little chat with this servant, and moreover, the swob boasted, "He put some lavender-water upon my handkerchief."
Nurse Stag was able to be more sociable. She told us that she had visited Rome, and that in one of the Churches there the head of John the Baptist was shown to her and to other visitors. The exhibitor was doubtless a wag, for, when she made the objection, "I have already seen the Baptist's head in another Church and he cannot have had two heads!", she received the reply, "O yes, one of the heads belonged to him when he was a young man, and the other when he was older!"
Her sociability also was shown by the following. There was a lad who had a gift for public speaking. He delivered a mock sermon on the words, "They are coming!" which he said he took for his text, meaning that the French were coming to invade England. The Nurse came down from her rooms and listened to the sermon throughout. At that time the mind of the Christ's Hospital boys was much upon the Napoleonic wars. It was the absurd idea of these boys that one British soldier could chase a hundred Frenchmen. Another lad was a good entertainer. He sang "The Cork leg" with perfect action,** and he admirably imitated Mr Keymer, the Grammar School Master of Christ's Hospital, Hertford.
It was one of the duties of the Nurse to be present with the lads when they washed. There was no objection to this, for they only washed the head and neck and feet, and she directed them to show the neck to her after it had been washed. "You hav'n't washed your neck," she said to one. "Yes, I have, Mum." "Go and wash it again, I could sow mustard and cress in it." He did not wash it again, but after a time showed it to her once more. Then she said, "It's beautiful now." The place in which the boys washed was a long room called "The Lavatory" containing a row of taps with a gutter underneath. The washing in the Lavatory was a pleasant affair. The boys, bared down to the waist, placed the neck and the head under the row of taps of running warm water, and they helped one another to dry the head, holding a towel tight and drawing it backwards and forwards over the head. The ground of the Lavatory was slimy, but that did not matter, for before drying a foot, they could hold it under a tap, and the slime was removed into the gutter.
Every boy had a face-flannel. It was not really wanted, for he could lather his hands and use them better. But one thing was important. If he took it from its numbered peg in the Ward cupboard, he had to be careful to take it back again. Otherwise he gave trouble to Mrs Stag , and committed what, in her theology, was a grievous sin. This Nurse, not knowing better, did a dangerous thing. She put a nail on to the end of a long stick reaching almost the length of the Ward to give a reminder to anyone at a distance who was not listening to her. It swayed up and came own with a force that she did not intend.
* This is one school term TRB did not seem to think it necessary to translate - and indeed, it's right there in the OED: B.2.b "A boy in the highest class at Christ's Hospital (the Blue-coat School)." But I'd love to know how it arose. Perhaps in the past Greek was taught only to the senior scholars?
** If you, dear reader, wish to emulate him in singing this steampunk version of "The Red Shoes", this is a good place to start.