From the Archive: Back to School

One line in a letter from a Victorian schoolboy catches the attention. John Marmaduke Marriott (aged just fifteen) writes home from Winchester College to his Papa in Cotesbach with, amongst other news connected with his return to school, the fact that “I am having claret every day here.”

Despite Samuel Johnson’s famous assertion that “Claret is the liquor for boys”, it seems that by this era such was no longer generally the case. Most boys at Winchester were not given claret. There were concerns about the quality of drinking water in the College until the 1880s – as witnessed by letters in the Winchester College Archive expressing worries about typhoid and blood poisoning – but the normal drink for scholars at mealtimes was bottled beer. Why, then, was Johnny given claret?

At Rugby School in Victorian times the usual drink was also beer, but the author of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” included a scene in which Tom was given wine as a restorative. In 1877, Dr Francis Anstie published a book “On the Uses of Wine in Health & Disease” in which he recommended as much as a bottle a day for sick and convalescent adults. Claret was the doctor’s suggestion, since it was light in alcohol, kept its flavour when diluted with water and cost only a shilling a bottle for “an admirably sound ordinary Bordeaux”.

Was illness the reason that Johnny was given wine every day? Two clues in the document seem to support the theory. Firstly, the letter is dated 13th May 1868, an odd time to be returning to school unless he had been ill enough to be kept at home for a while. Johnny reports, in addition, that one of his acquaintances “said I did not look so well as she expected I should”. He is evidently still recovering from some fairly serious ailment.

Sadly, Johnny had no chance to recover completely. Family tragedy struck repeatedly while he was still at school. Only hours after this letter was written, his brother Robin (heir to the Cotesbach estate) fell to his death from the window of his rooms at Oxford University. Then his parents died unexpectedly within months of each other. After these “two such terrible blows”, his tutor commented that Johnny’s state was fragile and he had to postpone Oxford entrance exams. As an adult, his behaviour became increasingly worrying until, in 1900, his brothers were forced to correspond about the search for “something better than an asylum for Johnny”. The institution they eventually found was the Retreat in York, which was run by Quakers in line with their belief in respect and compassion. Johnny died there in 1910.


.2765 : Letter to Rev. J. P. Marriott from his son John Marmaduke dated 13th May 1868

.4147.3 : Letter from Rev. E. C. Adams to Charles Marriott dated 11th April 1872

.5538.2 : Letter to Charles Marriott from his brother James dated 26th October 1900

From the archive: A piece of detective work inspired by a mysterious note from 1892!

A summer Sunday in 1892 and two young men are sitting on a gate in the sunshine. Alfred Shortland (19) and Abraham Jennings (17) are spending what little leisure time they have in the countryside, having taken a walk from Lutterworth along the footpath to Cotesbach. What could be more idyllic?

The scene cannot be as innocent as it appears, however, or why were the youngsters’ names recorded and a log of the incident kept? The document itself holds no clues as to the reason – but local newspapers of the time do. Members of the Shortland and the Jennings families were often before the Lutterworth magistrates (of whom Charles Marriott of Cotesbach Hall was one) accused of minor anti-social offences; eighteen months previously, Abraham Jennings had found himself before Mr Marriott on a charge of letting off fireworks in the street. Charles Marriott (whose handwriting this is) had reason to suspect that Alfred and Abraham could be up to no good.

The real concern, of course, was that this might be a poaching expedition. The theft of rabbits was a perpetual worry to the landowning class and was treated harshly by magistrates; a week’s imprisonment with hard labour could be earned merely by being caught with poaching nets. Such punishment seems severe but landowners had to protect what was to them a lucrative source of income. In the 1890s, Charles Marriott was offered one shilling per rabbit for a regular supply to a butcher in Rugby, at a time when a rural labourer’s wage might be only eleven shillings per week. Most weeks, he dispatched twenty or so animals and he employed a rabbit-keeper (Mr Kettle) to make sure that the supply was maintained.

Mr Marriott’s suspicions about poaching were not wholly without foundation. The lads’ summer jaunt seems to have had no repercussions but Alfred Shortland was unwise enough to visit Cotesbach by the same footpath again six months later, accompanied by a friend called Garnett.  This time the pair took to their heels when they saw Charles Marriott but he gave chase and caught them in possession of a ferret and a poaching bag. Alfred Shortland was fined fifteen shillings by the Lutterworth magistrates.

From the Archive: Springtime in the Georgian garden.

This document is one of the earliest records of the Marriott family in Cotesbach. The ‘Mr Marriott’ to whom the bill was addressed was Robert, who had (at the age of 20 in 1763) recently graduated  from Oxford and taken up residence at the Hall. His gardener (one John Crow, as we know from his bills, also preserved in Cotesbach Archive) had been working hard to prepare the garden for the new owner and, in early spring 1764, it was about to produce the first crops of the year.

This was during the reign of George III (‘Farmer George’), an era of great public interest in botany and the development of plant cultivation. Joseph Banks, the famous botanist who sailed with Captain Cook and who is credited with the discovery of some 1,400 plant species, was an exact contemporary of Robert Marriott at Oxford. Banks went on to become botanical adviser to George III and director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew. Even Robert Marriott’s more modest establishment, however, can give us some insight into Georgian advances in horticulture.

The little list of seeds purchased for Cotesbach Hall gardens includes peas, beans, radish, lettuce, carrots, cucumber and mustard & cress, all destined to be sown in the winter months. In the days before frozen vegetables and produce flown in from warmer climes, varieties and techniques to extend the growing season were particularly prized. As Stephen Switzer (author of the classic Georgian manual ‘The Practical Kitchen Gardiner’) puts it: ‘[Gardening] of the Kitchen has been so wonderfully improv’d  within these few years, that … the winter, and almost all times and seasons of the year, are furnish’d with curiosities which it was thought could be had only in the summer and more benign months of the year. To this may be added likewise … the great improvements made in hot-beds and glasses; the forcing vegetables in such a manner as to eat near as well as when they come natural; [and] the great variety there is of new-discover’d plants and seeds.’

The seed varieties sown at Cotesbach in 1763/4 included some not generally recognised in the twenty-first century, but very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Mazagon beans, for example, were introduced as the earliest cropping variety, ready for picking from early April. Charlton peas were known for early and heavy crops and were at one time one of the most widely grown garden vegetables, possibly declining in favour because the peas they produced were white. Yellow, grey and blue peas were also available. The Cos lettuce seed purchased by Robert Marriott in January 1764 produced white lettuces. Cucumbers grown in Georgian and Victorian times were also frequently white, while carrots appeared in red, yellow, white, orange and purple forms. What a pity that so much of  ‘the great variety … of new-discover’d plants and seeds’ has since been lost to us.

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