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 11thApril 1872

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