This week at Wellington we look back at a favourite topic – school food!

27 November 2020

This week at Wellington we look back at a favourite topic – school food! The archives are quite rich in information on this subject, for example a description of the very first meal ever served to Wellington students, in January 1859. Student Augustus Hornsby wrote that ‘we had a supper of bread and butter, cheese and very good small beer, an unstinted meal’.

Record books from the 19th century record in detail the daily quantities of foodstuffs served, and reveal that although the diet included butter, cheese, eggs, sugar, rice, raisins and jam, it was largely based around meat, bread, and to a lesser extent potatoes. However, the College certainly pushed the boat out on special occasions. Lunch on Speech Day 1886 consisted of 32 dishes of lamb, 28 dishes of salad, 20 gooseberry tarts, 24 dishes of blancmange, 24 dishes each of tarts, cheesecakes and pastry, and 48 dishes of new potatoes; followed at 4 pm by tea on the cricket ground for 200 people, comprising 9 savoy cakes, 3 madeira cakes, 3 currant cakes, 4 plates of cut bread & butter, and 2 quarts of cream!

Meat, bread and potatoes continued to be the staples of student food well into the 20th century, supplemented by vegetables grown on the College’s own farm. During the wars, rationing inevitably had an impact, and many Old Wellingtonians of the 1940s and 50s remember eking out their individual weekly ration of butter and jam.

During the 1960s and 70s the food became more varied, and a student survey of 1968 revealed that the most popular desserts were those made possible by the advent of deep freezers: ice-cream with chocolate sauce, Neapolitan ice cream, and that old favourite,  Arctic roll. One thing which did not change, however, was the dining hall, in which students sat in the same place for every meal, at long tables, arranged by House and age order. Food would be served out by the Dormitory Man or ‘jally’ and passed along the table to the more senior members. One student in the 1930s wrote of the tedium of ‘staring at the same faces, nudged by the same elbows, and hearing the same voices for every meal in fifteen terms… Meals were an agony of boredom… It was quite likely that one was not on speaking terms with two of the five people within talking distance, and with the others there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to talk about, even had one felt inclined for their conversation.’

This system finally came to an end fifty years ago, in September 1970, when cafeteria-style dining was introduced. At last students could sit where they liked, and according to teacher Derek Swift, who was responsible for supervising the Dining Hall, most chose to eat their meals in the company of those with whom they shared interests. It’s possible that table manners may have suffered as a result, however, as Derek was heard to suggest that it might be better to dispense with plates and simply install a trough!

One aspect of Wellington food beloved by generations is ‘swipes’, a word which originally meant weak or bad beer, but soon came to be applied to any food or drink available to students in their Houses between meals. It may surprise Wellingtonians to know that other schools were not so lucky: in the 1950s the Lady Superintendent of meals at Haileybury commented disapprovingly that ‘she had heard about Wellington, this being the College where bread and jam was available at all hours of the day’. Fortunately, in spite of such disapproval, the custom has continued at Wellington to this day.