Drunk at school

The English language is a marvellous thing, isn’t it? You are probably wondering who was drunk at school whereas my intended meaning is what was drunk at school. And both are perfectly valid interpretations of the same phrase.

But drink is certainly the focus.

In the Rules and Regulations of the School, Rule 24 of the Domestic Government, dated January 1788, stipulates that “the beer be worked off & bunged up before it be admitted into the school.”

Beer? And schools?

This might seem odd to us but beer was supplied to the earliest pupils on a daily basis as the least deadly liquid intake that could be provided. Drinking water was unheard of and was more likely to quench life than quench thirst. Tea and coffee, supplied much later in the school’s history, was at the time a very expensive commodity kept in locked boxes and a status symbol for the very wealthy. Milk might have been an option if there had been any means of keeping it fresh. Instead it was served hot in porridge or milk puddings of various kinds – and was probably just as disliked then as schoolchildren view it now.

Beer created in a brewery is made in enormous vats and from these smaller quantities are drawn off. The fermentation process is still continuing and only when this ceases is the cask bunged up to prevent the beer from going flat. During the ‘working off’ the beer in the cask is topped up when the process reduces the amount so the rule that the beer be worked off and bunged up was less to do with the possibility of exploding beer casks as to ensure that short supplies were not delivered!

Part of the Matron’s salary was a 5gn allowance for porter. Porter was a dark beer, like stout, which was very popular in the C18th, particularly in London. Its name purportedly comes from its popularity with street and river porters. In the Hogarth image, Beer Street, there is a porter quaffing his porter in the bottom right, whilst a cask of beer is hoist over the street in the background.

Hogarth's Beer Street
Hogarth’s Beer Street

Beer remained in the diet of the earlier pupils until such time as other beverages became available. In 1846, after persistent requests from the Matron of the time, supper was altered to be bread and butter with tea or coffee, rather than cheese and beer. Nevertheless, it was still perceived as offering nourishment in a way that we would not contemplate today. In 1877, beer is absent from daily fare but persists in being available “to those requiring it” although who these are or in what circumstances is not made clear. Whether it was for those undergoing strenuous mental exercise (such as examination candidates) is never recorded. It should be noted, however, that in 1872 (i.e. slightly earlier), there is a reference in the Head Governess’ report to the Committee:

Miss Davis
Miss Davis

“Miss Davis will feel obliged if the Committee will again allow one dozen pint bottles of claret for the children during that week, as she has found that the best thing for their refreshment in the midst of their work.” (GBR 1991 RMIG 1/2/2/4/1)

One dozen pint bottles were to be consumed by the seven candidates entered that year for the Cambridge Local Examinations! And clearly not for the first time to judge by the ‘will again allow’. It would appear that neither the writer nor the reader would have raised an eyebrow at such a request though we do. The media furore that greets any example of pupils drinking at all, never mind to excess, shows how much we have changed in our attitudes to drink but it should also warn us not to judge another era by our own standards. The equivalent shock! horror! headlines in the 1780s might well have been


Imagine the fuss it would have caused if the earliest pupils had been given anything other than beer!