Monday 1 February 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - Eton College Through the Archives

The February 1999 Parish Magazine reported that there have been two meetings of the Eton Wick History Group; the Festive Evening on 9th December, and the meeting on the 13th January at which Mrs. Penny Hatfield, Eton College's Archivist, gave a talk on "Eton College Through the Archives".

The Festive Evening differed from the usual format in that, as well as the customary Quiz, there was also an opportunity for members to display their own interesting artefacts and memorabilia, thus mounting an informal exhibition - perfect for browsing whilst enjoying John Denham's delicious punch and the customary generous refreshments. The Quiz was won by Mrs. Joan Ballhatchet, with Mrs. Lund a close runner-up. Mr. Frank Bond pointed out that next year, of course, we would be looking at a 'Millennium Christmas Social"! 

He issued programmes for 1999 and took the opportunity to thank the committee members and all those involved in preparation of food, donating raffle prizes, etc. over the past year; with special thanks due to Mrs. Mary Gyngell, who was away at that time and was to go into hospital. (Despite ill health, Mrs. Gyngell has provided cakes for all the group's meetings since it commence in 1992, i,e, 45 meetings).

Mrs. Hatfield commenced her talk by clarifying any doubts as to what 'archives' actually are;: they are bits of paper one produces during the course of day to day business which, once they have lost their administrative value, can by used for their historical value. She gave some fascinating examples, including one which appeared to prove that wolves had become extinct in 1400 - this was based on a Customs record of someone trying to import two (by then rotten!) wolf carcasses; the logical conclusion being that if there had been wolves in England there would have been no need to import them. It was always very important to take into, account why the document was created in the first place.

Foundation Charter 

Mrs. Hatfield went on to talk about and show photographs of the earliest records at Eton College, including the Foundation Charter - the College was founded on 11th October 1440, and the Statutes etc. - beautifully illuminated documents, one of which clearly shows the earliest representation of the members of the House of Commons. Some of the records held in the College's Archives pre-date the College and the earliest documents dates from 1091 and has on it the autographed cross of William Rufus, his brother Henry and various Archbishops - we were reminded that William the Conqueror and his sons were illiterate - hence the crosses.

Mrs. Hatfield was able to give the dates of construction of various College buildings, from the construction of the Chapel (which, after 7 years Henry felt was not large enough, so he had them pull it down and start again, only to have it reduced in size later anyway!) and Lower School in 1443. This schoolroom has been in continuous use since that date, although its present interior is probably 17th Century. Above Lower School was Long Chamber, where boys over 14 years old had beds on their own, but younger ones had to share - there was no heating and only shutters over the open window apertures, and it was said that if you survived Long Chamber in Eton you needed no medical examination for insurance because you were obviously very tough. The present Upper School was built in 1689 (an earlier one fell down after just 20 years). The College's brick buildings are some of the earliest and best to survive in this country, and the Archives even contain records of the names and trade of the people involved in the early construction work. In 1864 New Building was constructed and Long Chamber was partitioned off into separate rooms. School Hall and School Library (architect: L.K. Hall - an Old Etonian) were built as a memorial to the 129 Etonians who were killed in the South African War.

Mrs. Hatfield wove many humorous anecdotes into her talk: boys paid 3d, to see a camel(?); only the old and ugly need apply to be laundresses; the floor of Long Chamber was cleaned, annually, by pulling small boys up and down the room on rugs; the College barber was paid 15/- to whitewash over the imagery on the Chapel walls etc, etc. We hope she will come and talk to us again.

The next meeting will be on 24th February when Tony Cullum will speak on “The changing face of Eton as viewed through the late Mark Bell's sides”.

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