In Eton in the Forties (1898), Arthur Duke Coleridge includes a number of character sketches of local characters who played a part in the life of the school, one of them an old Etonian who returned to town in his 80s and tried to play cricket with the boys, another, prabably someone who would be known today as an autistic savant, an uneducated man who attended every church or chapel service and demanded that the presiding minister rigidly follow the church calendar, neither skipping or changing readings. A third character, Spankie, sold fruit and other sweets to the boys on credit.
Spankie's affectionate notice of every new boy was a distinct danger to the innocent and unsuspecting neophyte, for the tarts, cakes, and sweets piled up in his portable bronzed can were purchased on tick every day of the week, and if not paid for on Monday, 'allowance day,' became an unendurably heavy mortgage at the end of the half. Spankie was a sort of Melchizedek. We knew nothing about his father or mother, but he knew accurately everything about ours, and he cross-examined us on our return from home on any event incidental to the family history. His curious and accurate knowledge was constantly tested, when strings of Royal carriages passed through Eton, and Spankie called out the names of the occupants to his admiring clients. If the officer com- manding the Queen's escort was a former debtor of Spankie's. he gave him a friendly nod of recognition in passing—in fact, we all liked him, mercilessly as he fleeced us, especially in the matter of bigaroon cherries, which, barring the three or four at the top of the pottle [sic], were fraudulent, and sour, and naughty throughout. He habitually addressed the sons of Prime Ministers. Bishops, Judges, or Chancellors by their fathers' names. This was the sort of thing on Monday afternoon:
'My Lord Cottenham, I should like to see that three-and-six.' 'Have you got the pec [pecunia — money] Sir Robert?' 'You've not forgotten the half- crown, my Lord of Cuddesden?' etc. These reminders were interspersed with painful allusions to events best forgotten. 'I hear, my Lord Monboddo, that you couldn't stand the first cut last Wednesday, and called out to the Doctor: "Oh, dear! oh, dear! Don't flog me; you know my mother at home, sir!"' [289-91]
The man known as Spankie is perhaps surprising on several counts, the first of which is that the school authorities made no attempt to curtail his sometimes extortionate activities. Second, he took such liberties with boys at school, many of whom, as his ironic addresses to them reveal, were members of the nobility. Third, Spankie "now and then astonished the world by heading a church subscription with £50" — at a time when a curate sometimes made less than that in an entire year! "He was trusted by the headmaster," Coleridge concludes, "on more than one occasion, to reclaim and trace a fugitive from school" (291).
Coleridge, Arthur Duke. Eton in the Forties by an Old Colleger. 2nd ed., rev. London: Richard Bentley, 1898.
Last modified 19 July 2006