"Ah, Geordie, the scout is an institution!" Tom tells his Rugby friend in a letter penned a few weeks after he has entered St. Ambrose, Oxford. "Fancy me," he says, "waited upon and valeted by a stout party in black of quiet, gentlemanly manners, like the benevolent father in a comedy." Perkins, Tom's assigned college servant, is an old hand who obviously benefits financially from steering Oxford students to various merchants. As Tom explains,
He takes the deepest interest in all my possessions and proceedings, and is evidently used to good society, to judge by the amount of crockery and glass, wines, liquors, and grocery, which he thinks indispensable for my due establishment. He has also been good enough to recommend to me many tradesmen who are ready to supply these articles in any quantities; each of whom has been here already a dozen times, cap in hand, and vowing that it is quite immaterial when I pay — which is very kind of them; but, with the highest respect for friend Perkins (my scout) and his obliging friends, I shall make some enquiries before "letting in" with any of them.
Tom's scout, in other words, is someone used to waiting on gentleman-commoners, a group characterized by "the most reckless extravagance of every kind" (11).
Perkins acts as Tom's servant not only in his rooms but also at meals, something Tom explains in passing while describing the college dining hall:
He waits on me in hall, where we go in full fig of cap and gown at five, and get very good dinners, and cheap enough. It is rather a fine old room, with a good, arched, black oak ceiling and high panelling, hung round with pictures of old swells, bishops and lords chiefly, who have endowed the college in some way, or at least have fed here in times gone by, and for whom, "caeterisqne benefactoribus nostris," we daily give thanks in a long Latin grace, which one of the undergraduates (I think it must be) goes and rattles out at the end of the high table, and then comes down again from the dias to his own place. No one feeds at the high table except the dons and the gentlemen-commoners, who are undergraduates in velvet caps and silk gowns. Why they wear these instead of cloth and serge I haven't yet made out, I believe it is because they pay double fees; but they seem uncommonly wretched up at the high table, and I should think would sooner pay double to come to the other end of the hall.
When I taught at one of the old Oxford colleges some three decades ago, undergraduates no longer ate at high table — so called because it was raised on a dais — but they did eat with the dons in "a fine old room, with a good, arched, black oak ceiling and high panelling, hung round with pictures of old swells," and they did still wear black robes, or, since this was the 1970s, often ragged remants of them. A student, who I believe held a Latin scholarship, did give a Latin grace before each meal. What Tom doesn't know, however, is that the high table and those down below eat very different food, and one reason undergraduates were unlikely to know this (at least after gentlemen-commoners were no longer on the scene) was that students always finished and departed before the college faculty received their main course.
Last modified 6 July 2006