Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

School-Boy Digestion

by H. S. Salt

O dura messorum ilia.”

Of all the blessings which the forethought of parents or teachers can bestow upon the young, there is none which is of more importance than a wisely-arranged diet. Whatever other educational advantages he may possess, it is quite certain that a boy must be the loser both mentally and bodily if his food be not judiciously arranged as regards quality and quantity. “The child,” as the poet tells us, “is father of the man”; and if the child be over-fed, or under-fed, or unwisely fed, there is little doubt that the man will regret it in after-life. This being so, it is nothing less than amazing that the question of diet should be so seldom studied or considered at English public and private schools.

So long as boys have enough to eat, both the demands of the parents and the consciences of the masters seem to be satisfied; and there is a general jubilation over the fact that the bad old days of underfeeding are no more, and that Dickens’ “Do-the-boys-Hall” is an institution now wholly belonging to the past. It seems to be forgotten that there are other dangers to be avoided, besides underfeeding, in the diet of school-boys; and that our present hap-hazard way of letting boys eat what they like and how they like may after all be quite as cruel in the long run as the plan adopted by Mr. Squeers, which at least had the merit of being thorough and systematic.

Let us take, as an example, Eton, which is generally regarded as the first of our public schools, at any rate in those particulars which concern the comfort and material well-being of the boys. Eton boys are mostly the sons of very wealthy parents, who are anxious that their children should be well cared for in the matter of board and maintenance, and therefore spare no cost to effect this object. Here then, at any rate, one might reasonably expect to see boys fed in the most unimpeachable manner, and on the most enlightened principles; yet the fact is that nowhere could a diet be more anomalous and unsatisfactory. This is not the fault of the masters, who are almost always anxious to provide a liberal table for the boys committed to their charge; but it is impossible for individuals to amend an old-established system which is not only sanctioned by the school authorities, but practically obligatory in all the houses. As a typical instance of the diet of school-boys, it may be worth while to mention briefly the chief features of the Eton system.

First, as regards the arrangement of the meals. In most houses coffee is provided for those boys who care to have it before “early school,” which in summer begins at 7 o’clock, and in winter at 7.30. The regular breakfast-hour is nominally 8 in summer and 8.30 in winter, but as each boy is allowed to breakfast in his own room there is of course much irregularity in practice. Bread, butter, tea or coffee, is all that the house master is bound to provide, according to the school regulations; in some few houses eggs or cold meat are also given; but, failing this, the boys have often sufficient pocket-money of their own to enable them to supply their breakfast-table with all that they can desire, or to go to breakfast at one of the many “sock-shops” that are the plague of Eton. At 9.20 there is a short daily service in the College Chapel; boys must therefore get their breakfasts between early school and that time, which is not always an easy thing to do for those unfortunate “lower boys” who have to make tea or toast for their fag-masters. The dinner-hour is not till 2 o’clock, and the lateness of this time, leaving full five hours between breakfast and dinner, almost necessitates the providing of an informal “lunch” at 12, consisting of bread and cheese, bread and butter, biscuits, or cake, which the boys take or not, as they like, on coming out of school. At 6 o’clock there is tea, served like breakfast in the boys’ own rooms, and with the same fare provided, to which the boys again often add considerably from their private resources, buying and cooking for themselves eggs, fish, chops, and other dishes. Lastly there is supper at no earlier an hour than 9 p.m., when the boys do their best to partake of hot or cold meat, pudding, or cheese, as the case may be.

The serious defects of this diet-system are sufficiently obvious. It leaves undone the things it ought to do, and does the things it ought not. In the first place, it does not give the boys that most necessary of all meals, a good breakfast; for instead of a substantial meal provided by the house master for all alike, there is a desultory and very unsatisfactory breakfasting in rooms and shops. In the hurry and rush to early school very few boys care to avail themselves of the coffee provided for them; thus many of them do not get any breakfast at all till a full hour after leaving their rooms, and then, owing to the liberty allowed them, those boys who have plenty of pocket-money often eat far too much, while the unfortunates who are out of pocket get only the bare official allowance. Next follows a long period of five hours, during which no meal is provided except the hasty “lunch,” often neglected, at 12 o’clock. About one o’clock, when boys naturally begin to want their dinner, they are compelled either to endure the pangs of their hunger, or, if unable to do this, to pay a visit to the “sock-shop,” and there regale themselves on various unwholesome delicacies. Finally, it will be seen that at 6 o’clock, when a good meal might be taken without causing any serious inconvenience to the digestion, nothing but bread and butter is provided, and this in an informal manner in the boys’ rooms; whereas at 9 o’clock, when boys should be preparing for bed, they are invited to impair their digestive organs by partaking heartily of meat, tarts, and cheese!

When the folly of this system is pointed out, it is often argued on the other hand that there cannot be any very terrible defect in a diet under which boys are as active and athletic as they are at Eton. This argumentum ad puerum is a very strange theory, for it seems to be entirely forgotten or ignored that though boys may be vigorous enough in the present, they may be laying up for themselves a plentiful store of disease in the future, by the indiscretion of dietetic habits formed in youth. The idea that a boy can eat anything and everything with impunity, that he can habitually bolt his food like a wild beast without any serious consequences, or stuff himself at the pastry-cook’s at all hours without being much the worse for it, is one of those singularly foolish opinions which nobody, least of all parents and teachers, ought to entertain for a moment. We all know the saying attributed to the Duke of Wellington, that the Battle of Waterloo was fought in the Eton playing fields. Is it not possible that the result of other struggles, less glorious but not less fatal in their consequences, is practically decided by the diet adopted in boyhood? Moreover, apart from the direct influence of diet on bodily health, it can hardly be questioned that a wise food-system is an indispensable factor in the attainment of a proper mental and moral condition. It is idle to talk and preach to boys about temperance, sobriety, and other moral virtues, while at the same time we feed them in such a way as to foster the very vices we wish to eradicate. A sensible and moderate diet system would be of more value to boys than all the sermons in the world.

I do not know how it may be at other schools, but I know that Eton boys, as a rule, eat too often, too much, and too fast. Like Dr. Johnson, though from a different cause, they tear their meat like wild beasts; it is a fearful and wonderful sight to see the rapidity with which a large plateful of flesh can be devoured by a small boy. I remember a case where a boy who had been in training for a boat-race had blood-poisoning in the holidays from the amount of meat he had eaten during the school-time. The “sock-shops” are a fruitful cause of mischief in this respect, for boys often get credit at the shops by an order from their parents to be supplied with a certain amount of provisions daily for breakfast or tea; and unfortunately there is some excuse to be found for this habit, in the fact that the regular meals are not provided at the hours when they are most needed, and when boys are naturally most hungry. The authorities of the school are therefore primarily to blame for an irregular and anomalous system of eating off and on throughout the day, which is certainly a cause of much of the selfishness and luxury only too observable among many of the boys in the lower parts of the school. It is sad to think of the large sums that are annually wasted, and worse than wasted, in the consumption of trashy and injurious food sold at the pastrycooks’ shops. “Socking,” as the habit of frequenting these shops is technically called, is a subject of much mild banter-among the boys themselves, but nevertheless it is undeniably prevalent among them. One cannot walk up the street, and look into the windows of the pastry-cooks’, without seeing a row of boys sitting or standing at the counter, and injuring their own health by devouring all kinds of rubbish, while at the same time they are spending an amount of money which would keep many a poor family in comfort. Surely it would be far wiser if the school authorities sternly discountenanced this degrading and demoralising habit of eating unwholesome food at all sorts of hours, and provided substantial meals at the times which reason and common-sense would indicate, thereby cutting off both the desire and the excuse for wasteful and injurious gluttony.

The faults that are so noticeable in the Eton diet-system are doubtless to be found more or less at all other public schools. It would perhaps be chimerical to hope that any large measure of Food Reform will find its way for many years to come into these strongholds of conservatism, where reform of any kind is always slow to penetrate, and all change is looked upon with an unfavourable eye. But the more glaring absurdities (such as the practice of giving boys their supper at what ought to be their bed-time), which any person of common-sense must assuredly condemn, ought not to be suffered to exist a moment in this age of Health Exhibitions and scientific enquiry. If we are ever to realize in our school training the “sound mind in sound body,” which is the aspiration of all teachers; if the bodily activity of boys is to be anything more than a temporary flush of excitement and childish passion for athleticism; if school morality is to be anything better than a subject for sermons and Confirmation lectures, then it is absolutely necessary that school-boys should be fed on some rational and judicious principles. Granted, that we must wait a long time before the force of Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s remark in “Twelfth Night”—“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit”—is recognised in our educational centres; still it is not too much to ask that boys should be made to eat their beef, if beef they will have, at such an hour, and in such a manner, as may leave some possibility of their digesting it. At present there is reason to fear that not only mental dulness, but actual bodily disease, is often the outcome of gluttony and over-eating in boyhood. I verily believe that Gray, the Etonian poet, must have had in mind the dietetic system of his school-days when he wrote those famous lines in his “Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College”—

“Alas! regardless of their doom
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day.” . . . .

And again, in his enumeration of the diseases of after-life—

“Lo in the Vale of Tears beneath,
A griesly troop are seen,
The painful family of Death,
More hideous than their Queen:
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That every labouring sinew strains;
Those in the deeper vitals rage” . . . .

This, however it was intended by the poet, is something more than poetical imagination; it has a very real and practical application to school-boy life; for as long as boys are fed in the present thoughtless and irregular manner, it is not to be doubted that the “griesly troop” will continue to afflict the health of middle-aged men.

Published: The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. IV No. 3, January-March 1885