A Chicken Roll – the story of the tuck shop

A soft bread roll filled with minced chicken in mayonnaise, with the minutest amount of lettuce garnish imaginable. All hail, the mystery of the chicken roll.

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Object No 10 was a riddle. Object No 11 continues the theme. It is one of the great mysteries of Radley. When this series was first proposed, object No 11 was among the first items to be nominated. It is so iconic that its inclusion in ‘The history in 100 objects’ was cited by the Warden in his end of term assembly. But the object itself baffles. Its hold over the average Radleian is inexplicable to the average adult human. The very photo shows just how unappetising this commodity really is. Yet it is a commodity. It has been used as a reward, as a bribe, in negotiations over lessons, as the impetus behind a strike. It is the stuff of nostalgia.

Don’t believe me? Then believe Ben Forsythe writing in 1999:

‘It’s 10.35 am. The quiet, undisturbed area around Clock Tower is starting to come alive. One by one people emerge from their Socials, eager to get to the front of the queue at Shop, to get a sacred ‘Chicken Roll’ … As 10.45 approaches, the porch to Shop is filled, not only with people but with entertaining banter: “Oi, get back,” they jest, “don’t even think about trying to get in front of me.”

‘Then the clock indicates that it is quarter to eleven, and the inevitable murmur of discontent arises from the crowd. It’s hard to make out exactly what is said but it is generally an over-reaction from someone being made to wait. “Here she comes!” cries an indistinguishable voice from the front. The barrier is lifted and there is a surge forward, not dissimilar to that of a festival when a popular band comes on. Within seconds the mob has descended upon Shop … people who have just finished lessons … are disappointed once again that there will be a twenty-minute wait. The noise is incredible …’ [The Radleian 1999]

There are nearly five hours of hunger between breakfast and lunch, and another five from lunch to supper. How to satisfy the bottomless pit which is the appetite of a growing boy in this desert devoid of sustenance? how to negotiate this trackless wilderness of lessons and games without nourishment? A letter written by ‘Esuriens’ in 1910 complained that Shop had run out of everything except a few biscuits three weeks before the end of term:‘It is an awful thing, Sir, to fare to Shop in the long, long hours between meals, and there find no proper sustenance.’ [The Radleian 1910] In 2003, Marcus Price made the same observation:‘It is the thought of Shop that helps you through double Chemistry … Shop is an oasis of relaxation in a desert of Maths and Physics lessons…’ [The Radleian 2003]

Back in 1847 this would have cut no ice with the school’s first Warden, Robert Singleton, who took an uncompromising
attitude towards feeding boys between meals:

‘Dined with Sewell and two of his sisters … this naturally suggested all the delights of the Fruiterer, and the dainties of the Pastry-cook. I had always thought that it was our duty to check luxury and extravagance in this, as well as in every other way; and that we should teach the boys that we are not allowed by religion to eat and drink for the sake of mere enjoyment; and, consequently, that when they are furnished with an ample supply of the best food, all feasting upon supplemental delicacies was plainly self-indulgence, in fact, a form of gluttony.’ [Singleton’ diary, 27th April 1847]

Shop 1947. The tea room in Shop. A drawing by Bryan de Grineau in the Illustrated London News, 1947

Shop 1947. The tea room in Shop. A drawing by Bryan de Grineau in the Illustrated London News, 1947

Singleton’ approach went even further than denying snacks between meals. One of the earliest and most contentious of Radley’s original statutes was the requirement that all boys and staff should fast at least once a week. This did not go down well with the teaching staff, and cannot have improved the boys’ concentration. He expounded further on the subject of gluttony in one of the most astonishing, and psychologically revealing, passages in his diary:

‘the poor, oppressed, little fellows… were doomed to hear, perhaps, of such things as Confectioner’s shops, blushing apples, weeping tarts, jam exuding puffs, but neither to see, feel, nor taste, their glories. I must say that the production of the advocates so far bowed to their penetration, that they admitted that a perfect system must exclude all these costly, sickening, selfish, – I had almost added – dirty, indulgences. … Why should we not teach our alumni, whose souls and bodies are in our keeping, that they must learn to curb their tendency to intemperance, just as we teach them to control all other passions, that endanger the health of both? … Inebriety seems almost entirely to have absorbed the ill fame of its next of kin, – gluttony is scarcely thought to be a sin at all.’ [Singleton’s diary, 27th April 1847]

Singleton’s approach to food, in particular his insistence on the fasting statute, hastened his departure from Radley in 1851, as it had previously hastened the departure of quite a few Dons. The boys, faced with a regime which attempted to ban lunch by reducing the time between breakfast and dinner to a mere six hours, went hungry. Matters came to a head on 8th February 1848:

‘Yesterday evening the younger Elliot got up during tea time and coolly went to the bell and rang it. On my enquiring the meaning of this extraordinary movement, he as coolly replied that “the boys wanted more butter.” We were perfectly astounded at this impudence. I told him never to dare to do such a thing again without leave, and when Thomas came to answer it I said in an un-mistakable voice that “nothing was wanted”.’ [Singleton’s diary, 8th February 1848]

Oliver Twist was first published as a novel in 1838 and may have been the inspiration for this event.

Oliver Twist was first published as a novel in 1838 and may have been the inspiration for the younger Elliot.

Supplementing the meagre diet was, technically, not an option since the introduction of food from outside by any means, including hampers from parents, was against the statutes: ‘No food to be introduced privately either by boys or by the Fellows.’
After William Sewell became Warden in 1853, life became generally more extravagant, but not the food. The timetable was crippling for an adolescent boy. Daily lessons started one and a half hours before breakfast. Breakfast itself consisted of bread and butter, though the boys could have cold meat if specially ordered from home, and they could import their own porridge. Dinner/lunch, six hours after breakfast, was meat and bread, with puddings on three days each week, and beer to drink. For tea, after more lessons and games, there was bread and butter – no jam allowed. The boys were undoubtedly underfed but they supplemented their diet through hampers from home (the statute tacitly ignored by all concerned), and/or they resorted to foraging in the grounds. An account by a Radleian of c.1855 describes this:‘The ingenuity of the boys was taxed to the utmost to mitigate the severity of our diet. Servitors were bribed to put apples in our beds. All kinds of bulbs were dug up in the park and the gardens and eagerly devoured. Cowslip-roots were a delicacy, nasturtium, crocuses, and hyacinths did not long remain in the gardens…’

Quite how good a botanist he was or how accurately this anonymous writer remembered his schooldays can be questioned. Although cowslip roots and nasturtium leaves are both edible and commonly used in salads, crocus and hyacinth bulbs are both highly toxic. He then goes on to speak of gathering acorns, also toxic when uncooked:‘Acorns were collected in great numbers and stored away in holes dug in the park. These were secretly cooked in the flames of candles either in “hollow oak,” or during the inadvertence of the Prefects at evening school.’ [Raikes. Sicut Columbae. 1897] However, in letters home to his mother in 1857, Arthur Godley describes gathering sweet chestnuts for roasting over the fire, which seems much less desperate.

Fresh meat was also available, if you had a personal supply. Arthur Godley requested a raw chicken from his mother, because it could then be cooked on site and eaten hot. Walter Woodgate, who became Radley’s most famous oarsman of this period, recorded that he would snare pheasants in Radley Wood, attach a label addressed to himself, and then intercept the carrier on his way to College and have them delivered. Woodgate’s success as a rower may be attributable to this since the average weight of the 2nd VIII in 1856 was 7st 12lb, indicating that they were seriously undernourished. Echoing the modern Radleian’s supply of Waitrose ready meals, Arthur Godley also received regular parcels containing ‘concentrated luncheons.’

The boys also embarked on non-foodstuffs:

‘We were allowed to send to Abingdon for things we wanted in the shape of balls and string, etc. . . . It was at one time discovered that a substance called French gum was good to eat. You would be surprised to hear the number of ounces of French gum which were ordered. This source of refreshment brought us much pleasure for some time, till the authorities discovered that French gum was good to eat, and then of course the prefects had orders to exclude the item from their list.’ [Anonymous writer quoted by Raikes]

In 1911, the food situation was little better, as one writer to the Radleian complained that Shop was poorly stocked but
‘we have only this means of buying food… for we get one meal a day less here than at home.’ [The Radleian November 18 1911]
One of Sewell’s greatest innovations was the introduction of the school Shop. This supplied the much needed ‘good things’, but is should be remembered that although the boys of the 1850s criticized the food, they did not criticize the philosophy which had kept them hungry. During Lent in 1854 the Shop was closed twice a week voluntarily, ‘an act emanating from the boys, not from the School authorities.’ [Raikes, Sicut Columbae. 1897, p.83]

Shop 1890s. Watercolour of Clock Tower by an unknown artist. The new Shop can be seen behind Clock Tower. This painting also shows the Fives courts about Clock Tower extremely well. (See Object no 10 for a discussion about these)

Shop 1890s. Watercolour of Clock Tower by an unknown artist. The new Shop can be seen behind Clock Tower. This painting also shows the Fives courts about Clock Tower extremely well. (See Object no 10 for a discussion about these)

Originally the Shop was located in the Cottage, then occupied by the gardener and his family, but after the Old Gym was erected opposite Clock Tower in 1856, the Shop was moved to a lean-to shed on the north side. The new (2013) coffee shop will occupy much the same space. Shop remained in this tin-shed until the new purpose-built Shop with its three-sided verandah and wide doors was opened in January 1894. This still forms part of the present Shop building. In 1926, Shop was enlarged by the addition of the clothes department and the tea room. These were designed by two Old Radleian architects, HI Merriman (B Social 1897) and AB Knapp-Fisher (B Social 1904), the first of several collaborations at Radley by them. In 1928 the clothes department was enlarged, and in 1929 the present Shop took its latest form as it was joined on to Memorial Arch by the Shop Manager’s house, the second tea room, the four Old Radleian guest rooms and the barber’s shop. All of this building was funded from the Shop’s own profits.

Having a school Shop on site posed its own moral dilemmas. Sewell had already raised the question of the comparative wealth of the boys at that early tea party in April 1847: ‘Sewell put forward the strong point, that it placed the poorer boys in painful comparison with those that were more wealthy.’ [Singleton’s diary, 27th April 1847]. This theme recurs constantly in The Radleian magazine in the 1870s, with a clear indication that the school authorities attempted an egalitarian approach to money:‘POCKET MONEY. One shilling a week to the upper school, 6d a week to the lower, paid every three weeks.’ [The Radleian June 1873]

However, 6d a week, arriving as 1s 6d every three weeks, does not go far when all the demands on it are totted up: all organized games required subscriptions, debts had to be paid, there were subscriptions for the Library and newspapers, giving to charity in the weekly collections in Chapel, and general bullying to be accommodated:‘with a hungry prefect waiting on the poor victim as he emerges with his money, to make him disgorge some of it.’ [The Radleian June 1873]

The purpose of pocket money, particularly the limited amount recommended, was to

‘teach us the management of money… it is the trial ground on which we essay our experiments … and could we but look on into the outer world it is likely that we should see that he who mismanages his pocket-money at school mismanages also his allowance at college; and that he who mismanages his allowance at college, mismanages his income in life.’ [The Radleian June 1873]

Shop Accounts 1879. The earliest surviving accounts book.

Shop Accounts 1879. The earliest surviving accounts book.

It is unclear exactly when the pocket money allowance recorded in Shop came to be known as the ‘Jam Account.’ A letter from Will Stutchbury written in 1944 uses the term, and also highlights the problem of the Shop during rationing: ‘Will you please turn my jam account over to OP, then he can buy me some OR things from his coupons!’ [unpublished letter in Radley College Archives]. (OP is William’s younger twin brother, Oliver Piers. They both left Radley in 1944 and were called up for military service.) Pots of jam appear as a unit of currency in 1892, when they are described as the prize in the two-mile walking race. Pots of jam also exchanged hands as payment for betting on school athletics events. The fact that the school explicitly refused to supply jam for meals which consisted of bread and butter led to the creation of a jam cupboard just outside the Dining Hall (then the Blue Room in the Mansion), in which each boy could keep his individual pot of jam for breakfast or tea, occasionally the pot being owned by a consortium. And so, this most vital of Victorian schoolboy luxuries became synonymous with the whole concept of ‘tuck.’ The new server designed to run all the accounts and orders for Shop from 2013 honours this tradition: it will be designated ‘jam account.’

The Shop was not just about the management of personal income. From the first it was run entirely by the boys, and its financial purpose was to support games. The role of Shop Manager or ‘shopman’ was initially held by the unnamed gardener who lived in the Cottage. In 1865 Etheridge, the storekeeper, was described as ‘running Shop’, closely followed in 1868 by Boffin of Oxford, who supplied cakes. But it is unclear what these men actually did. The choice of stock, over-the-counter selling, financial accounting, was all done by the boys. Initially the Shop was run by the Senior Prefect, but from 1869 the role of Shop Secretary was listed among the school offices, a post which continued well into the 1970s, latterly supported by a Don as ‘Managing Director.’ The Secretary was supported by a Shop Committee, which in 1874 numbered sixteen – most of the senior boys in the school. The accounts were published regularly, if somewhat sketchily, in the school magazine, as were the allocations to the various sports from the Shop’s profits. So in May 1873 the Boat Club received £8 from the Shop, the Cricket Club £5 and the Fives Courts £1 10s. out of a total profit for the Summer Term of £14 6s. The following term, Michaelmas 1873, saw total receipts of £76. 13s 2 1/2d, and expenditure of £48 5s 7 1/2d to Mr Harper for general goods, £4 12s to Mr Harrington for porridge, £4 for Fives balls, and subscriptions to the Boat Club (£10), Cricket Club (£6) and Fives Courts (£1), leaving a balance in hand of just £1 2s 1d. This really was operating on a shoestring.

Shop Secretary’s Book 1886

Shop Accounts 1886002 This page in the Shop Secretary’s Book shows receipts for stock of 50lbs of oatmeal (for porridge), 2 dozen jars of marmalade, 1 dozen tins of condensed milk; purchases by two Dons – James Hitchens, the Science Master, bought lemonade and Revd Hobson, cocoa. The First VIII, under the direction of HM Evans, the Sub-Warden, were treated to cakes and dessert Shop Accounts 1886003

The Shop Committee’s abilities, success and honesty were all called into question on many occasions:

‘one… drags once more before our notice the mis-management of the shop during the last summer term. Though the mystery of the deficit was never satisfactorily cleared up … Have the Committee lost sight of the fact, that the Shop ought to be looked upon as a public institution, whose profits go to diminish the taxes of the school-games subscriptions, and that therefore, those who undertake its management, voluntarily or unvoluntarily, are, … responsible for its success? Again, can it be that they have neglected taking due precautions for collecting the ‘small debts but large totals’ for which the committee allow themselves the boon of ‘going on tic’; … this was the fatal error of 1872?’ [The Radleian December 1875]

An even more fatal error happened in the 1880s when the Committee were entitled to help themselves to anything they wanted to eat, as an incentive to actually turn up and open the Shop for the younger boys. Quite how much profit the Shop makes, and how it makes it, was always a bone of contention with its customers. In 1879 a boy calculated the mark-up on porridge to equal ‘3s clear profit out of the pocket of every boy during the term.’ In 1904 there was a call for the price of eggs to be lowered to the market price. In 1905 it was cited as an example of ‘Protected Trade’ in the Debating Society, with a demonstration of how prices might go down if there were a rival Shop operating on Free Trade principles. In 1907 there was a call for ‘Free Trade at Shop!’ which resulted in the lowering of some prices. In 2010, a dispute over the size, price and quantity of chicken rolls led to a picket line. Overall, however, the enterprise which allowed the boys to operate a small business entirely without adult supervision, appears not only totally modern but also a sad reflection on how much has been taken away from them by way of initiative. Lamenting this change is not new; AK Boyd made the same observation when writing about the Shop in 1947:

‘It is a question on which final agreement can never be reached whether it is better for schoolboys to have large powers in administration and to make a mess of it (as sooner or later they must) or for administration to be efficiently guided by masters; whether it is better to provide experience at the expense of the community, or not to provide it at all.’ [Boyd, History, pp194-5]

(Notice that Boyd does not question whether schoolmasters, themselves devoid of administrative or financial experience, would do better than the boys.)

Shop 1890s. With Thomas Cox, first manager of the purpose-built Shop.

Shop 1890s. With Thomas Cox, first manager of the purpose-built Shop.

Thomas Cox, later the school Steward, took over the day-to-day management of the Shop in 1892, with the help of occasional staff. The lack of assistants was complained about by the boys, especially as the opening of the new purpose-built Shop approached: ‘in the present makeshift, into which about fifty fellows can fight their way and clamour all at once for food, the confusion is bad enough, but what will be the result if the whole School, ravening with hunger, are to be let in on one salesman?’ [The Radleian October 1893]
He was succeeded by his daughter, Nesta Long and her husband. They, in turn, were succeeded by Mr and Mrs Whitbourn (1954-74); Wing Commander and Mrs Bowen; Mr C Ashworth; Sandie and Alan Davies (1989-2009); Jan and Gordon Calland (2008-2013). All of them assisted by that remarkably cheerful band, the Ladies in Shop, many of whom have served there for many years.

From the beginning, the Shop sold much more than break-time snacks. Gradually it became the source of all things ‘Radley’ – ties, tankards, gowns, string, sealing wax. There is also the triumphant tale to tell of the Paperback Bookshop. But these are other stories. Let us end where we began with the mystery of the chicken roll. Who invented it? The Ladies in Shop speak of it going back many years; Old Radleians of 1950s and 1960s vintage reminisce fondly of bacon rolls, but not chicken. Ways of eating it have also changed: the current style is to crumble Doritos into it, but that, too, according to the Ladies, is now passing from common practice. The introduction of mayonnaise into British sandwiches can be traced back to the 1970s when tuna or prawns with mayo began to appear in sandwich bars – mayo stretches tuna further and glues the prawns into the sandwich; but mayo with chicken? – that seems much more new-fangled, even ‘American’, in its sophistication. There is, of course, one exception to this, which is the recipe invented for the Coronation in 1953: coronation chicken, made of cold roast chicken in a sauce of mayonnaise flavoured with curry, allowed cooks to prepare a dish in advance of gathering with friends to watch the coronation on television, the curry added a touch of the exotic, with a nod to the newly formed Commonwealth, and the mayo allowed resources still limited by rationing to be stretched further. Coronation chicken baguettes have been on the Shop’s menu for about three years, but these are not the iconic chicken roll. Living memory at Radley can date those to 1989 – but are there Old Radleians out there who remember them before that? Or can we ascribe this culinary masterpiece to Alan and Sandie Davies?

Let us end where we began with the mystery of the chicken roll. Here is Marcus Price writing in 2003:

‘There is something mystical about a chicken roll; when you first see one it appears to be just a hot dog roll filled with pieces of chicken with mayonnaise and lettuce. But when you bite into it you realize that it is much, much more. It is impossible for just chicken, mayonnaise and lettuce to taste so good … There has to be some hidden ingredient, some secret factor that raises Shop’s chicken roll on an unassailable dais.’ [The Radleian 2003]

The Horde


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