Six centuries of food and dining at Eton College

A report on our SEMFed Study Day 29 October 2021

Thank you to Rebecca and all who helped organise the trip to Eton College on Friday 29th October, it was truly a wonderful day full of fascinating and beautiful things.

We began with Rebecca’s talk on the origins of the exhibition “Six Centuries of Food & Dining at Eton College”, looking at the epergne (a type of table centrepiece incorporating a serving bowl) which began it all and leading on to the historical maps and records of the college which demonstrate first-hand the history of the college’s supporting logistics of kitchen, hopgarden, slaughterhouse, columbarian (pigeon house) and brewhouse.

Our tour of the exhibition itself took in both the amazing content, and the practicalities of displaying the items. It exemplified the challenges faced by every exhibitor dealing with awkward spaces and inconvenient corners, and the ways these can be overcome with modern materials and ingenuity. The exhibition brought the past to life, from the impressive accoutrements of formal high table, to the reality of everyday life for the school boys who were consistently served bread, small beer and mutton for much of the school’s history, to a wonderful photographic display of the current support staff who enable the entire College to function.

A tour of the grounds brought home the reality of the infrastructure needed to support the school from its foundation, particularly the prominence of the brewhouse, the proximity of the river for near-constant deliveries, and the relatively modern octagonal kitchen building due to the many fires suffered there over the centuries.

Our last stop of the day, via the College Library, was to look at a selection of historical documents brought out by the Archivist, Georgina Robinson, ranging from the founding Liber Oficialis (c.1450–52), signed on each page by Henry VI, to the almost unbroken records of the food and drink purchases that sustained the pupils, staff and visitors. As with the whole day, the theme of continuity of care, supplies and logistics required to make the College work shone through.