Billy Bunter’s Postal Order or Money and the Edwardian Schoolboy

by Victoria Madden

I don’t recall what initial Google query led me to the Friardale websitebut it turned out to be a nice find.

Friardale, for those who don’t know, is the fictional English village in Kent wherein lies the public school of Greyfriars, alma mater of Billy Bunter and the original Famous Five. Their exploits and escapades were detailed in The Magnet, a weekly boys’ paper that ran from 1908 to 1940 and the whole of this immensely popular series has been scanned and made available online by enthusiastic fans.

What strikes you the most on reading them, is not so much the stories themselves, which are generally slight, but the rich source of information on every aspect of the day-to-day habits and standards of the time. My favourite period for the stories is the earliest one, which ran from 1908 to 1914 and covers the ‘long’ Edwardian era. Coming out weekly it provides minute detail of the developing social attitudes of the early twentieth century, enabling any interested researcher to pinpoint almost the exact moments of change.

One of the things I find most fascinating in the stories, is the sums of money the schoolboys possess and, particularly, their attitudes towards them. Greyfriars schoolboys are drawn from the upper and upper-middle classes (a public school in England, for American readers who have a different understanding of the phrase, is an exclusive fee-paying school) and it is intrinsic to their concept of being ‘a gentleman’ that you are generous, not to say lavish, with your money. (The unconscious subtext, for the cynic, is that you are thus enabled to both advertise your status and demonstrate the extent of your disposable income in a socially acceptable way.)

The standard Greyfriars pocket money for the period appears to be two shillings (£34.20) a week, or one shilling (£17.10) for the less wealthy such as Billy Bunter; but this is frequently topped up by remittances, postal orders and holiday ‘tips’ from generous relatives, usually ranging from five shillings (£85.60) to a sovereign (a gold coin representing £1, today’s equivalent of £342). In Peter Todd’s Chance (1913) the unpleasant prefect Loder is hoping for a £5 tip (£1,670), or possibly even £10 (£3,330) if all goes well, after a visit to the school by his rich uncle; and in a 1914 story, Vernon-Smith is sent a ‘really handsome’ tip of £30 (£9,080) by his self-made millionaire father; his envious school-fellow Hazeldene grumbles that ‘all’ he gets from his parents is ‘a quid’ or sovereign (£303).

(The routine possession or production of a sovereign is frequently used as a benchmark of wealth amongst the schoolboys – in The Duffer’s Return (1911) it is mentioned that ‘sovereigns were not common in the Remove’ whereas the schoolboy earl, Lord Maulverer, and ‘the Nabob’, a wealthy, high-caste Indian boy being educated in England, frequently offer to contribute a sovereign in any whip-round.)

The impecunious Bunter regularly attempts to borrow money for a ‘feed’ on the expectation of a postal order – a standing joke throughout each series – usually five shillings (£85.60) or half a crown (£42.80) though occasionally this goes up to ten shillings (£171). Remittances tend to be fairly substantial: one is received for £2 (£682) in a 1911 story; and in another, the same year, Johnny Bull is expecting £5 (£1,670) on Saturday – a ‘fiver’ seems to be the normal large sum amongst the schoolboys to borrow from one another.

As their concept of the nature and function of a gentleman demands liberal open handedness at all times, it is clearly understood, and indeed absolutely expected, that those who come into possession of such sums will spread it around to benefit those less fortunate; the accepted way in the school being to ‘stand a feed’ to as many as possible.

These ‘feeds’, or sometimes ‘study brews’, are usually held at tea-time and involve substantial savoury items, such as bacon and eggs cooked over the study fire (a Health and Safety nightmare justified in one early episode when the school is set on fire), cold meat or cold meat pies, as well as cakes, buns, biscuits and jam tarts. The amounts spent vary considerably, though even at the lower end are generous to modern eyes. Two shillings and sixpence (£42.80) is considered enough to provide an ordinary study feed for the four occupants in 1908 (a jam tart costs a penny, 36p today); the greedy Bunter later spends two shillings (£34.20) on a feed just for himself. A ‘decent feed’ for a study is considered to be around five shillings worth of eatables (£84.90) in 1910; or £1 (£340) to ‘do the thing in really good style’.

When guests from outside the school are involved, large sums are frequently spent – or more frequently borrowed – to uphold the ‘essential’ reputation for Greyfriars’ hospitality: a sovereign (£342) for a cricket team representative from another school in Greyfriars versus St Jim’s (1908); a ‘fiver’ (£1,670) for the visit of Johnny Bull’s female cousin in The Sandow Girl of Greyfriars (1913) and £3 (£1,030) for a large picnic with female guests in the 1909 story The Greyfriars Picnic. The concept of feed-giving as bound up in personal, study and form or school honour, reaches its apogee in the 1911 story Rolling in Money when a rich aunt sends Johnny Bull £500 (£170,000) as a test of character – as a thoroughly decent fellow, almost his first act is to spend the equivalent of £3,340 on an unlimited feed for the entire form at the school tuckshop.

Another reason the schoolboys are kept so lavishly supplied with money by their relatives may be because tipping is expected as a matter of course by school servants, railway porters, errand boys and waiters, amongst a great many others; something which I believe is still current in America, but now only in very specific circumstances in England. Those who tip small amounts, or not at all, are considered ‘not a gentleman’ by peers and disgruntled recipient alike, often even when said small amount is the going rate. (The, usually male, response to un-expected largesse ‘you’re a gent!’ has survived to this day.) An extension of this culture is the ability of the schoolboys to request any reasonable errand or service from any member of the lower classes they meet, as long as an appropriate amount is paid, again, something which is understood by all parties as a matter of course.

Tips to the ‘lower orders’ throughout the period range from a ‘sufficient’ twopence to a ‘generous’ half a crown, though it is difficult to know, when trying to get some idea of their equivalent today, whether a tip should be deemed a service being bought or a sum with purchasing power. (See below for an explanation of this.) Either way, it’s pretty good going for the recipient – a shilling tip to a delivery man in 1911, even at the RPI (Retail Price Index) level, is £4.04, and he must have to go up to the school several times a week. In fact, in The Chum from New Zealand (1909) the porter at Friardale station is described as making more in tips from Greyfriars than from his salary.

Tipping as an essential adjunct to being a gentleman is further demonstrated in the story A Lad from Lancashire (1908) when Mark Linley, a former mill-boy, arrives at Greyfriars on a scholarship. He is grossly overcharged by the driver of the hack from the railway station, who recognises one not used to taking cabs, and sneered at by the school porter when he is unable to afford more than the standard tip for the porter’s services. The comfortably off Harry Wharton tips the school porter a shilling for carrying his luggage up to his dormitory; this is extremely generous (demonstrating his gentlemanly status) as twopence is the going rate.

Although Linley’s quiet, well-bred manner is frequently contrasted with the boorish mindset of some of the other schoolboys – whose wealth and background are all that give them claim to be ‘gentlemen’ – Linley’s poverty means that he is continually unable to behave in the open-handed way it is expected a gentleman should. When he sends a cash prize of £25 (£8,490) home to his father instead of standing the expected feed (unbeknownst to his school fellows for his sister’s medical care in those pre-NHS days) in the 1910 story Linley’s Luck, he is despised as a ‘rank outsider’ and ostracized by all around him. Harry Wharton’s comfortable circumstances, by contrast, enable him to behave in the properly lavish gentlemanly manner, by spending the whole of his runner’s up prize of £5 (£1,700) on a feed for his school fellows.

Another aspect of being a gentleman of the period, and one which strikes the modern reader as quite bizarre, is the way in which it is understood by all parties that any high-handed action on the part of the schoolboys against the lower classes, can, and will, be forgiven by immediate financial compensation. Perhaps today they would just sue, but on the whole it does seem a no-fuss on-the-spot way of dealing with things. When tramps are mistakenly assaulted in The Greyfriars Athletes (1910), they are perfectly happy at being given half a sovereign (£170) each, as an apology; an amount that is produced from the schoolboys’ pockets. In Aliens at Greyfriars (1908) the schoolboys snatch up fruit and eggs from outside a shop to use as missiles in a fight with foreign newcomers; the initially irate grocer being placated by a promise to pay for the cost of all damages. This is settled after the fight, by agreement, at £2 and 10 shillings (£214) and paid on the spot in cash after a whip-round.

The ultimate ‘gentleman’ in the series, both in terms of his essential decency and his unrivalled openhandedness, is Lord Maulverer, the schoolboy earl. On his arrival in the 1911 story The Schoolboy Millionaire Lord Maulverer, who will inherit an income of £500,000 (£170m) a year, tips the railway porter a sovereign (£83.60) for handling his luggage; has his coach and four meet him at the station to transport him and his luggage to the school, at a cost of £20 (£1,670), rather than taking the station cab; tips the school porter £5 (£418) to look after the coach and horses temporarily (noted as ‘equal to a term’s pocket money’) and pays £250 (£20,900) for the ‘stupendous furnishing’ of his school study by Liberty’s.

Having deposited his luggage he then buys the entire stock of the school tuckshop for a feed for his school-fellows and later, on a half-holiday, takes his friends for an afternoon’s excursion, hiring a chaffeur-driven Daimler at a cost of £50 (£4,180) and providing four lunch-baskets at 30s (£125) each. When he is inveigled into gambling on the ‘pea and thimble’ trick in the 1912 story Harry Wharton & Co’s Bank Holiday he does so at a sovereign a time (£81.20 or £334).

In those pre-credit days, with everything paid for in cash, all this money is carried about on the schoolboys’ person. This almost certainly accounts, unconsciously at any rate, for the stress laid on fighting skills in the stories and the importance of being able to defend yourself physically. Boxing is depicted as the noble art of self-defence and proficiency in it an indispensible gentlemanly attribute; though again distinction is made from the common pugilist or prizefighter, who fights without ‘science’ and often without gloves, for money, and the gentleman amateur, who does so to defend himself or for love of the sport.

It’s an interesting world to dip into; and closer reading rebuts the criticism of the stories levelled in Orwell’s essay. Despite the privileged setting, stress is continually laid on the importance of character and behaviour, rather than wealth or background, in determining the value of a ‘gentleman’: Ponsonby, of nearby Highcliffe School, is ‘a hooligan at heart’ despite his wealth and aristocratic relations. Linley the Lancashire mill-hand is joined at a later date by Penfold the local cobbler’s son and Redwing the seaman’s son, all of whose quiet self-respect, decency and hard work enables them to take their place, through merit, amongst the schoolboys of Greyfriars. Over time the money may be lost or diminished through heavy taxation as the series progress, and the largesse correspondingly reduced, but the stress on ‘fair play to all’, and what it truly means to be a gentleman, is a standard that is never lowered.

Note

There is a very useful historical money converter, at Measuring Worth, which enables you to get any sum mentioned in a old book you are reading translated into terms that you can relate to (particularly good for Jane Austen and Regency romances) and I referred to it constantly when reading the Greyfriars stories. There are a range of options, (explained here) but I tend to use the retail price index indicator to see how much an item such as a ball-gown or a pound of candles, or a football and jam tarts, would cost today; and the average earnings indicator to get some idea of how much similar purchasing power someone’s income, or a particular sum being received or spent, would give them today. (Click on ‘table format’ to see the comparative values.)

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