How the murder of an Old Etonian fractured Anglo-Greek relations

Abominable Eton

On 25 October 1851, 13 year old Edward Henry Charles Herbert wrote to tell his mother of a fair in Windsor. Visiting the fair would be an excellent opportunity to escape Eton, a place he refers to as an ‘abominable hovel of a hole’.

However, he is hesitant.

Masters and 6th formers are deployed to catch any free roaming Lower Boys in search of festivities. If caught by a Master he would be flogged and turned down a form, simply ‘a great bore’ in Herbert’s books. Worse still, a 6th former would inflict lines of Virgil on him.

Weighing up the odds, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

From his letters it is easy to imagine Herbert as the epitome of a Victorian teenager. His main grievances: having ‘drunk not beer nor wine’ and having eaten neither ‘apple tart nor clotted cream, nor any second course at dinner’. Consequently he states ‘I detest Eton, I abominate it.’

Despite the difficulties Herbert felt in these early days, he did well at Eton. At one point he worked so hard to impress his Master and Tutor that he tried to ignore a fever. He soon settled in, winning a series of prizes, he progressed well through the school and received a scholarship to Oxford.

Letter addressed by Edward Herbert to his father, c.1851

Letter addressed by Edward Herbert to his father, c.1851. (ED/354)

This series of letters, written by Herbert in the early 1850s, provides an interesting first-hand account of life at Eton during the mid-Victorian era. As a stark contrast, the Eton archive also holds the newspaper reports from his untimely death. His struggles at Eton were nothing compared to what was to come.

Held To Ransom

On Monday 11 April 1870, Herbert joined a group of seven other tourists on a day trip to the site of the Battle of Marathon.

As they travelled through the mountains, they were ambushed by a band of brigands, who demanded one million drachma and amnesty for their safe release.

A Brutal Murder

The captives were not treated poorly. Another Old Etonian, Frederick Grantham Vyner, reportedly ran races and tossed boulders with his captors.

However, the Greek government refused to grant amnesty to the captors. Instead they planned a siege. The group were located and surrounded and in the confusion and panic, one by one Edward Herbert and his companions were shot dead.

Not long afterwards the brigands were themselves captured. The Greek government made an example of them, executing them and putting their heads on public display.

Herbert’s body returned to his ancestral home of Highclere Castle and was laid to rest by the friends and family who were so often mentioned in his letters.

International Tension

The incident was to be known as the Dilessi Massacre. It shook the country and was widely reported across Europe. Emotional speeches were made in Parliament by friends and relatives of the victims, who all spoke out against the Greek government and their ill-planned rescue.

These sentiments were felt across the country and even by Queen Victoria. The episode severely tested the relationship between Britain and the young Greek state, whose independence Britain had helped to attain.

Heads of Greek Bandits

The heads of the seven bandits of the Dilessi Massacre, as publicly displayed. From a scrapbook (ED/354/57-58).

 

By Georgina Robinson, Archives Assistant

Travels with a potato

At some point in the 1970s a small Roman coin was discovered in a garden off Eton High Street. It was not until 1984, however, that Jack Speller was able to get his find properly identified by the Keeper of Antiquities at Eton College, Dr Michael Ballance. What he had uncovered was a coin of the Emperor Probus (with a figure of Victory on the reverse) from the late third century CE.

Probus was born in Sirmium in modern-day Serbia, joined the army as a young man and worked his way up through the ranks. While serving as commander of the eastern army in 276 he was proclaimed emperor by his own troops. He reigned for six years (an impressive feat during these tumultuous years), and was fully occupied during that time fighting Franks and Vandals in Gaul and Middle Europe, putting down usurpers and rebellions, planning a major campaign against the Persians and supervising the regeneration of his hometown of Sirmium. Ironically it was his innocent-seeming efforts to help his hometown that led to his death. His plans to drain the local marshes and reclaim valuable farmland seem inoffensive, even laudable, but his soldiers, resenting the Emperor’s strict disciplinarianism, chased Probus into a nearby watchtower and hacked him to death.

So much for Probus – what about his coin? From the Greek legend it is clear that the coin, a tetradrachm with a value equivalent to a denarius (mostly bronze with just a trace of silver), must have travelled some distance from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to reach a garden in Eton. The legend reads:

A[UTOKRATOR] K[AISAROS] M[ARKOS] AUR[ELIOS] PROBOS SEB[ASTOS] which translates the Latin: IMPERATOR CAESAR MARCUS AURELIUS PROBUS AUGUSTUS.

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Reverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

Since Alexandria in Egypt was the only city to produce Greek coinage for Probus we can be confident that this is where it was minted. From the Greek letters on the obverse we are also able to date the coin to the fourth year of Probus’ reign (278-279 CE).

How then did this Greek/Egyptian/Roman coin make its way to Eton? Unlikely as it may sound, it did not travel with a Roman soldier or merchant, but hitched a ride to Britannia in a sack of potatoes. Jack Speller had not been not digging in his garden when he unearthed the coin, but emptying out the soil from a sack of particularly earthy new potatoes. As the clods of earth fell out, something caught Jack’s eye and that something, after days of painstaking cleaning to remove the heavy clay, turned out to be our Roman coin. Since the potatoes came from Cyprus, the coin must at some point in antiquity have made its way from Alexandria to that island, where it presumably lay lost and buried for almost two thousand years. In the 1970s it was then unwittingly scooped up into a hessian sack and transported all the way to Tudor Stores Grocery shop on Eton High Street.

Some forty years later Jack’s daughter offered the much-travelled coin to the Eton Museum of Antiquities and we have been delighted to accept it as much for the story of its journey, as for the object itself. So the next time you find yourself peeling potatoes, keep your eyes peeled too: you never know what you might find.

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Obverse of a tetradrachm: bronze coin minted in Alexandria, 278-279 CE

By Rob Shorrock (RECS), Keeper of the Eton Museum of Antiquities

A year in the life of an archives assistant

Coming to the end of my time as the Archives Assistant at Eton, I find myself divided between feelings of excitement for the future, gratitude for everything I have been able to see and learn, and sadness at leaving a Collections team that made it such an enjoyable experience, and one in which my consumption of cake has tripled.

The position is a trainee role, allowing me to learn what it takes to be an archivist, gain hands on experience, and (hopefully) help contribute to the work of the College Archives along the way. Over the year I have certainly been kept busy, working upon a range of projects including: cataloguing records of an island owned by the College; running a session as part of a challenge day at a local primary school, allowing 8 and 9 year old pupils to get hands-on with our records and investigate the life of Dr John Keate, a 19th century Eton Head Master; and assisting researchers using our records. The majority of my time has been spent cataloguing around 3300 letters sent to the College bursars between 1775 and 1900, which discuss day to day business – from food orders to the income from the College’s estates and the construction of new buildings to meet the needs of the ever expanding school.

When I started this job I thought that being a successful archivist was all about having a good eye for detail and an ability to order things, I now know that there is so much more to it than just that. You must have the confidence to trust in your knowledge and skills, knowing that a mistake could impact upon a researcher in the future. Be versatile enough to deal with the wide range of material in your collection, from wax seals, parchment rolls and boxes upon boxes of handwritten letters; to magazines, books and even emails. If I had my time again, I would certainly brush up on my non-existent Latin and Greek! Not to forget being willing and determined to spend hours removing rusted pins, paperclips and staples from documents they would otherwise damage.

I remember being unsure before I started of what to expect from the College Archives. What I have found is a place in which I was given the opportunity to ask questions, work within a fantastic archive on amazing records, and learn from excellent people.

By Josh Insley, Archives Assistant

Lily and rose: the progress of the silver commission for College Chapel

Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Eton College Collections and some associated donors, the college has been able to commission a pair of candlesticks and a chalice and paten for College Chapel.  The silversmiths working on this commission, Rod Kelly and Miriam Hanid, have shared with us some photographs of their progress.

 

Planes on the playing fields: life at Eton in WW1

Letter by Dickie Harington, with diagrams of the wing section and of the RAF circle wing pattern

Letter by Dickie Harington, 30 May 1915

Four letters written by Dickie Harington [Sir Richard Dundas Harington, at Eton 1913-1919] have been purchased by the archives. Sent to his parents, they describe life at Eton during the First World War.

He describes how in May 1915, a bi-plane landed on Agar’s Plough, and includes a diagram and detailed description of the plane “It was built in 1915 by Vickers…I touched its propeller and it was  very greasy, and I touched its wings and found they were made with a vacuum inside…had rings of red white and blue printed on her bottom wings”. The pilot was an Old Etonian, a member of Pop, who boarded at Brinton’s and had come to have lunch there.

Letter by Dickier Harington, with diagrams of the wing section and of the RAF circle wing pattern

Letter by Dickie Harington

Plan of a bi-plane by Dickie Harington, complete with labels

Plan of a bi-plane by Dickie Harington

Another letter describes some of the war work undertaken by boys. “Three boys in my house are making shells, they go to Slough every day and the hours are from lunch till the evening one day, and from early school to lunch another day, and so on alternately”.

Although there was an attempt to continue life as normally as possible, letters such as these give glimpses into the way the war impacted on those boys still at Eton.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist

A distant prospect of Eton: or, on leaving presents

The poet Thomas Gray, most celebrated for his Elegy written in a country churchyard (1751), attended Eton College from 1725 until 1735, during which time he formed the self-styled ‘quadruple alliance’ with Thomas Ashton (1716–1775), Horace Walpole (1717–1797), and Richard West (1716–1742). Gray went on from Eton to become a scholar at Cambridge, but it was his acquaintance with Walpole (with whom he went on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1738) that helped to popularise his work. The Elegy was published with Walpole’s help in 1751, and Odes by Mr. Gray was printed at Walpole’s own Strawberry Hill Press, near Twickenham, six years later.

Gray was to leave a more personal legacy at Eton. During the nineteenth century, ‘leaving books’ were given by masters to boys upon their departure from Eton. Lavishly decorated volumes of Gray’s Poems were presented as leaving books, a practice which continues to this day. College Library has many examples of these gifts, including the leaving books of former Provost M. R. James (1862-1936) and former Assistant Master Hugh Macnaghten (1862-1929). Some leaving books were richly adorned with gilt edges and vellum bindings, and had bindings gold-stamped with the Eton coat of arms. The binding of a leaving book presented to the 6th Earl of Dartmouth, William Heneage Legge (1851-1936), is not only grandly embellished with gold decoration but also has a fore-edge painting which, when viewed from the right angle, beautifully depicts Eton College and Windsor Castle.

College Library holds many fine examples of Gray’s works of verse, and books from his own library. Gray’s personal copy of Juvenal dates from his schooldays at Eton, and contains an inscription reading: “E. libris Thomas Gray Schol: Eton: alum: 1733”.

Ownership inscription by Thomas Gray

Inscription by Thomas Gray, as an alumnus of Eton College, in his copy of Juvenal’s poetry (ECL Iaa2.5.6).

The first of Gray’s works to appear in print was his Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College. It is generally considered to be the reflections of a disillusioned adult returning to his schooldays, and it captures the magnificent scenery that surrounds Eton College. One of the more unusual items in this Gray collection is an album of cross-stitch of the Ode, vibrantly sewn in purple and green thread. The title-page depicts Eton’s motto and coat of arms.

Gray’s time at Eton is strongly reflected within his ode, and, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was immortalised for subsequent students within leaving books, irrevocably linking Thomas Gray to Eton.

By Eleanor Wale, Project Cataloguer

 

Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist