Eton Montem

Eton Montem


Montem is first reported in William Malim's consuetudinarium (book of customs) of 1561, when it seems to have been an initiation cermony for new boys, who were scattered with salt (which can mean 'wit' as well as 'salt') at the mound.

By the eighteenth century, the nature of the ceremony had changed to a glorified flag day. Salt was no longer scattered on scholars; instead, pinches of salt and little blue tickets were sold to passers-by (the blue ticket - inscribed on alternate celebrations with 'Mos Pro Lege' or 'Pro More et Monte' - acted as protection from being asked for a further contribution) for 'salt' - money that went towards the Senior Colleger's anticipated expenses at King's College, Cambridge. Collecting was restricted to two 'salt-bearers' (also senior boys at the college) and ten or twelve 'servitors' or 'runners' who between them covered all the roads around Eton and Windsor.

Until 1758, Montem was held annually in January. The timing was then moved to the more clement weather of Whitsun Tuesday and the festival became biennial. In 1778, the frequency was reduced further so that Montem was only celebrated one year in 3.

As time passed, the event seems to have become bigger, becoming eventually a semi military muster of the whole school. Crowds and royalty (including at various times Queen Charlotte, George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) flocked to see the event. Towards the end of the ceremony's life, more than £1000 would typically be collected in salt, but this was before expenses, leaving substantially less for the Senior Colleger to take to university.

A feature of the later Montems was the publication of a "Montem Ode", which was composed for the occasion, and was sold, in the form of a broadside to visitors and Etonians. It typically consisted of doggerel punning rhymes, giving the names of the chief personages in the procession and alluding to their individual characteristics. It professed to be written by a local worthy who was styled the "Montem Poet", but in reality it was the production of some youthful wags in the school. The office of Montem Poet was held from the 1770s until 1834 by Herbert Stockhore of Windsor, an eccentric individual who had begun life as a bricklayer. Arrayed in a tunic and trousers of patchwork, an old military coat, and a chitz-covered conical head-dress, with rows of fringe on it like the crowns on a papal tiara, he drove about in a donkey-cart, reciting his Ode, and flourishing copies of it in the air to attract the attention of possible customers. After his death, there was a contest for the vacant office, and a certain Edward Irwin was elected, the boys recording their votes as they came out of Church one afternoon. [LYTE, Henry Churchill Maxwell, "A History of Eton College (1440-1875)", London, 1875.] [Blackmantle, Bernard (pseudonym), "The English Spy", Sherwood, Jones & Co., London, 1825]

The final Montems in 1841 and 1844 followed the opening of the Great Western Railway and attracted large and rowdy crowds from London. In view of this (and the much diminished profit to be made), headmaster Edward Craven Hawtrey abolished the custom before the 1847 Montem. The reduced anticipated profit can be seen by the fact that the potential beneficiary was compensated with a payment of £200.

Further reading

* "The Eton Montem" pp 74-78, "The History of Slough", Maxwell Fraser, Slough Corporation, 1973


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