Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: was jugged wallaby served at High Table?

"Wallaby: reserved for the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College." Did such a notice really appear in the window of a Cambridge butcher's shop in 1910? 

In a brisk and affectionate passage, the most recent history of Magdalene College, Cambridge paints a lively picture of the reawakening of a moribund institution around 1910, with new facilities, fresh activities and, in at least some of its practices, an invigorating informality. Symbolic of this adventurous open-mindedness was a sign said to have appeared in the window of a local butcher's shop: "Wallaby: reserved for the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College".[1] But was the story true? One quality that is usually absent from the retailing of Cambridge legends is the absence of any kind of self-criticism, of any attempt by the narrator to interrogate the story, to ask whether such implausible events could really have happened. The temptation of a good tale has usually proved to be too tempting an incentive to be put at risk through an injection of scepticism.  The wallaby legend does not seem to have been recorded in Magdalene itself. Rather, it was recalled, a third of a century later, by a very serious senior Fellow of Trinity, who did apply rigorous scholarly standards to his own memory, and came to doubt its accuracy. The irony of this upright exercise is that he probably did observe the unusual notice in a shop window, and that wallaby was indeed eaten in Edwardian Magdalene, maybe even by hungry dons gathered at High Table. [See addendum below: indeed they did.]

Andrew Gow, usually known by his initials, A.S.F. Gow, was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity in 1911, three years after he had graduated. A weak heart barred him from military service, but he made his contribution by becoming a master at Eton in 1914, replacing staff who had gone off to fight. In 1925, he was recalled to Trinity to teach Classics, [2] occupying bachelor rooms in Nevile's Court. During the Second World War, he was one of the many unsung heroes who kept the Home Front in operation. Although undergraduate numbers fell, there were proportionally even fewer dons, and he carried a heavy supervision load. In addition, he organised Trinity's ARP (air raid precautions) and spent much time recruiting and training its fire brigade. As a personal effort in morale-boosting, he circulated a regular letter (he called it the parish magazine) to former students on active service in which he chronicled the struggling life of the wartime University, missives which were seasoned with tales of Cambridge past. Of course, much of Cambridge present was veiled by censorship. Thus, shortly before D-Day, Trinity was the venue for a crucial strategic conference "during which the Great Court positively blushed with Generals". The event could only be mentioned after the Second Front was securely established.[3]

In 1943, Gow was invited to write an extended obituary of his friend Stephen Gaselee, a commission that triggered useful recollections for his newsletter. Gaselee had become Pepys Librarian at Magdalene in 1909 after his undergraduate college, King's, had decided not to elect him to a Fellowship.[4] In 1920, he had reluctantly left Cambridge to become Librarian of the Foreign Office, although his full title ("Keeper of the Papers") gives a better idea of his true role. In effect, he was the Foreign Office's director of research, capable – so it was said – of producing a briefing memorandum on any international relations issue within fifteen minutes.[5] He was not only a bibliophile and a notable scholar – he could speak Ancient Coptic, although the opportunities for conversation were regrettably limited – but also an exceptionally colourful personality. His Times obituary tactfully remarked that he "always dressed with some originality", and he was an enthusiast for fine dining and exotic food: his friends called him the Gastronomer Royal.[6] Gow believed that Gaselee had briefly served as Steward at Magdalene, taking charge of College catering. In fact, it is unlikely that he formally held that office, although he may have placed his enthusiasms at the service of A.S. Ramsey, who had combined the offices of Bursar and Steward for some years, a sensible arrangement given their financial implications.[7] Certainly, the undergraduates reported in March 1910 that "there has been a greater variety among the dishes in hall".[8] High Table may have offered more of a challenge for, during the lifetime of the veteran Professor Alfred Newton, the donnish dinner "was a thoroughly British affair of roast beef or turkey and plum pudding". Newton had died in 1907, and maybe Gaselee did have space to intrude some dramatic novelty.[9]

As he pondered the contents of his tribute, Gow felt that he must touch upon Gaselee's Edwardian culinary experiments, but he came to doubt his own recollections. "Until a few weeks ago I should have been prepared to swear that at that time I had seen in a poulterer's shop an unfamiliar corpse labelled 'Wallaby. Reserved for the Master and Fellows of Magdalene'." Gow was a very careful scholar, whose research was "concerned with determining what precisely a Greek poet said and meant", an enquiry that required "detailed investigations of language and usage". He now subjected his own memory to the same process of rigorous scrutiny. Although Gow does not seem to have been aware of it, there was a possibility that the story had originated as a peculiarly Cambridge (and unfunny) joke against Stuart Donaldson, the Master of Magdalene from 1904 to 1915. Donaldson had been born in Sydney, the son of a successful colonist, and his brother was Archbishop of Brisbane. But Donaldson had been brought to Britain at the age of four and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He projected himself as a public-school housemaster, an Anglican clergyman and, above all, as an English gentleman (although he was married to the grand-daughter of an earl and rented estates in Scotland).[10] He was very definitely not the Wild Colonial Boy, and there could be little reason for his appointment to have prompted ribald tales of the serving of bush tucker at Magdalene High Table. Increasingly doubtful of his own recollection, Gow made enquiries among the small number of Cambridge dons who survived from those distant days, none of whom recalled the butcher's notice. As a result, Gow began "to wonder if I really saw it or whether it is merely a plausible invention of my own or another's".[11] His uncertainty was compounded by his inability to discover whether wallaby was edible or if it had even been available in Britain. In his published obituary, Gow described the story as a "rumour" which "though perhaps untrue, was eminently plausible", given that Gaselee was known to have eaten tinned rattlesnake and mice dipped in honey.[12]

There is an irony about Gow's scholarly heart-searching, for his memory was probably correct. In March 1910, London's Smithfield Market took delivery of 3,000 frozen wallaby carcasses; a further 800 were imported later in the year. At first chefs were not sure how to cook the unfamiliar meat: wallaby cutlets were said to be delicious, but the best solution seemed to involve slow cooking, stewing the meat with herbs and vegetables. An unnamed London restaurant was said to be serving jugged wallaby with redcurrant sauce. On both sides of the globe, press reports were fleeting, but there can be no doubt that wallaby enjoyed a brief, if restricted, vogue as a novelty foodstuff, in London at least.[13] There is every reason to assume that the fad would have appealed to Gaselee's adventurous taste. Draft High Tables menus were circulated among Fellows for their suggestions, and it is likely that he would have pressed for the experiment to be made, even if he were not empowered to make the decision himself.[14] In the event, the new delicacy – if delicacy it was – did not catch on. Piled on a butcher's slab, wallaby carcasses were singularly unattractive, likened by one observer to dead rats. More serious, although carefully unspoken, would have been concerns about the health risks associated with the meat. The diet of marsupials in the wild risked the intrusion of parasites in the food chain, a concern which probably explains why the State government of Victoria promptly denied any responsibility for the original consignment.[15] This, too, would not have troubled Gaselee, who fed his Siamese cat on raw meat and could easily have disposed of unwanted entrails.[16]

Thus it is possible to establish that wallaby was available in Britain in 1910, that it appealed to adventurous gourmets and that Gaselee, a pre-eminent gastronome, was in a position to influence the menu served at Magdalene High Table. Hence it is reasonable to accept that A.S.F. Gow did indeed see the Australian marsupial in a shop window with a notice indicating that it was reserved for the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College. The saga is instructive, since it demonstrates that, sometimes, a barely credible legend may actually contain a core of truth.

Addendum, 27 August 2023.  Professor Eamon Duffy has kindly supplied me with a clinching entry from the diary of A.C. Benson, dated 25 May 1910. "Tonight, in Hall, they ate a Wallaby – the poor thing, a little kangaroo, which had been fed up in England, was brought to see me, with a vile wound in its neck." Australian and New Zealand meat exporters had to contend against a widespread belief that refrigeration adversely affected the taste of their product. It is unlikely that live wallabies were imported into Britain (except occasionally by zoos, institutions which presumably did not supply the meat trade), and the story that the marsupial had been "fed up in England" was probably a butcher's invention. I know nothing of slaughterhouse procedures, but a wound in the animal's neck sounds more like a kill in the wild. The date is too close to the reports of imported frozen wallaby to be a coincidence. Benson did not dine at High Table that night and, hence, could not comment on the taste or the reactions of Fellows. It was allegedly common practice among British butchers "to purchase two or three good British carcases and hang them in the front of the shop to tempt the unwary whose orders are supplied from cheap frozen stuff kept in the background". Waikato Argus, 13 January 1910, via the National Library of New Zealand's PapersPast newspaper archive website. The diaries of A.C. Benson are held at Magdalene College and Professor Duffy is preparing a new edition for publication. 

ENDNOTES  For a full list of material about Magdalene College Cambridge, see "History of Magdalene College Cambridge on": These Notes and essays represent the results of my own interest in the history of Cambridge University, and do not imply any official endorsement by Magdalene College. I appreciate the friendly interest in the website shown by many past and present members of the College.

[1] P. Cunich et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge, 1438-1988 (Cambridge, 1994), 225 (Ronald Hyam). [Note, September 2023: Nigel Hancock, himself a lifelong Cambridge resident, associated the sign with Sinnett's, a butcher's shop at 17 Peas Hill. "Eat the Dead Donkey?", Cambridge, xxxiii (1993), 37. I owe this reference to Nicolas Bell.]

[2] Hugh Lloyd-Jones, et al, "Gow, Andrew Sydenham Farrar (1886–1978)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[3] A.S.F. Gow, Letters from Cambridge, 1939-1944 (Cambridge, 1945), 232. Of course, everybody knew that the Invasion was coming. The fear in Cambridge was that D-Day might coincide with Tripos examinations.

[4] R. Storrs / D. McKitterick , "Gaselee, Sir Stephen (1882–1943)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The National Portrait Gallery, London has four portraits of Gaselee, from 1936 and 1939, in which he appears to be wearing a bow tie in the Magdalene colours:

[5] Gaselee remained a Supernumerary Fellow of Magdalene (nowadays we should probably call him an adjunct) and operated as the College's friend in the corridors of power.

[6] The Times, 17 June 1943; R. Storrs, Orientations (London, 1937), 15-16. It was probably Gaselee who was the target of a pointed question in the Magdalene College Magazine, June 1911, 198: "Who is it that wears purple slippers and disturbs the reading men in the second court?" (Gaselee had inherited Benson's rooms on the ground floor of Left Cloister.) J.M. Keynes, who beat him for the King's Fellowship (surely no disgrace there), claimed that as an undergraduate, Gaselee wore starched pyjamas in bed. R. Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes…, i (London, 1983), 121.

[7] The Cambridge University Calendar for 1911-12, 1104, lists A.S. Ramsey as Steward of Magdalene, as he had been for several years. I have been unable to consult the Calendar for 1910-11: it is possible that Gaselee served briefly as Steward but had resigned after some anti-marsupial protest. However, the office hardly paired with the Pepys Librarianship.

[8] Being students, naturally they added "though there is possibly still room for improvement". Magdalene College Magazine, March 1910, 89.  Gaselee can be identified with confidence as the author of "The Gourmet's Guide to Cambridge", a restaurant review of the Union Society, which was signed "Diepnosophist" (master of the art of dinner-table conversation), the name of his private dining club. Internal evidence confirms that he also wrote its sequel, on the catering services of the Pitt Club. Magdalene College Magazine, June 1910, 111-15; March 1911, 161-3.

[9] Wollaston, Life of Alfred Newton, 261. Ramsey, "Bygone Days at Magdalene", 27-8, described High Table meals in more detail: "Dinner consisted of soup, fish, meat and potatoes, a vegetable served as a separate course, and cheese. On Sundays a sweet was added, usually plum pudding, and occasionally there was a sweet on weekdays. … The serving of a vegetable as a separate course seemed to be an old established custom; when it was asparagus no one would object, but there were times when there were few possible alternatives to brussel [sic] sprouts, and one has to acquire a liking for eating these by themselves." The life of a Fellow of Magdalene could be hard. Benson gave a similar account of the High Table menu in The Leaves of the Tree (London, 1911), 196.

[10] In his extended sketch of Donaldson in Memories and Friends (1924), Benson made no mention of the Australian connection. Attempts to claim him as "A Distinguished Australian" (Sydney Sunday Times, 14 July 1912), when he became Vice-Chancellor were distinctly contrived.

[11] Gow, Letters from Cambridge, 1939-1944, 211-12, 100. Gow seems mainly to have consulted Fellows of Trinity, and it may seem curious that he made no enquiries at Magdalene. In 1940, St John's and Trinity had jointly established a firewatching observation post on the tower of St John's chapel. Gow was annoyed when "Magdalene and Sidney refused to cooperate ... they know very well that if we observe them on fire we shall tell them all the same". He ignored the obvious point that both colleges had small Fellowships, and available numbers were reduced by the absence of many senior members on war service. With one of the smallest precincts in Cambridge, members of Magdalene would have become aware of any fire very quickly. This disagreement may explain why Gow did not make enquiries among Gaselee's former colleagues. Gow, Letters from Cambridge, 1939-1944, 65-6.  

[12] Proceedings of the British Academy, xxix (1943), 458-9. I relegate to an endnote Gow's statement that the mice were alive.

[13] British newspapers mentioning the wallaby trade include Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 March; Gloucester Citizen, 28 March; Nottingham Evening Post, 4 May and Lichfield Mercury, 18 November 1910. Multiple reports can be traced through the National Library of Australia's Trove website. Useful examples come from Armidale Chronicle, 16 March and Sydney Evening News, 27 April, and from two Western Australian newspapers, Western Mail, 14 May and Bunbury Herald, 17 December 1910.

[14] Benson described the process in Leaves of the Tree, 196-7.

[15] A Victorian government minister unsportingly blamed the Tasmanians, who were dealing with a wallaby infestation on King Island in Bass Strait, but later reports suggested that the consignments originated in New South Wales. However, the Victorian Government spokesman admitted that he had often eaten wallaby roasted with bacon, and that it tasted like venison.

[16] In a joke section, "Answers to Correspondents", the Magdalene College Magazine, March 1910, 95, commented: "Copt. We are glad to hear that Tabby and the Siamese cat get on quite well together." Copt, of course, was an allusion to Gaselee's research interests. It may be guessed that the two felines were not on good terms.