Schools begin again soon but amongst the curious rituals of the new term, none are as bizarre as that which – now would be done during school holidays – the hunting of a ram on Election Saturday. The College had an ancient claim upon its butcher to provide a ram on the Election Saturday, to be hunted by the scholars. In his 1847 History of Buckinghamshire, Lipscombe notes:
“the animal having been so pressed as to swim across the Thames, it ran into Windsor Market, with the boys after it, and much mischief was caused by this unexpected accident. The health of the scholars had also suffered from the length of the chase, or the heat of the season. The character of the sport was therefore changed about 1740, when the ram was ham-strung, and, after the speech, was knocked on the head with large, twisted clubs.”
An account in the Gentleman’s Magasine of 1731 notes:
“Monday, Aug. 2 was the election at Eton College, when the scholars, according to custom, hunted a ram, by which the Provost and Fellows hold a Manor.”
Eton was not alone with its custom, East Wretham in Norfolk also had a harvest related hunting the ram. John Blomefield in his 1831 History of Norfolk notes:
“When the harvest work was finished by the tenants, they were to have an acre of barley, and a ram let loose in the midst of them; if they caught him, he was their property but if he escaped then the Lord claimed him”.
Surprisingly at a school, this rather cruel act was not unique, for as Henry S. Salt in his Blood Sports at School – The Eton Hare-Hunt notes:
“Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were “organised for the special edification of the Eton boys.”
However, views on such barbarity were changing even Liscombe noted:
“But the barbarity of the amusement caused it to be laid aside at the election in 1747, and the, flesh of the ram was prepared in pasties The dish, however, still continued nominally to grace the Election Monday.”
Salt also notes:
“It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that “it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven.” But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a ‘brutal custom’; and remarking that Etonians were “only so barbarous.” Once!”
I for one see this as one ancient custom not necessary to revive.