LATIN HAD BEEN taught to some London children at early medieval church schools, such as those of St Paul’s, Holy Trinity and St Martin’s. An idea of their curricula can be gained from William Fitz Stephen’s description dating to around 1173.
This recording of a Latin class (BBC catalogue number 870625) was made in April 1938 at Eltham College in Mottingham, south-east London.
Eltham College was founded in 1842 to educate the sons of missionaries working overseas. By 1938 the school had moved from Walthamstow, via Mornington Crescent and Blackheath, to an 18th-century mansion called Fairy Hall, where it still resides.
Here the Latin teacher drills his class with some relish in reciting lines from Virgil’s Aeneid, book II, beginning at line 268:
Tempus erat quo prima quies mortalibus aegris
incipit et dono divum gratissima serpit.
It was the hour when first sleep begins for weary mortals,
and steals over them as the sweetest gift of the gods.
The passage describes how Hector appears to Aeneas in a dream and warns him that Greek soldiers have infiltrated Troy.
Rote learning of poetry would have stocked many young minds of the time with at least the first few verses of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or Macaulay’s Horatius.
But this recording is unlikely to represent the typical course of a Latin lesson. It is more a kind of verbal parade through which is projected an ideal of the school’s discipline and orderliness.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.