Whistory, or the inherent civility of the Cambridge fellow

I recently catalogued a four-volume set of the works of Virgil, edited by Peter Burman, and printed in Amsterdam in the 1740s.  It’s in lovely bindings, and has a very swanky title page, complete with an engraving by someone with the initials L.F.D.B. whom I’m struggling to identify, so if anyone’s got any thoughts, please feel free to comment!  The fact that these books have nothing whatever to do with law have endeared them to me indefinitely, in spite of the fact that whenever I espy anything to do with Virgil I have to suffer through Latin GCSE flashbacks, which vary in severity but are always painful.


The set is in almost pristine condition, which means one of two things.  Either it was very well cared for, protected, or almost revered.  Or it was never, ever used, and has lain untouched for hundreds of years, until I disturbed it by grabbing it (gently and carefully) off the shelf to catalogue it, making it basically the book equivalent of Sleeping Beauty.  But there’s proof, in one of the volumes, that at the very least one person has used, or touched, or opened these books.  And the reason I know that is because tucked away inside the third volume, was this little note:

Anyone for whist?

It might be difficult to read, so here’s what it says: Dear Hildyard, Whist will be performed at my rooms on Friday next as heretofore.  –Your presence is solicited, by yours truly, Jos. Romilly.

I love finding stuff like this in the older books that I catalogue.  For me, it’s miles better than any old marginalia precisely because it reveals nothing at all about the content of the books, nor what the reader thought of it; rather, it reveals something personal, something intrinsically human, about the poor chap poring over these heavy volumes.

A bit of digging and, thanks to Venn, I found out who these blokes were.  One is Rev. Joseph Romilly, of Trinity, and the other Rev. William Hildyard, of Trinity Hall.  Romilly came up to Cambridge in 1808, and after an illustrious career as a student (he was 4th wrangler), became a Fellow of Trinity.  Hildyard, a little younger and a good Yorkshire lad, came up to Cambridge in 1813 where he too matriculated at Trinity, before migrating over the street to Trinity Hall to become a fellow and a tutor.

I started to wonder about these chaps, and how they met.  I like to think of their eyes meeting across a pint of ale in the local tavern, and there being a moment when they knew–when they just knew–that they’d met their whist soul mate.  Gone were the days of w(h)istfulness, the future would be bright. That’s probably a bit too Grey’s Anatomy to be true, and it’s far more likely that they met in Norwich when both were ordained deacon around the same time–an occupation which probably completely scuppers my ‘met-down-the-pub’ theory.

Nice-looking chap

Having never knowingly, or consciously, played whist (my card-playing abilities and experience extending little beyond Snap, and a few games of poker which are probably best forgotten), I thought I’d try to find out a little bit more about this game which was drawing Romilly and Hildyard away from their studies for an evening.  I found a truly brilliant little book on the history of whist, the rules of the game, and the development of strategy, written in 1844 by “an amateur”.  The author begins by vindicating the very existence of the game based on nothing but the intrinsic charm of its name.  Now THAT’S a good argument.  He (or she…probably he) then moves on to justify the existence of the book by stating his fervent opposition to the fact that no other book on the subject had existed before (which wasn’t true!), despite the stuff that you could find in print.  For example, he says that there is ‘immortal verse’ concerning the ‘combats of mice and frogs’–and this in a world where there are no guides to whist?! Abominable.  Wind in the Willows premonition in tact, the author goes on to praise whist on a variety of counts, some more sensible than others, and among which are the following:

  • Whist… is unique, in its rivalry to heavy drinking (whether it’s as enjoyable as, or whether it prevents it, remains unclear)
  • Whist… is universal, played by Cockneys and Cornish alike
  • Whist… has the ability to neutralise, even among those with divergent political affiliations
  • Whist… is delightfully linear, and chronological, and it’s possible to map its development–and that of its players–over time
  • Whist… is challenging, based on skill rather than luck, and it wards off amnesia
  • Whist… is the bastion of gentleness, civility and good manners


It’s little wonder, if this is what a good game of whist does for you, that these guys played so often (more supposition, I know).   And it’s the last of the bullet points in particular which made me think of Romilly and Hildyard–the good manners evident in Romilly’s little note seem to corroborate it.  Whist is going to be “performed”, he says, making it seem rehearsed, planned out, and prearranged, as if the very act of playing itself is going to achieve something.  Hildyard’s presence at this game is “solicited”, which on the surface seems so formal, yet beneath this there lurks a little hint of cheekiness and humour.  It’s almost as if Hildyard is going to be accosted should he fail to put in an appearance, which I presume he did.  The note is, simply, the equivalent of our “be there or be square”.

Less well-mannered

It’s possible to imagine Hildyard receiving this note, in the middle of a verse of the Aeneid, and being pleased at the opportunity to procrastinate a little, to see friends and perhaps assert his superiority at the game.  Perhaps he thought that the note would make a good bookmark; perhaps he wondered whether he ought to take a bottle of wine along with him to Romilly’s rooms; or perhaps, on receiving the note, he got out his deck of cards, shuffled them in that fancy way that only experienced card players can, and practised a couple of his sleight of hand tricks to ensure that victory, Friday next, would be his.  Though somehow I doubt it!

References and other stuff:

Venn, of course, where would we be without it?

Wikipedia (same goes)

And of course: “An Amateur” (1844). Whist: its history and its practice. London: Bogue of Fleet Street, from whom I also stole the cartoons.