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A skit on examinations

[It should be explained that Tom Bridges was a gyp at St. John's College, during Butler's residence at Cambridge.]

We now come to the most eventful period in Mr. Bridges' life: we mean the time when he was elected to the shoe-black scholarship, compared with which all his previous honours sank into insignificance.

Mr. Bridges had long been desirous of becoming a candidate for this distinction, but, until the death of Mr. Leader, no vacancy having occurred among the scholars, he had as yet had no opportunity of going in for it. The income to be derived from it was not inconsiderable, and as it led to the porter fellowship the mere pecuniary value was not to be despised, but thirst of fame and the desire of a more public position were the chief inducements to a man of Mr. Bridges' temperament, in which ambition and patriotism formed so prominent a part. Latin, however, was not Mr. Bridges' forte; he excelled rather in the higher branches of arithmetic and the abstruse sciences. His attainments, however, in the dead languages were beyond those of most of his contemporaries, as the letter he sent to the Master and Seniors will abundantly prove. It was chiefly owing to the great reverence for genius shown by Dr. Tatham that these letters have been preserved to us, as that excellent man, considering that no circumstance connected with Mr. Bridges' celebrity could be justly consigned to oblivion, rescued these valuable relics from the Bedmaker, as she was on the point of using them to light the fire. By him they were presented to the author of this memoir, who now for the first time lays them before the public. The first was to the Master himself, and ran as follows:-

Reverende Sir,

Possum bene blackere shoas, et locus shoe-blackissis vacuus est. Makee me shoeblackum si hoc tibi placeat, precor te, quia desidero hoc locum.

Your very humble servant,

We subjoin Mr. Bridges' autograph. The reader will be astonished to perceive its resemblance to that of Napoleon I, with whom he was very intimate, and with anecdotes of whom he used very frequently to amuse his masters. We add that of Napoleon.


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The second letter was to the Senior Bursar, who had often before proved himself a friend to Mr Bridges, and did not fail him in this instance.


Ego humiliter begs pardonum te becausus quaereri dignitatum shoeblacki and credo me getturum esse hoc locum.

Your humble servant,

Shortly afterwards Mr. Bridges was called upon, with six other competitors, to attend in the Combination Room, and the following papers were submitted to him.


1. Derive the word "blacking." What does Paley say on this subject? Do you, or do you not, approve of Paley's arguments, and why? Do you think that Paley knew anything at all about it?

2. Who were Day and Martin? Give a short sketch of their lives, and state their reasons for advertising their blacking on the Pyramids. Do you approve of the advertising system in general?

3. Do you consider the Japanese the original inventors of blacking? State the principal ingredients of blacking, and give a chemical analysis of the following substances: Sulphate of zinc, nitrate of silver, potassium, copperas and corrosive sublimate.

4. Is blacking an effective remedy against hydrophobia? Against cholera? Against lock-jaw? And do you consider it as valuable an instrument as burnt corks in playing tricks upon a drunken man?

This was the Master's paper. The Mathematical Lecturer next gave him a few questions, of which the most important were:-


1. Prove that the shoe may be represented by an equation of the fifth degree. Find the equation to a man blacking a shoe: (1) in rectangular co-ordinates; (2) in polar co-ordinates.

2. A had 500 shoes to black every day, but being unwell for two days he had to hire a substitute, and paid him a third of the wages per shoe which he himself received. Had A been ill two days longer there would have been the devil to pay; as it was he actually paid the sum of the geometrical series found by taking the first n letters of the substitute's name. How much did A pay the substitute? (Answer, 13s. 6d.)

3. Prove that the scraping-knife should never be a secant, and the brush always a tangent to a shoe.

4. Can you distinguish between meum and tuum? Prove that their values vary inversely as the propinquity of the owners.

5. How often should a shoe-black ask his master for beer notes? Interpret a negative result.

Samuel Butler