According to my copy of The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, it was traditional for schoolmasters to offer leaving students home-made wine and half-baked cake.

Here he produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered instalments of those dainties to the young people: at the same time, sending out a meagre servant to offer a glass of “something” to the postboy, who answered that he thanked the gentleman, but if it was the same tap as he had tasted before, he had rather not.*

*As disclosed in Punch's Snap-Dragons for Christmas (1845), it was customary at English boarding schools for the masters to offer “half-baked cake and home-made wine” to their departing charges.

What is a half-baked cake and how did such a curious tradition come about?

  • 2
    I would first see what Punch's Snap-Dragons for Christmas (1845) has to say on the subject. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 15:37
  • 4
    Half-baked ... students? Doesn't seem too far-fetched.
    – Tomas By
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 15:37
  • 1
    @kimchilover - I've found the story Snap-Dragons for Christmas on Archive.org, but there doesn't seem to be anything relevant. I'm assuming the Punch book is some sort of anthology that contains that story
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 15:43
  • 7
    Presumably it was the cake and wine that were actually traditional; the quotations are humorous references to the fact that the wine was often of poor quality and the cake not very well-cooked. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 16:10
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    @KateBunting Re "the cake not very well-cooked" This, rather than stale as suggested by other answers and comments, seems to jibe with "curiously heavy". Since water evaporates from the dough during baking, a cake that is not fully baked would be heavier than one baked properly.
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 21:33

2 Answers 2


It wasn't — “curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake” was intended by Dickens to convey that the guests were selfishly given stale Christmas cake and watered-down wine. According to Victorian Web's commentary on A Christmas Carol:

Brock demonstrates that Scrooge's sole sibling, gleeful little Fan, is smaller and younger than her brother as her feet do not quite touch the floor as the head-master entertains the pair in his "shivering best-parlour" (35) with the "curiously light" (watered-down) wine and "a block" of stale cake.

Which very much matches Arthur Rackham's 1915 illustration for the book of the children staring apprehensively at their "dainties".

a boy and a small girl are sitting down, eating and drinking, while an old man watches over them

After searching the internet and British newspaper archives extensively, the only reference comes from A Christmas in Kent from The People's Journal where the phrase also appears to be intended for humorous effect.

"Fine seasonable morning!" said my uncle, brushing off a few flakes of erratic snow from my cloak, as we drove into the yard of the Red Lion. "Something like Christmas weather, this; it reminds one of going home for the holidays;" and the old gentleman rubbed his hands gleefully at the recollection. "It makes one feel almost a boy again," he continued, laying his arm warily on that of the ostler, and feeling very carefully with his stick before he trusted to the footing-"Just such mornings-bless me, how well one remembers them!-up before daylight-bolstering one another till breakfast time-too happy to eat-turning the schoolroom out of the window till the half-baked cake and home-made wine were handed round; then the coach, and our hasty leave-takings...

  • 2
    Dickens passage seems pretty clear that it's intended to indicate selfishness with a combination of "shivering best parlor", curious cake, curiously light wine and "something" for the postboy. Not sure that this contradicts Hearn unless you feel that he literally meant that half-baked cake is a normal tradition in which case Dickens' passage seems to be directionless showing both kindness and selfishness. Regarding Victorian Web, it was contributed and edited by Philip Allingham, Professor Emeritus at Lakehead University. Commented Dec 8, 2022 at 17:41
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    Stale cake would not be "curiously heavy", surely? Quite the opposite, in fact
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 8:07
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    The way I read the question, it isn't about curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake in Dickens but about Hearn's claim that it was a custom for public schools to gift "half-baked cake an home-made wine" to theirs pupils.
    – Bartors
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 8:45
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    @Bartors - I have to agree. This information is moderately interesting but it only tangentially addresses the question being asked. The quote from The People's Journal is interesting because it strongly suggests that this is in fact a recognised tradition but an engraving (from nearly 50 years after Dicken's death) and the article from Victorian Web seem barely relevant at all.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 8:50
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    Is it that cake and wine is customarily given to students, or just that it is a common meal in some circumstances (easy to batch produce, likely to be hanging around, and eaten cold so it is quick to serve) that happen to fit a young person in a hurry?
    – SPavel
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 16:37

TL;DR: I doubt that there was such a tradition.

It would be nice to see more of the context from Punch’s Snapdragons for Christmas, but even given the terse reference in Hearn, we ought to take into account that Punch was a humorous and satirical magazine, so if it said that it was “customary” at English boarding schools for the masters to offer “half-baked cake and home-made wine” to their departing charges, then the intention may have been satirical or ironic.

If so, my interpretation is that the author was satirizing the penny-pinching of the boarding schools: that is, the allegation was that the schools were skimping on cooking fuel in order to screw more profit out of their charges, without regard for their health and welfare. The cake was “half-baked” because it was taken out of the oven too soon in order to save on firewood. Compare the following passage from the memoirs of John Howard, which is making a similar allegation but without the irony:

He [John Howard] visited also in this tour three out of the four nurseries for the reception of children, from two to six years of age, and he paid the more minute attention to their condition, because their tender years rendered them incapable of struggling with hardships, or of making complaints. He was sorry, therefore, to find the same gross neglect of their health and cleanliness, as disgraced the schools for the elder children. The master of that at Monastereven pretended to be an apothecary, but a pretty correct judgment may be formed of his medical skill, from his giving all his infant scholars regularly sulphur and milk for their breakfast, and from his declaring his intention of having a general anointing for the itch, whether they had, or only might have, that unpleasant disorder, though their beds and their persons were certainly quite dirty enough to give it to them all round. It was still further proclaimed too, by the uncommon mortality amongst his nursling patients, for whom in one quarter’s bill, there was a charge for eleven coffins. At the time Mr. Howard visited these most pitiable objects, they were dining, at three o’clock, on potatoes not properly boiled; five or six of the most sickly being indulged with a piece of half-baked cake or bread, but drinking the common beverage of the whole, sour butter-milk.

James Baldwin Brown (1818). Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of John Howard, the Philanthropist, p. 527. London: Rest Fenner.

The passage in Dickens has a similar meaning: the master of Scrooge’s old school was just as miserly as those of the schools visited by Howard.

  • The Punch Press of London didn't just produce satirical periodicals, notwithstanding that their namesake was their most popular product.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:00
  • 1
    I've seen suggestions that young Scrooge may have mistaken a heavy Christmas cake for one that was half-baked because he's unused to getting anything that rich and moist.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:03
  • Similarly, the wine may have been unusual tasting because it's been mulled.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:07
  • 3
    @Richard The postboy's reaction seems to indicate that he's serving objectively bad food and drink.
    – Milo P
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:11
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    @MiloP - In this instance, the Postboy seems to be being offered "a glass of "something" (e.g. different from what the master and his guests are drinking), possibly a lower grade wine or a cooking wine.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 18:16

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