The Willoughby Captains

For April’s “Reading and Refreshments,” we have been reading The Willoughby Captains, a school story by the British Victorian-era author Talbot Baines Reed. Reed wrote a number of novels about schoolboys, but The Willoughby Captains gives perhaps the most comprehensive view of the everyday pursuits, strenuous rivalries, and celebrated accomplishments of the boys’ school of his day: from fagging to field days; from classes to cricket—the story gives a lucid introduction to the somewhat bewildering intricacies of and complications caused by the highly complex school hierarchy.

     “What is a Limpet?” asks Captain Cusack of his son.
               “I don’t know what else you call him,” says young Cusack . . . “he’s—he’s a Limpet, you know.
     “Limpets,” says a gentleman near, “are the boys in the middle school.”
     “Rather a peculiar name,” suggests the captain.
     “Yes; it means an inhabitant of Limbo, the Willoughby name for the middle school, because the boys there are supposed to be too old to have to fag, and too young to be allowed to have fags.

– The Willoughby Captains

And if you don’t know what a fag is, you will soon learn in reading of the tribulations of young Parson, fag to Bloomfield, the head monitor of Parrett’s house—one of the three “houses” into which the school is divided.


He didn’t mind steering for Bloomfield, of course, and if he must fag he’d as soon fag for him as anybody . . . but how, Parson wanted to know, was he to do his Caesar and his French verbs, and steer Bloomfield and Game up the river at the same time?

– The Willoughby Captains


But somehow even all his conflicting demands can’t keep Parson and his ally, Telson of “the schoolhouse,” with all the rest of their junior-level friends, from causing many jolly “rows”!

Parson busily encouraged them, varying his exhortations by occasional taunts addressed to the other boat.
     “Now then,” he shouted, “two to one on us. Come on, you there, jolly schoolhouse louts—”
     “Parson, I’ll fight you if you say it again,” interposed Telson, by way of parenthesis.
     “Oh, beg pardon, old man. Pull away, you fellows! Parretts for ever! . . .
The big boys seemed amused on the whole, and good humouredly kept up the semblance of a race for about half a mile . . . after about ten minutes had been spent in this way, and when the young champions were all, except Parson, fairly exhausted, Crossfield took out his watch and said to his crew, winking as he did so,
     “Time we turned, you fellows; it’s five o’clock” . . . the schoolhouse boat suddenly turned round and started off . . .
     “Five o’clock! and call-over is at 5.20! We can’t do it in the time!” exclaimed Parson, aghast.
     “My eye, what a row there’ll be,” groaned Telson. “I’ve been late for call-over twice this week already, and I’m certain to get reported now! . . .”

– The Willoughby Captains

     “Will you? Who’s going to stop my foolery?” yelled Parson
     (“Stop my foolery?”) howled the chorus . . .
              “Do you suppose we don’t know what we’re doing?”
     (“We don’t know what we’re doing?”)
    “Look out, you fellows! Hold on! . . .”
Parson continued his oration till he was secured, hand and foot, and carried forcibly to the door, and even then continued to address the house, struggling and kicking between every syllable. His backers, equally determined, clung on to the forms and desks, and continued to shout and scream and caterwaul until they were one by one ejected . . .
     “Jolly spree, wasn’t it,” said Parson, when it was all over, fanning himself with his copybook and adjusting his collar.
     “Stunning!” said Telson; “never thought they’d stand it so long . . . all I can say is it was a jolly lark. I feel quite hungry after it . . .”

– The Willoughby Captains

As you can imagine, the task of keeping order in the school is no light one, and that is the duty of the Willoughby “captain.” Upon the graduation of the old captain, Wyndham, the position is granted to the head classic and schoolhouse monitor Riddell, a quiet, unpopular boy with little interest in outdoor games. The rest of the school, who expect their captain to be “an all-round man,” refuse to accept the headmaster’s choice, and elect their own captain, the sporting champion Bloomfield. But the greatest difficulty facing Riddell as he shoulders the burdens of his new position is his own self-doubt.

He had never succeeded yet in keeping Telson, his own fag, in order. How was he to expect to administer discipline to all the scapegraces of Willoughby? . . .
A row in the Fourth! the headquarters of the Limpets, each one of whom was a stronger man than he, and whom Wyndham himself had often been put to it to keep within bounds!
With an ominous shiver, Riddell put on his cap and sallied out in the direction of the Fourth. A man about to throw himself over a precipice could hardly have looked less cheerful! . . .
He opened the door, unnoticed by the combatants . . . he advanced with a desperate effort towards a boy who appeared to be the leader of one of the two parties . . . This champion . . . mistook him for one of the enemy, and sprang at him like a young tiger, knocking him down . . .
With a hard effort Riddell shook himself free and stepped out of the crowd.
     “Please let me go,” he said. “I just came to say there was too much noise, and—”
But the laughter of the Limpets drowned the rest, in the midst of which he retired miserably to the door and escaped.
In the passage outside he met Bloomfield, with Wibberly and Game, hurrying to the scene . . .
     “You stop it, Bloomfield!” said Wibberly; “they’ll shut up for you.”
That was all the unfortunate Riddell heard . . .

– The Willoughby Captains

The rivalry between the two captains comes to a head at the time of the “boat race,” when foul play by an unknown culprit pits one house against another in a desperate attempt to put the blame where it belongs.

     “Why, you said you knew who it was!” said Bloomfield.
     “I said I suspected somebody.”
    “Who is it?” asked Bloomfield.
     “I can’t tell you,” replied Riddell. “I’m not sure; I may be wrong.”
     “But surely you’re not going to keep a thing like this to yourself!” exclaimed Bloomfield, warmly. “It concerns everybody in the school .  . . You know, I suppose, what everybody says about you and the whole concern?” said Bloomfield . . .
     “Excuse me, Bloomfield, I’ve told you I can say nothing at present, and it is really useless to say any more about it.”

– The Willoughby Captains

And while you’re waiting to find out yourself, a grand treat to enjoy would be the following recipe for “plum cake,” as was served to Parson and Telson at the all-important breakfast with the captain, when Riddell finally gets on the right trail for clearing up the mystery and healing the breach in the school.   

       . . . “The fact is, I asked two kids to breakfast this morning, and I just  remembered I had nothing but tea and toast to offer them; and it’s too early to get anything in. I’d be awfully obliged if you could help me out with it. 
Fairbairn’s merriment broke out afresh as the truth revealed itself . . . He then offered Riddell anything in his cupboard, and the captain thereupon gratefully availed himself of the offer to secure a pot of red-currant jam, a small pot of potted meat, two or three apples, and a considerable section of plum cake.
     “I’m glad you came,” said the captain. “We may as well have breakfast. Telson, have you forgotten how to boil eggs?”
Telson said emphatically that he had not, and proceeded forthwith to give practical proof of his cunning, while Parson volunteered his aid in cutting up the bread . . . They accompanied their exertions with a running fire of chat and chaff, which left Riddell with very little to do except gently to steer the conversation round towards the point for which this merry meeting was designed . . .
     “Anyhow,” said Parson,” if he’s to be expelled, Silk and Gilks ought to catch it too. I bet anything they took him there. Thanks! a little piece.” 
This last sentence was in reply to an invitation to take some more cake.

– The Willoughby Captains


And remember, if you decide to hold your own “Reading and Refreshments,” please let us hear about it! Tell us how your family enjoyed the book and whether or not you made the treat to go with it. If you can, send us a photograph as well. You can contact us at

A Slice of Plum Cake

English Plum Cake


¾ cup unsalted butter (170 g.), at room temperature

1 ½ cups granulated sugar (300 g.)

5 eggs, separated

1 ½ teaspoons orange zest

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons rum

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour (245 g.)

1 cup dried currants (125 g.)

½ cup raisins (75 g.)

½ cup golden raisins (75 g.)

1 cup chopped walnuts (120 g.)



  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.
  4. Stir in the orange zest, grated ginger, and rum. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  5. Combine the flour and baking powder, and then mix the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, scraping the bowl down once again.
  6. Add the currants, raisins, golden raisins, and walnuts. Stir to evenly distribute the fruit throughout the batter.
  7. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the whites on high speed until they hold soft peaks, about two minutes.
  8. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped egg whites into the cake batter, just until no streaks remain.
  9. Immediately spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part of the cake comes out clean, 55 minutes to an hour.
  10. Transfer to a wire rack and run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the sides of the pan. If your pan has a removable bottom, lift the cake and bottom part of the pan away from the sides, and then place the cake back on the wire rack to cool.
  11. Once the cake is cool, run a metal spatula between the bottom of the cake and the pan to loosen it, and then carefully lift the cake over the tube portion of the pan. If your pan does not have a removable bottom, let the cake cool completely in the pan before flipping it out.
  12. Cut into slices and serve.

Yield : 12-16 servings

Willoughby Plum Cake


2 thoughts on “The Willoughby Captains

  1. They say there are still traditional boarding and private schools a bit like this is the UK, I don’t know if it’s true 🙂

    I’m going to bake more this summer on recess, great recipie.

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