I agree with TOL Puzzles Editor, David Parfitt’s thesis today that the M.R. James choice for the boiled egg Provost was ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’, and that indeed the former Eton Headmaster (as he then was), Claude Aurelius Elliott, neatly fits the bill.
I began my researches immediately by digging up introductions by Adrian Bell and my father, Edmund Akenhead, where the latter was commissioned by The Times and Penguin to produce The Penguin Book of The Times 50th Anniversary Crosswords.
In Adrian’s introduction, I unearthed “In the course of a few years a myth was born. The Provost of Eton was rumoured to time his boiled egg every morning by the time it took him to solve The Times crossword puzzle ‒ and he did not like his egg hard-boiled, it was added. At this distance of time I think it was probably a bit of one-upmanship of the Provost’s. But it set correspondents boasting their solving speeds. Cabinet ministers entered the lists. I began to wonder what went on in that Cabinet Room, which was supposed to be governing the country. P.G. Wodehouse did not boast: he set up a wall of frustration, that was ‘g. and wormwood to a man who has been beating his head on the wall for 20 minutes over a single anagram to read that about the Provost of Eton and the eggs’.”
My father added further fuel to the intrigue: “The Champion burst into the news again with his letter to The Times, dated 17 December 1970, in which he claimed a record, having solved that day’s crossword in four and a half minutes. The letter appeared in The Times on Saturday, 19 December and was spotted at a very early hour by the ever-vigilant BBC, who whisked Mr Dean at crack of dawn to their Today studio and gave him that day’s Times crossword to solve as the Today programme proceeded: to my discomfiture, since it happened to be one of my own, the BBC certified correct solution of the puzzle by Mr Dean in the incredibly short time of three and three-quarter minutes, a record (to be found in The Guiness Book of Records) which I expect and hope will never be broken and which puts in the shade all previous claimants with the possible exception of the legendary Provost of Eton, (mentioned earlier by Adrian Bell) who incidentally does not appear to have made the claim himself, but whose reputed speed in solving The Times crossword was mentioned in a letter to The Times from Sir Austen Chamberlain in August 1934.”
Cue: Akenhead junior who went straight to The Times archive today, on acquiring this jewel of information! Sure enough, Sir Austen’s letter discovered in The Times of Friday, August 17th 1934 as the lead letter to the Editor: “The Crossword Puzzle (Sir Austen Chamberlain K.G. and others).
THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE
REPLIES TO SIR JOSIAH STAMP
SOLVERS ON THEIR METTLE
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir ‒ Sir Josiah Stamp must try again. Fifty minutes, with or without assistance won’t do. I timed myself this morning ‒ 41 minutes, and I had wasted these badly over one of the anagrams.
But, Sir, ask the Provost of Eton. I have been informed by a person whose veracity I have no reason to doubt, that the Provost measures the time required for boiling his breakfast egg by that needed for the solution of your daily crossword ‒ and he hates a hard-boiled egg.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Mr Parfitt, your assessment that Claude Aurelius Elliott, was indeed the legendary Provost, albeit Headmaster at the time, appears to be spot on, and Sir Austen Chamberlain, flummoxed evidently over one of Adrian’s fiendish anagrams!
Congratulations! And thank you for your fascinating piece today.