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The Old BoysThe Decline and Rise of the Public School$

David Turner

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780300189926

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300189926.001.0001

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‘The Monastic System is Getting on My Nerves.’ 1870–1902

‘The Monastic System is Getting on My Nerves.’ 1870–1902

(p.134) Chapter Five ‘The Monastic System is Getting on My Nerves.’ 1870–1902
The Old Boys

David Turner

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the British public school system from 1870 to 1902. By 1901, public schools had begun training pupils for traditional upper-class careers in the army, with training beginning to reach a high standard. Outside the military classes, the curriculum was also broader and more likely to be taught well. In reward for these reforms, the public school movement as a whole was thriving—with tens of thousands of pupils attending, instead of the few thousand of only a century before. Many of these pupils were girls, at institutions which shared at least some characteristics with their brothers' schools. There were, however, still weaknesses. Compared with grammar schools, the public schools were often weak in science. Boys were often bullied at both boarding and day schools. The reform of the public schools was also half-finished.

Keywords:   British public schools, public school education, educational reform, school reform, day schools, grammar schools, bullying

THE year 1870 was a time of exciting feats of technology and science, from the completion of the huge Fréjus railway tunnel through the Alps to the linking of Britain and Australia by telegraph. However, Alexander Potts would, on balance, probably have preferred the year to have been about 350 BC, or perhaps even a touch earlier. The first head of Fettes, founded in Edinburgh in 1870, kept a commonplace book, filled with inspiring sayings, which included the famous observation from Plato’s Philebus, published in the middle of the fourth century BC: ‘The ancients were better than us. They lived nearer the gods.’ Potts tried to keep pupils as near to the ancients as possible by inserting a strong classical bias into the school.1

Potts’s commonplace book also contained a solemn series of twelve ‘Arnoldiana’ (sayings of the great man). Inspired by this, he introduced Arnold’s system of prefects and fagging, as well as the ancient Spartan regime and the more recent sporting emphasis of its Sassenach counterparts. During the first, harsh winter, each boarder rose at seven for a cold bath in his cubicle, breaking the ice with a brush if necessary. The cold was, in any case, good for the boys, in the view of Clem Cotterill, a master at the new school: ‘The keen wind serves but to brace and harden them; to clear their brains and sweeten their tempers; to purify not only the blood, but surely to help in so far (p.135) as we can be helped by such agencies, to purify also their hearts.’ Cotterill had no time for weak-bodied scholars – since the mere scholar who did not keep his body strong was ‘half-man half-ghost’. To be fair, though, he had no time for the mere athlete either, whom he cursed with the description of ‘half-man half-beast’. Should their spirits threaten to weaken under the impact of such a harsh regimen, assistance was available in the shape of H. H. Almond, who jogged seven miles each way from the headmaster’s quarters at Loretto to preach at Fettes. Life was a little easier for the prefects – they were allowed hot water, on the grounds, one presumes, that warmth alone would not weaken the morals of the most upstanding boys in the school.2

Fettes started primarily as a day school, but soon became an establishment mainly for boarders.3 In this respect, the city of Edinburgh illustrated a growing national trend. One might have expected Fettes and the Edinburgh Academy, its biggest rival, to establish comfortable existences through demarcating and dominating completely separate markets within the city, with the former taking the commanding heights of boarding and the latter concentrating on day pupils. Instead, Edinburgh Academy tried as far as possible to go the same way. In the 1890s its reforming rector (headmaster) Robert Mackenzie helped to reverse declining rolls by turning it largely into a boarding school. He also tried to ape, as far as possible, the customs of the boarding schools. Mackenzie introduced prefects, entitled with the exotic name ‘ephors’, after the ruling officials of Sparta.4 It was in many ways an apt epithet, given the resemblance between the boarding schools’ way of life and the agoge (‘raising’) of Spartan boys – taken from doting parents at a young age and toughened up, until the age of eighteen, by means of an upbringing with packs of other boys, where harsh physical training and a lifestyle of extreme austerity were imposed.

The Edinburgh Academy’s response was not exactly fleet-footed, since the school had to wait for a new head before it fought back. Other day schools were slower still. They were hobbled by the common handicap of public schools throughout the ages: most were (p.136) free-standing schools with little capital, rather than forming part of great chains, the stronger members of which could collectively provide enough capital to allow a single school to transform itself (exceptions were the schools set up by Woodard from 1848, by the Church Schools Company from 1870, and by the Girls’ Public Day School Company in 1872). At Liverpool College, every head from Butler onwards pressed the governors to expand the boarding side in reaction to the national trend. ‘With a new building on a fair site and two or three boarding-houses it may yet be raised to a level with Cheltenham or Clifton Schools’, wrote Edward Selwyn, Butler’s successor. Mixing emulation with excoriation, he added: ‘It may yet be a school of which Liverpool will be proud, and to which she will send her sons instead of blindly obeying the fashion as she does of boarding them away from home and home influences at enormous expense on unhealthy swamps and desolate hill-sides in remote parts of England.’ He was, at least, to get one of his wishes in 1884 when the college was moved to the decidedly undesolate Liverpool suburb of Sefton – a development which boosted numbers.5 The governors did not open a boarding house, however, until 1918.6

Cotterill of Fettes would not have thought much of the half-man half-ghost products of King’s College School in London – and neither did some of the school’s parents. In 1887 a pair of them sought to remove a son from King’s on the ground that he required ‘more recreation’, a growing strength of the boarding schools, whose often plentiful rural acres could be used to create ample sporting facilities to stop boys cooped up together for entire terms from killing each other. In response the head, Thomas Stokoe, acknowledged: ‘We lose plenty of boys just now for want of this.’ Discussing the near-extinction of the school, his successor, Charles Bourne, complained to the governors in 1901 that all the London day schools faced the same problem: parents preferred to send their boys away. Early in the new century the possibility of turning the institution into a boarding school was mooted, but made no headway. The next best thing short of this was to move it out of the urbs to greener pastures in the (p.137) suburbs, where it might be able to offer amenities approaching those of boarding schools. Bourne forced a move to the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon in 1897, after scaring the governors into sub mission. ‘The present rage for athletics makes it practically impossible for us to hold our own against schools which have playground facilities’, he warned. As a result, ‘only two courses seem open – either to abolish the school, or to remove it to Wimbledon’, which had room for facilities that its cramped Strand location did not.7 If anything, Westminster School faced even worse problems. ‘The space is so inadequate for purposes of instruction, that even with our present numbers the work of the school is seriously impeded and no examination can be conducted satisfactorily’, a ‘Memorial from the Masters’ to the governors lamented in 1881. ‘At Easter the only manner in which the Examination for Exhibitions can be carried on at all, is by borrowing a room which the Civil Service Commissioners are kind enough to lend for the purpose.’8 At this point the day schools were far from the lavish facilities of the twenty-first century.

The conservatism of the day school governors is understandable: they were in a bind. Those at Liverpool College were for many years reluctant to take the risk of moving the school’s location or expanding the range of possible patrons through boarding, given the substantial cost which either of these changes required. There was, after all, no guarantee that such a change would attract sufficient numbers of new pupils to pay for itself. Many day schools did, despite such risks, move to the suburbs or even the countryside in the late nineteenth century. Some saw an upturn in numbers, including Charterhouse, a day school with some boarders, whose roll surged in 1872 after its transfer from the City of London to Godalming in Surrey.9 However, the temporary rise in rolls at the new King’s site was not sustained, forcing the school to limp along until rescued by the government on the eve of the First World War.10

In some cases trains on the expanding railway network chuffed to the aid of day schools by increasing the radius of their hinterland. John Howson, the entrepreneurial principal of Liverpool College (p.138) from 1849 to 1865, persuaded directors of the local railways and river ferries to offer concessionary prices to all schoolboys. The second step was to shower south-west Lancashire with maps showing railway lines and principal residential centres, marked with concentric circles that placed the college at the centre of the universe. It was brilliantly successful, helping to double the numbers in the upper school.11 Despite such individual acts of organizational heroism, however, on balance the railways probably did more harm than good to the day schools, by making boarding schools more accessible. This was the period when the system of two school terms a year was replaced by three, precisely because this new accessibility made it feasible – even though Eton stubbornly retains the name of the old terms, giving it three ‘halves’ a year. The improvement in train timetables enabled Uppingham School in Rutland to transform itself from a regional to a national boarding school under Thring. ‘We don’t know whether Mr Thring trains the boys’ minds; but he makes them mind their trains’, quipped Punch magazine, reporting on the sorry case of two brothers who had done nothing wrong at the school, but were punished simply for arriving late for term. A generation earlier Thring could not have insisted on such punctuality.12

It was not, however, primarily the rail network which drove the surge in numbers of pupils in the boarding schools. Nor were the schools boosted by any clear academic advantage: of the top six with the most Oxbridge scholarships in 1885–92, only two – Eton (benefiting from its huge size) and Marlborough – were primarily boarding schools. A further two, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’, were primarily public day schools, with Clifton offering a large measure of both, and Manchester Grammar School completing the picture. Looking further down the list at the sixteen other schools with twenty or more Oxbridge scholarships in the period, the boarding schools did not do noticeably worse or better than their rivals.13

What, then, aside from sport, was the boarding schools’ special ingredient, which drew families to send their sons to them? Perhaps the most eloquent explanation was made in 1932, ironically at a time (p.139) when such schools were struggling under the yoke of an economic crisis. Frederick Malim, master (equivalent to headmaster) of Wellington College, saw this special ingredient as the housemaster – an institution which the day schools tried to copy, though in these schools the housemaster, lacking the same twenty-four-hour responsibility for his pupils, never quite had the same intense relationship with them. Education ‘is the last activity to which methods of mass production should be applied’, wrote Malim with a poignantly elegiac tone in the knowledge that this situation might not last for much longer, ‘for education depends for its success not on the discovery of some treatment which can be brought to bear on large numbers of patients, but on the contact of one mind with another and of one spirit with another’. He added: ‘The head master looking for recruits cannot forget that he is looking for the house masters of the future; in his eyes no technical skill in the presentation of a subject will atone for the absence of the sympathy, the insight, and the personality without which no man can win the loyalty and confidence of his house.’14 The relationship became, at times, almost parental: in the modern day, Anthony Seldon, the current master of Wellington, estimates that the relationship between house master or house mistress and their pupil has ‘maybe a third’ in common with that of parents – ‘but if a parent is somehow deficient the teacher becomes even more important’.15 Even wives were frequently regarded as an encumbrance to this intense relationship. ‘In most public schools the assistant masters lead a life which is essentially monastic’, wrote H. Lionel Rogers, an assistant master at Radley in the Edwardian era, clearly in reference to boarding schools such as his own rather than day schools. ‘Marriage is possible for but few’. For the master who did marry, thus diverting himself from an exclusive focus on his school duties, ‘how great’ must be ‘the loss to his pupils in direct teaching and example’.16

The monastic style of life – together with its costs and drawbacks – is borne out by diaries and memoirs. ‘There is something monastic about the life here: only one other master except the Chief [headmaster] is married: women are obviously not encouraged’, writes (p.140) S. P. B. Mais, a master at Rossall and future professional author and broadcaster, in a diary entry from 1909. Two months later, his tone is considerably less detached. ‘The monastic system is getting on my nerves. I find myself longing to hear a baby crying, a girl laugh, or any noises of the street. We are too much aloof from the outside world.’ His solution is a regular Saturday night out in the local town, including dinner, a show and a gawp at the shopgirls and their boyfriends at the dance.17 Sometime after returning to his old school, Marlborough, after the First World War, a young housemaster called Ronald Gurner decided to marry, ‘but we found soon enough that marriage and my duties were almost incompatible’, in particular with his evenings spent supervising prep or simply in perambulating to ‘exude good fellowship about the house’. Gurner confessed in his memoirs: ‘I would slope round to see my wife after “lights out”, and return to apologize to my fellow house-master and explain that I had only been away a few minutes.’ His rapid solution was to resign his post for the headship of a state school.18

Day schools tried to make up for this lack of influence in the life of their pupils. University College School in London introduced ‘Consulting’ masters with pastoral care for boys in the 1880s after a teacher complained: ‘The fact that we draw our pupils from various parts of London and that we have no control over them out of school hours, tends to minimize our personal influence over them.’19 This was a perceptive assessment: by exerting control over boys’ lives for twenty-four hours a day, the boarding schools inevitably had more personal influence over the average boy. This was, however, frequently not used to the good.

The cosy house run by Oscar Browning at Eton between 1862 and 1875 provided just the right atmosphere that a highly cultured and fairly protective family wanted for their son. Browning had nearly starved while a scholar at Eton in the 1850s; as a result the boys in his care ate nourishing and plentiful food, behind curtains designed by William Morris, in an environment feminized by the presence at (p.141) meal times of his mother and two twenty-something sisters. Browning spent so much on the catering that he provoked the ire of other housemasters who felt pressured to keep up. It was, as one boy put it to his father, ‘awfully jolly’.20

It was more than that. Browning banned the Victorian equivalent of today’s Manchester United posters – prints of Tom Cribb the bare-knuckle boxer and Mad Jack Mytton the reckless hunter – and filled the empty spaces with engravings of European masterpieces. The works of Brahms and other controversial modern composers not yet sanctified by age were performed by local musicians. Poetry readings and the acting of plays were encouraged. Outside the house and inside the classroom, Browning became a star, introducing a conversational style which demanded, and received, strong intellectual contributions from his pupils. In 1868 Eton made it compulsory for older boys to study a modern subject every week; Browning’s offering, modern history, became the most popular topic. How could it have been otherwise, when a witty and urbane master had chosen to delve into such scandalously hot topics as the French Revolution, a choice of which the head, James Hornby, heartily disapproved? Browning also espoused smaller class sizes, because of his belief that good teaching required personal contact – in keeping with Malim’s principle that mass production was the enemy of teaching.21

Browning was adored by a large and influential group of people, both within and without the Etonian empire. Inside the school, when Hornby tried to take him off modern history, a colleague complained, writing that ‘whatever protest has been made against this muscle worship’ of the cult of athleticism, ‘whatever effort has been made to promote culture and industry and thereby improve morals, Browning has taken a leading part in it ever since I have known Eton as a master’. Hornby relented. Browning also formed the habit of picking boys he liked from outside his house, to become an intellectual mentor to them. The most famous of these relationships – to last as long as they were both alive – was with George Curzon, the brilliant future viceroy of India and foreign secretary, who carried off a plethora of prizes at (p.142) the school. Browning in effect poached him from his official house-master, a rather intellectually dull man who would have done little to develop Curzon’s mind. ‘Whatever I am,’ said Curzon to his wife, ‘I owe it all to Mr Browning.’22

Many of Browning’s acolytes, including Curzon, were to write about him with the deepest affection, which was reciprocated by the master. Of Gerald Balfour, the politician, who was to be a friend for life, Browning wrote to Balfour’s mother: ‘He has the most entire purity of mind and character and at the same time is not at all unfitted for contact with the world…. I quite dread his leaving this half.’23 Browning had learnt to form such strong attachments from his own mentor at Eton, William Johnson Cory – himself regarded as a brilliant teacher and tutor who read the characters of his charges with great facility. The weak-voiced, short-sighted Johnson excelled not at teaching Eton’s still large and unruly classes, but in encouraging the boys to think for themselves in his wide-ranging tutorials. This was particularly the case for his favourites, on whom he lavished great attention.24

The strong emotional attachments continued into the next Eton generation. M. D. Hill, who joined Eton to teach science in the 1890s, later recalled a stubbornly recurrent dream from his days as a house-master. Taking his usual tour of the house after prayers, he finds an unknown face. ‘I ask him who he is and what he is doing here. He replies that he is a boy in my house. “ ‘Why”, I remark, “I have never seen you before.” To which he replies: “You have never been in my room till to-night.” I am so amazed and concerned at this dereliction of duty that I awake.’ Eton had come a long way from the callous neglect of the Long Chamber.25

From mid-Victorian times onwards, boarding school masters increasingly tried to form sympathetic bonds with their pupils. Much of this was probably in reaction against the horrors of the Long Chamber and its ilk. Thring’s career was largely an attempt to provide a more humane system for his pupils at Uppingham than he himself had experienced at Eton. It was a measure of Thring’s high-minded (p.143) humanitarianism that the head’s entire concept of the school’s size and design was founded on the happiness of the boys. Each school house should have no more than thirty pupils under the care of each house-master, so that each housemaster should know his boys well.26 The conventional high pupil–teacher ratios were anathema to Thring because, in his words, ‘sixty or seventy pupils to one master become as nominal as ten thousand parishioners to one clergyman’.27 Uppingham should have no more than 300 to 330 boys, so that he could know enough of each boy to form a personal opinion of him.28 Moreover, Thring took the unusual step of providing each boy with his own personal space – a cubicle where he could sit, read and think in privacy, free from the tormenting of others.29 ‘You don’t live in a prison here’, he declared, having had the school rebuilt literally as well as metaphorically. ‘We make your life free and pleasant, we trust you, we make your temptations few, we make it easy to live a true life.’30 His housemasters often had different ideas, however, favouring the ‘mass production’ attacked by Malim, since their income was largely based, as at many boarding schools at this time, on how many boys they took in. But although Thring’s diaries reveal a constant battle with the masters over admission numbers, he never gave in to what they wanted.31 ‘A fall in the pupil-teacher ratio at Uppingham and other public schools provided an essential underpinning to the improving relationship between master and pupil. At Thring’s old school there were nine masters to 570 boys at about the time he arrived as a boy: 63 to every master. By the time of the Clarendon Commission, a large increase in the number of masters had pushed the ratio down to twenty-four, with twenty-four for Rugby, too, and twenty-one for Harrow.32 Changing ratios made institutional violence less necessary. Thring was not averse to beating, but he beat less than had many public school heads of previous generations. He noted realistically: ‘The ablest man over-matched in numbers, with all things round him dislocated and imperfect, must punish.’33

If some of the above descriptions of relations between masters and boys sound slightly sexual, however, the reader has judged well. The (p.144) first two masters, Browning and Johnson, were both homosexual, though Thring was not. Johnson was forced out of Eton in middle age for this reason; disapproval of his sexuality contributed, at least, to Browning’s departure, though his inability to stick to any kind of school rule whatsoever was the prime cause.34 Homosexuality within the boarding schools is a tough topic to investigate, given the understandable attempts by headmasters and school historians to suppress all but the vaguest references to it. The reluctance of schools to refer to this sexual preference over the centuries is, nevertheless, all the more reason for us to do so.

Latent, unconsummated homosexuality appears, from the rumours, hints and confessions skulking in this murky area, to have been common throughout much of public school history, though even the research on this is sourced and written in a rather cloak-and-dagger style. Perhaps the earliest reference to it is the 1541 confession by Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton, of a charge of buggery – though Udall’s biographer has cast doubt on this by having advanced the ingenious theory that this may be the sixteenth-century equivalent of a typo by an overworked scrivener. Udall made the admission while being questioned about the theft of college property, which suggests that he may have been guilty merely of ‘burglary’. From such errors are historical reputations formed.35

Writing in the 1920s, the sexologist Havelock Ellis quoted an unnamed expert who wrote of the many cases where ‘a physical sexual attraction is recognized as the basis of the relation, but as a matter of feeling, and partly also of theory, the ascetic ideal is adopted’. The expert added that ‘no one can have passed through a public school and college life without constantly observing indications of the phenomenon in question’.36 Recalling his time at the boarding school Stowe in the 1930s, the journalist Peregrine Worsthorne recalled: ‘Romantic friendships abounded, but only occasionally were they physically consummated.’37 This notion of same-sex attraction but without physical expression was even given a limited respectability by the development among late Victorian intellectuals of the (p.145) concept of ‘Greek love’ – non-sexual love between men – extracted from the study of Plato and other venerated classical authors. It found a ready audience among some masters serving in the all-male environment of the boarding schools, including Browning. However, the discovery that some of its champions, including Oscar Wilde and Browning’s close friend Simeon Solomon, had followed this to its logical conclusion by actually having sex with men finally discredited this movement in conventional society.38

When it comes to active homosexuality, some old public school boys say they never saw it at any time in their school careers; others say it was endemic. At Eton, shortly before Johnson’s departure, seven boys were expelled for homosexuality.39 Another source quoted by Ellis, writing in 1882, declared that he had since met many of the ‘vicious’ (the standard code for homosexual) boys he had known at Eton, and that ‘these very boys had become cabinet ministers, statesmen, officers, clergymen, country-gentlemen, etc, and that they are nearly all of them fathers of thriving families, respected and prosperous.’40 This implies that the source had encountered a good many of them during his education. Recalling his time as a pupil at the school in the early 1870s, Edward Lyttelton, who would return as its headmaster in 1905, lamented ‘a hideous amount of vice’.41 Frequent references to homosexuality in public school novels and memoirs show that it was common enough. Tom Brown’s School Days refers to ‘little pretty white-handed curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows’.42 Frederic Harrison, the jurist, was one of the ‘little pretty’ boys at King’s College School in the 1840s – and he did not like it at all, though he was never sexually molested. ‘On many a scrimmage where the petting grew intolerable, I would strike, kick, and even bit like a dog’, he remembered.43

In David Blaize, written in 1916 by E. F. Benson, the novelist and Old Marlburian, the eponymous protagonist experiences a different fate from Harrison’s. He hero worships his older school friend Frank, and has some sort of sexual encounter with him (or so it is implied), though only once, after meeting him by chance in the bathrooms. (p.146) ‘David had always avoided the thought of that; it remained a moment quite sundered from the rest of his intercourse with Frank, embarrassing and to be forgotten, like the momentary opening of a cupboard where nightmare dwelt’, he wrote. ‘Anyhow, it had been locked again instantly, and the key thrown away. Never a sound had again issued therefrom.’ This poignant painting of how homosexual urges – in this case, probably not abusive – are repressed probably describes many public school relationships.44

It is perfectly possible that those who saw no homosexuality and those who saw a good deal are both telling the truth: many young men have an impressionable sexuality and may follow the lead of a few of the alpha males in the group. Ellis concluded: ‘The prevalence of homosexual and erotic phenomena in schools varies greatly at different schools and at different times in the same school.’45 Perhaps the most spectacular case was in 1892, when Brighton College closed an entire boarding house in an effort to root out homosexuality, as well as expelling eleven boys, including two prefects.46

Homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until the 1960s, when it became permissible on the recommendation of a government-appointed report led, appropriately, by a former public school headmaster, Lord Wolfenden, who had been in charge at Shrewsbury. Nowadays most Britons would not regard it as wrong. Sexual abuse, however, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is clearly immoral. Sexual behaviour is abusive, of course, when it involves children rather than young men, or when it involves an approach from someone in power towards someone lower down the hierarchy. It is equally abusive – no more and no less – whether it involves same-sex relationships, or sexual relations between men and girls. However, opportunities for abusive heterosexual relationships were rather limited at boarding schools for most of their history. The key question is, therefore, how much homosexual abuse there was in the Victorian age and the early twentieth century, before changes to the schools, and to society in general, opened up this closed and intense system.

(p.147) The nature of boarding schools certainly created tensions which might have bred inappropriate behaviour. The rigid sense of hierarchy created blind obedience; the survival of the fag system fostered opportunities for a good deal of cruelty and humiliation in boarding schools; for a young boy, previously innocent about sex, often suddenly transplanted to a world of savagery, sexual cruelty might have seemed merely one among many forms of persecution that had to be endured with forbearance. There are parallels with the young adolescents beginning their agoge in Sparta, who routinely accepted the convention of sexual initiation by older boys. Another potent ingredient was the intense relationship between master and pupil, which Malim and other advocates of boarding schools valued so much. Intense relationships carry the risk of triggering sexual feelings, if the potential for sexual attraction already exists.

Such seems to have been the case for Browning and Johnson. Browning was repressed to the point of attacking homosexuality, seeking out good-looking or charming boys to make them confess their sexual anxieties, warning them against sentimental attachments to other boys, and reminding them of the sacred beauty of male virginity.47 The repressed homosexual interest which prompted this behaviour must have been obvious to all but the most naïve boys, making his behaviour inappropriate, though not perhaps abusive. The pattern of repression repeated itself: as an older man, having taken refuge in a scholar’s life at his alma mater King’s College, Cambridge, Browning insisted that a muscular young man sleep in his bed in case he was seized by a sudden illness and needed to be whisked off in strong arms.48 Johnson sought intimacy through embraces and close physical contact which were not only inappropriate but crossed the line into abusiveness, because they were sexual. ‘Elliot and I lay together on the long morocco sofa. He put his strong arms around me and his face against mine’, he wrote of one boy – though, according to his diary entry, at least, this encounter did not progress from there.49 In engaging in inappropriate or abusive behaviour, Browning and Johnson were in a minority. They were outnumbered by men such as (p.148) Arthur Benson, the Eton master (1885–1903) who satisfied himself merely by choosing the company of the better-looking Etonians, and by masters who went no further than stabs at rather literary innuendo, like Tempest, the gay master in Alan Bennett’s 1968 play Forty Years On, who exclaims, while organizing the end-of-term entertainment, ‘I wish I could put my hands on the choir’s parts’.50

However, the ‘contact of one mind with another and of one spirit with another’ attempted in the intense environment of the boarding schools had its downside, particularly in an era when homosexual men were denied an outlet through relationships with men of similar age. This downside was an occasional sexual obsession with their pupils.

It is common to assume that anyone alive in the Victorian era had an irrational, confused and misguided attitude towards sex. However, it is to the credit of public school headmasters such as Arnold that they saw abusive sexual behaviour as a problem which needed addressing. Aside from taking a lead from Arnold in reforming boy government, other headmasters tried a variety of stratagems to police the system and to prevent pretty curly-headed boys from being more than petted and pampered.

One solution was sport. ‘My prophylactic against certain unclean microbes was to send the boys to bed dead tired’, declared a late Victorian headmaster of the United Services College.51 At Eton, James Hornby, headmaster from 1868 to 1884, also stepped up sport partly in response to signs of increasing homosexual activity.52 It was probably an ineffective solution. Any activity which displays the physical attributes and athletic skills of healthy young men would, if the sense of attraction was already felt, sharpen rather than blunt sexual feelings towards them. While he was a master at Rugby, John Percival, the future head of Clifton College, sensed the danger: he made boys lengthen their football shorts and fasten them with elastic bands over their knees, so that no flesh in the lower, more lascivious part of the body was showing at all.53 There was, admittedly, probably only a small number of knee fetishists benefiting from an education (p.149) in the Bristol suburb. Nevertheless, Percival’s appreciation of the dangers of sport was realistic, even if his solution was eccentric.

A widespread policy of segregation was probably more effective than sport at preventing sexual abuse. As the first headmaster of Wellington College, Edward Benson, father of Arthur, ordered wire entanglements to be placed on top of the dormitory cubicles – which could not be fastened on the inside – and issued a fiat that when the younger boys were undressing, ‘steward and matron to walk up and down in the middle of the dormitory and report any boy who goes out of his own dormitory to another’.54 Moreover, close friendships between boys in different houses were at the very least kept under surveillance, and often discouraged, since relationships that did not develop under the watchful eye of the housemasters posed greater danger. There was clearly monitoring, too, though unsystematic, of the relationships between boys and masters: one of the immediate triggers for Browning’s dismissal from Eton was his friendship with Curzon, a boy whom Browning had sought out and cultivated as a friend even though Curzon was not in Browning’s house.55

Segregation exacted its costs. Writing in 1934 about his education at Malvern, founded in 1865 in Worcestershire, an old boy described poor relations between master and pupil as ‘one of the main defects of public school life’. ‘There can only be a completely satisfactory result from teaching when affection is permitted to exist between master and pupil’, he wrote. ‘The boy who is indifferent to his master’s general personality can react to his teaching only in a restricted way.’56 Recalling, in the same year, his life at Wellington in the first years of the twentieth century, the diplomat Harold Nicolson wrote that despite numerous changes, ‘one thing, however, did remain – a thing which I still regard as the main and the most stupid defect of the whole Wellingtonian system … In my day it was not thought proper that boys should become acquainted with other boys not in their own house or dorm.’ As a result, he estimated, one knew the thirty or so boys in one’s house; of these about ten qualified, through age, as possible friends. ‘This reduction was most damaging, as I found to my (p.150) bitter cost when I went up to Oxford. We learnt a great deal about Demosthenes and the acts of the apostles; we learnt but little about life.’57 The claim is overwrought, but echoed, in substance, by the memory of a 1950s Brighton College head of house who recalled that because of ‘the grip of the House system’, when a Brighton boy from a different house came up to his Oxford college the year after him, the two spoke for the first time in their lives.58 In an earlier age, writers had declared public schools educative precisely because they were public: exposing sons to the influence of many other boys, from whom they might learn. By mid-Victorian times, however, how public were they? On the other hand, competent headmasters did not have much of a choice. Homosexuality was often common; the risk of homosexual abuse was always loitering in the background; the injection of a little paranoia into the conduct of school government was therefore inevitable.

Homosexuality was not, in any case, the only reason for masters to adopt a much more watchful approach to their pupils. The death of a public school boy from bullying in 1885 suggests not too much but too little control over the lives of pupils. It was all the more shocking because the fatal incident took place at a day institution: King’s College School. If a boy could die in the supposedly less rough-and-tumble world of the day school, what on earth was happening to boarders?

One could, at first sight, make a case for writing off the fatality of Charles Bourda as an isolated, freak incident, based on a personal grudge between one boy and another. However, an inquest found that this was far from the case. A dozen boys in the upper form had decided, it transpired, to administer a blow to the back of each small boy as he passed them – a systematic form of violence directed at their juniors in general. Returning a verdict of ‘death by misadventure’, the inquest added ‘that the attention of the authorities at King’s College should be called to the evident want of supervision over boys during the intervals of school hours, which, in the opinion of the jury, led to the death of Charles Fisher Bourda’.59 Unsurprisingly, the (p.151) accident provoked a political storm. Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary, declared in the Commons: ‘I do not think there is any greater blot on our social system than the abominable practice of bullying which takes place in the great schools.’ At King’s itself, the incident prompted the withdrawal of a large number of young boys from the school and the firing of surplus staff, though the fact that the school did not collapse altogether engenders a sneaking suspicion that some fathers who had themselves been to public school felt that such an incident might, perhaps, have happened during their schooldays, too.60 There had, after all, been the odd death by misadventure in earlier ages, as has already been shown, but none had been as clear cut and as well documented as this. It showed that the public schools were far from tamed.

The view that girls were not suitable vessels for academic education received a body blow in 1872, with the launch of the Girls’ Public Day School Company, the brainchild of four feminists with a practical bent, at a meeting attended by the great and the good in the Albert Hall. The initial syllabus set out by the company, which was to grow to a mighty empire of 33 schools educating 7,000 pupils by the end of the century, shows that it was able to avoid two competing and not very happy traditions: the heavy concentration on social accomplishments which it might have inherited from earlier girls’ schools, and the emphasis on the Classics, albeit less unremitting than before, at boys’ public schools. The planned curriculum included English grammar and literature, French, German and elementary physical science, with Classics and elementary economics for the older pupils – though there was also some drawing and class singing, in line with the precedent set by earlier schools.61

Schools’ initial prospectuses have often, historically, given the impression of a scheme of education considerably broader than reality. However, the practice of the company schools over the following decades matched the curricular rhetoric. By 1900 Notting Hill High School, set up in the second year of the company’s existence, had won (p.152) sixty-five open scholarships to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London, with consistently strong performances by other schools such as Oxford and Putney High (originally East Putney High).62

The question of whether schools wanting to do their best for their girls needed a feminized syllabus, rather than one identical to that of a modern boys’ school, was to remain a dilemma for decades. Opportunities for a middle-class woman to have a career similar to a man’s were just beginning to appear in the late nineteenth century; there were, for example, 264 female doctors by 1895.63 Nonetheless, 264 was not a very large number for a large and sophisticated country. The bulk of even the best-educated women still became full-time wives and mothers rather than salaried workers. Agnata Ramsay, an Old Girl of St Leonard’s School, St Andrew’s, caused a tempest in the teapot of Cambridge University in 1887 when she came top in the Classics Tripos, though technically, since women were not then awarded full degrees, she was merely ‘above the Senior Classic’, who was a man. She, more than anyone, proved the limited career horizons of women, however. Her public life ended when Montagu Butler, the aged master of Trinity College, Cambridge and a proponent of women’s education, married her the following year. It does at least sound as if she had the consolation of a wild honeymoon – they ‘read a good deal of Greek together’, according to a biography of her husband.64

The solution at North London Collegiate, founded in 1850, was to offer a broad academic syllabus, while adding to this some subjects which might be useful to a woman who as an adult concentrated on domestic work. In 1872 it provided courses in the philosophies of business, dress and food. Frances Buss, its first headmistress, also made book-keeping a regular subject, and introduced dress-making ‘on scientific principles’.65 This might sound old-fashioned, but it represented definite progress. These were not superficial social accomplishments likely to attract a husband; they were useful skills for women engaged in the job of mistress of the household. Maria Grey, another of the Girls’ Public Day School Company founders, wrote of the traditional girls’ private school education, ‘they are not (p.153) educated to be wives but to get husbands’. At North London Collegiate they were taught the skills of the former rather than the arts of the latter.66

Some old girls of these schools would have preferred a more uncompromisingly sexless syllabus than this. On the other hand, others, such as Molly Hughes, a future educationalist taught by Buss in the 1880s at North London Collegiate, thought it was not feminized enough.67 It was a difficult balancing act.

Roedean School was set up in London in 1885 as a day and boarding school, but soon moved to a windswept location on the outskirts of Brighton. It is one of several schools which stuck to a considerably more conservative and feminized pattern than North London Collegiate and the Girls’ Public Day School Company. Roedean endorsed the still popular myth that girls’ health would be damaged by excessive mental effort. Consequently, ‘special pains will be taken to guard against overwork, and from two to three hours daily will be allotted to out-door exercise and games’, boasted its first prospectus – though it did also pledge that girls could be prepared for Newnham and Girton.68 The fear of mental overstrain exerted a powerful influence, too, at Wycombe Abbey, founded in 1896 by Frances Dove, previously headmistress of St Leonard’s. ‘The hours of study will be strictly limited’, promised an early prospectus from 1897.69

Even so, the new girls’ public schools had without doubt moved on from the traditional private school model. One of the greatest differences was the wholesale embracing of sport at many schools, though to a more limited degree by the Girls’ Public Day School Company. Sport was regarded, at Roedean and other schools, as a bulwark against overwork. Dove extolled Wycombe Abbey’s virtues in language similar to that used by its champions at boys’ public schools. She believed games would develop ‘powers of organisation, of good temper under trying circumstances, courage and determination to play up and do your best even in a losing game, rapidity in thought and action, judgement and self-reliance, and above all things, unselfishness.’70 A particular favourite at the girls’ public schools was (p.154) lacrosse, a game invented by Native Americans as a kind of symbolic warfare and played by many a British schoolgirl in the same martial spirit. Sceptics such as Olive Willis, a Roedean pupil of the 1890s and future founder of her own school, complained that, as at the boys’ schools, the emphasis on sport went too far.71 However, the idea that women from well-off backgrounds should be healthy, active and vigorous had for the previous few hundred years been anathema to many males, who had regarded such virtues as unfeminine. The clashing of jolly hockey sticks was a Victorian feminist triumph.

At this stage of their history, in some ways girls’ public schools were better than boys’ schools. The physical cruelty which peppers the memoirs of old boys, both officially sanctioned beatings by masters and prefects and illicit bullying, is mainly (though not entirely) absent from the memoirs of old girls. The lack of an almost sacred respect for the Classics frequently also made the curriculum better balanced, even if at times there was immoderate concern not to tax the girls excessively. Comparing the education she and her sister received at Wycombe Abbey in the 1890s with that of her brothers educated at boys’ public schools including Eton and Rugby, the writer Winifred Peck found her brothers’ wanting: boys’ schools ‘still breathed out the last disenchantments of the Middle Ages’.72 In some ways, however, girls’ schools simply absorbed the practices of boys’ schools, including their virtues and vices, with a good headmistress able to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Ada Benson, headmistress of Oxford High when it opened in 1875, introduced the prefect system under the influence of her brother Edward, the former Wellington headmaster, and many other schools would follow suit (Arthur and E. F. Benson were her brothers).73

In other respects, however, girls’ schools tended to be worse than boys’ schools. They were often veritable factories of rule-making, a legacy of the convent origins of female education. Molly Hughes claimed that during her time at North London Collegiate, new rules were displayed in the corridor ‘almost every day’. These included bans on getting wet on the way to school, walking more than three in (p.155) a row, dropping a pencil case, hanging a boot-bag by only one loop, and so on almost ad infinitum. ‘Can’t remember using the front gate, or not changing my shoes, or talking on the stairs, or–’ says Gwen Gascoyne, the heroine of the 1913 Angela Brazil story The Youngest Girl in the Fifth, as she races to meet a command to appear before the headmistress – though, in fact, the bright young girl, a mere Remove pupil, has been called up to meet the glorious destiny revealed in the book’s title.74 At Gateshead High School, part of the Girls’ Public Day School Company, the ban on talking in the halls and stairs was enforced so rigidly that new girls lost in the building remained so for ever, wandering around like female terra firma versions of the captain of the Flying Dutchman.75

The strictest rules were often reserved for conduct outside the school: specifying who could and could not be spoken to and when, a consequence of the fear of social infection which parents harboured towards their daughters. Given the social segregation which had been the priority of many girls’ private schools, the Girls’ Public Day School Company’s most revolutionary step of all lay not in curriculum policy but in its relaxed approach to social class: it sailed precisely the opposite course to most older girls’ schools by not vetting its pupils by family background. In this sense the company’s schools were, unlike Cheltenham Ladies’ College in its early years, truly ‘public’. The Duchess of Northumberland had refused a request to support the venture shortly before the company’s launch, declaring that ‘to help to make girls’ education like that of the boys, public’, would ‘never have assistance from me, for I believe such a system would be an unmixed evil’. Writing later about the company’s beginnings, Maria Grey recalled, ‘I was asked again and again whether I was mad enough to suppose that any gentleman would send his daughter to a public school’.76 But many did, and to the company’s schools.

In practice, there was a fair social mix at its schools, though it was skewed towards the higher echelons of society. Fees were deliberately set low enough to maximize the number of families who could afford (p.156) them, but they were still far from schools for the masses. At the Chelsea School, the very first, they were £4 4s a term for the youngest girls, rising to £8 8s (£770) for pupils entering at above the age of fifteen. This was out of range for all but the most successful of the skilled working classes, and even for particularly well-paid members of the middle class such as teachers. The fees were, however, well within the range of affordability for a fairly wide range of professionals.77 Early pupils at the schools certainly remembered a broader mix than they would have found at Cheltenham Ladies’, for example. ‘Some were not of the upper class but were splendid people’, Dame Meriel Talbot, daughter of an MP, recalled of her time at the first of the company’s schools. ‘I liked them all and my time at school left me with a facility for enjoyment of people of very different types.’78 It provided, thus, a truly vocational education for Dame Meriel, whose career, as a member of a host of official committees, would be built on helping people of ‘very different types’ from herself, including deprived girls.

From the point of view of the schools’ financial viability, however, they were not exclusive enough. Developing science into a properly taught subject would have been immensely costly. ‘We had no laboratories at all and girls like myself who wanted to do science had nothing’, wrote Dame Harriette Chick (1875–1977), who became a distinguished nutritionist, of her days at Notting Hill. But although science was therefore learned ‘theoretically’, ‘it was exceptionally well done’. It clearly worked for her, but was hardly ideal.79 The company was in a bind: science labs and adequate sporting facilities were expensive to build, and the schools lacked the endowments enjoyed by the old public schools, which might have made it easier to realize these ambitions. However, because it wanted to educate a fairly wide variety of children the company was reluctant to raise fees, and the large volume of parental complaints about even the existing fees suggests that it might not have been able to do so anyway without suffering falling rolls.80 However, some other non-company schools, such as St Leonard’s, a mixed day and boarding school founded in (p.157) St Andrews, Fife in 1877, had the money to take science seriously right from the start – an attitude which produced a steady stream of medics, including the epidemiologist Alice Stewart (1906–2002) and Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873–1943), the medical pioneer.81 The company was, in comparison, in danger of falling behind. From the 1890s its response was to accept increasing amounts of state funding, which in the early twentieth century would leave the state with too powerful a role in the schools for them to be called public schools by our definition.82 It was a fate that would befall many boys’ day schools as well, during some difficult periods for the public school movement.

In 1900, two Old Etonian generals, Lord Methuen and Sir Redvers Buller, made a striking contribution to the annals of British military blunders by suffering one sound trouncing apiece on the South African veldt in the opening stages of the Second Boer War.

Britain had grown accustomed to winning, vanquishing frequently ill-armed and ill-trained foes in a series of small wars over the previous century. A good many of these wars had been won by old boys of the public schools. The country’s initial defeat on the southern tip of the Dark Continent, though later redeemed by the victorious, if morally dubious, scorched earth strategy of Lord Kitchener – not a public school boy – was therefore all the more shocking. It gave birth to a wave of national self-questioning. This was given a greater sense of urgency by the fashionable Social Darwinist theory, which held that world affairs was a competition between powerful nations, with those which failed to adapt to the times facing oblivion. In this fearful atmosphere, the public schools were examined by social commentators and found wanting. The attitude of public schools ‘towards the teaching of modern languages and the preparation of our future officers has been almost incredibly stupid and perverse’, wrote G. G. Coulton, a former public school master teaching the army class. He repeated the now-familiar argument that too much Classics was taught, to the exclusion of modern subjects. Unless the curriculum and teaching improved, he asserted, there was every (p.158) likelihood that Colenso and Magersfontein, which destroyed the reputations of Buller and Methuen, respectively, would not be the only battles lost on the playing fields of Eton.83

However, the 1902 Akers-Douglas parliamentary report on officer training, an official response to this national self-doubt, presented an assessment of the public schools which, far from being apocalyptic, was veritably positive. On being asked why the percentage of successful candidates entering from crammers had dropped from sixty-eight to fifty-two from 1895 to 1900, Sandhurst concluded: ‘The decrease in those entering Sandhurst from “crammers” is believed to be due to the Army classes at public schools receiving better supervision and instruction than formerly.’ It added: ‘There is no question that the boys entering the R.M.C. [Royal Military College of Sandhurst] straight from public schools are certainly, as regards general educational fitness, physical fitness, general character and bearing, and aptitude for command, more desirable than those coming from “crammers”.’84

Another charge would quickly be made against the public schools in the years following the Boer War, one that was, in a sense, even more serious, because it questioned the entire social structure that underpinned them. This was the claim that public school boys were out of touch because of the nature of their education. ‘Instincts of caste that forbid sympathy and understanding between the well-to-do and the poorer classes’ were fomented in the schools, asserted John Galsworthy, the writer and Old Harrovian.85 Galsworthy blamed this for the severe industrial unrest in the years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It is fair to ask how it could be that the political and military establishment, largely educated at such schools, was in such a state of ignorance about the conditions of the masses that it was shocked to find a huge proportion of working-class men rejected by the army as Boer War fighting material on grounds of ill-health. This was the case for three out of five of all men at the Manchester recruiting station.86

The headmasters of many boys’ public schools could point, in their defence, to the many Christian missions set up by schools in (p.159) working-class areas in the decades before the Boer War, including Clifton (1875), Cheltenham (1890) and Eton (1880), whose boys were inoculated before they made the trip from Windsor to the working-class districts of Hackney Wick.87 The amount of money raised by boys and friends of the school to fund the activities of the missions could be impressively high. For the Cheltenham mission in London it came to an average of £500 or so a year (about £55,000) – enough to fund a full-time missioner and assistant missioner. A cynic could argue that these missions suffered from the common affliction of many good causes supported by the professional classes, then as now: money was given generously; time much less so. A regular complaint in the Cheltenham Missioners’ Annual Report was that so few Cheltonians or Old Cheltonians visited the mission to assist in its work.88 However, accusations that the missions did nothing to bridge the large social divide between Britain’s classes comes up against the inconvenient truth that Britain’s first prime minister of a fully fledged socialist government became a socialist after growing to understand the conditions of the poor while working at his public school’s mission. Clement Attlee’s eyes were opened at Haileybury House in the poor London borough of Stepney.89 Moreover, some schools actually invited poor boys from the districts where the missions were located into their confines. In 1910 Bradford boys came to Sedbergh School for summer camp, where they developed an enthusiasm for bathing with the pupils in the river and walking with them in the Yorkshire fells.90

There were, however, still few working-class boys actually attending public schools. Schools which had awarded scholarships through patronage abandoned this from the early Victorian era onwards in favour of competitive exams. One might have expected this to broaden the schools’ social base, by allowing bright boys of modest means to win entry through their brains rather than family connections. Scholars had, after all, tended to come from the establishment circles frequented by governors and senior masters who exercised this patronage – in the same way that Wykeham had let in the sons of (p.160) powerful men as scholars. At Charterhouse, the last scholar nominated before exams were introduced in the 1870s was the son of the successful publisher Frederick Warne.91 In reality, however, this new development left schools no more and no less socially exclusive than before, largely because it played into the hands of the growing network of prep schools catering to the wealthy classes, schools whose raison d’être was the preparation of pupils for public schools. Examining the registers for Winchester College for 1836–7 to 1905–6, shows that in 1836–7, during the patronage era, fifteen of the seventeen boys were the sons of men in holy orders. In 1905–6, six of the twelve were from this background, with another the son of a justice of the peace, another of a captain, and another of a father living at Number One Bryanston Square in London – far from the tough districts where the public schools placed their missions.92 At Winchester, at least, the end of patronage slightly broadened the astoundingly narrow base from which the scholars were drawn, but only for the most part to include other members of the professional classes.

The provenance of public school scholars was privileged in the early part of the century, and remained so in the latter part. The major difference was that the new boys were on average considerably brighter than their forebears, to the point where they exercised a beneficial academic effect on the whole school. At Eton, which introduced competitive exams in the 1840s, the headmaster told the Clarendon Commission that of seventeen King’s Scholars in his class, ‘I find twelve clergymen’s sons, two young sons, whose elder brothers are provided for; two sons of naval officers, and one who is a solicitor’s son.’ The head added, with a sense of definition of the term ‘poor scholar’ which would stretch the imagination of the most imaginative lexicographer: ‘I take these to be, as near as may be, the class of person whom our Founder meant to benefit; and the leaven of steadiness and diligence, which they impart to the rest of the School, is most valuable to us.’93

Taking scholars and commoners together, public schools largely catered only to a restricted range within Britain’s broad and varied (p.161) elite classes. A study of boys at Winchester at the end of the century shows 61 per cent from professional backgrounds, with 31 per cent sons of businessmen. For St Paul’s during the same period, 58 per cent were from the professions. At both schools, even boys who did not come from the professional class joined it after leaving: almost four-fifths of St Paul’s boys in the period became professionals. Another study of 754 leading businessmen in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol active between 1870 and 1914 shows that under one-fifth attended public school.94 Many parts of the wealthier end of the middle classes had not, by and large, yet picked up the public school habit. One estimate puts the number of pupils at boys’ public schools at 20,000 in 1902 – only about 1 per cent of the relevant age group at the time, roughly speaking.95 This definition is based on classifying sixty-four schools as public schools, a fairly narrow definition, though it includes the majority of what this author would call ‘public schools’.96 With some exceptions, the world of boys’ public schools was indeed a narrow one. It was not a caste system, since a wide variety of boys could attend if their fathers could pay. It was, instead, an island connected to the vast mainland of British society only by narrow and badly paved bridges.

There were alternatives to the public schools, at this stage of British history, but the strength of rival systems should not be exaggerated. The small private schools, often run by a single schoolmaster or mistress as for-profit ventures, remained in large numbers, with some catering to boys, some to girls, and some to both. However, the bulk of them provided only an elementary education, teaching children the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – if they were lucky. ‘None is too old, too poor, too ignorant, too feeble, too silly, too unqualified to be regarded by others as unfit for school keeping’, a member of the Newcastle Commission on the state of popular education had written in 1858, though the conclusion would have applied equally well at any point in the century. School keepers included, according to the report, ‘domestic servants out of places, discharged barmaids, vendors of toys or lollipops, keepers of small (p.162) eating houses, milliners, consumptive patients in an advanced state, men and women of seventy and even eighty years of age’.97

In the late nineteenth century the place of these schools was taken increasingly by state-sponsored schools. The Education Act of 1870 gradually spread state-funded elementary education throughout England and Wales, with a similar Act for Scotland in 1872. Elementary education then was not the same as primary school education now. Although the education was basic, concentrating largely on the three Rs, classes included some older as well as younger children. In other words, the name referred to the nature of the education, rather than the age of the children being taught. The 1870 Act also led to the creation of ‘higher schools’, but limited numbers of children attended these. The higher schools can be seen as an early incarnation of the state secondary school system. But although the teaching was more advanced than for the elementaries, children did not usually go on to university from these schools – making it difficult to see them as academic rivals to the public schools.98 Meanwhile, the grammar school movement had been given new impetus by the Endowed Schools Commission, strengthening the potential competition to the public schools.

The public schools were, on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, in a considerably better state than at her accession to the throne. They had begun to train pupils for traditional upper-class careers in the army; the training was, belatedly, beginning to reach a high standard. The curriculum outside the military classes was also considerably broader, and more likely to be taught well. In reward for these reforms, the public school movement as a whole was thriving – with tens of thousands of pupils attending, instead of the few thousand of only a century before. Many of these pupils were girls, at institutions which shared at least some characteristics with their brothers’ schools.

There were, however, still weaknesses. When compared with the grammar schools, the public schools were often weak in science. At boarding schools the boys were sometimes half-starved; the constant (p.163) recurrence of public school novels of illicit feasts, including the 1947 tale of how Billy Bunter, the most famous Old Boy of Greyfriars School, was found in his schoolmaster’s study eating jam with his ivory paper-knife, reflected a fantasizing about food generated by the lack of basic provisions.99 At both boarding and day schools boys were often bullied. The reform of the public schools was half-finished. However, in very many ways, the new century would be faster than the old one. This greater sense of speed would apply, too, to public school reform.


(1.) Robert Philp, A Keen Wind Blows: The Story of Fettes College, London: James & James, 1998, p. 16.

(2.) Ibid., pp. 14–16.

(3.) ibid., pp. 16–24.

(4.) Magnus Magnusson, The Clacken and the Slate. The Story of the Edinburgh Academy 1824–1974, London: Collins, 1974, pp. 258, 224.

(5.) David Henry Edward Wainwright, Liverpool Gentlemen. A History of Liverpool College, an Independent Day School, from 1840, London: Faber and Faber, 1960, pp. 153–6.

(6.) Email communication with principal of Liverpool College, 16 October 2013.

(8.) Westminster School Governors’ minutes, 28 February 1881: Memorial from the Masters.

(9.) Anthony Quick, Charterhouse: A History of the School, London: James & James, 1990, p. 225.

(12.) Donald Leinster-Mackay, The Educational World of Edward Thring, London: Falmer, 1987, p. 14.

(13.) J. R. de S. Honey, Tom Brown’s Universe: The Development of the Victorian Public School, London: Millington, 1977, p. 245.

(14.) The Year Book of Education, London: Evans Bros, 1932, p. 225.

(15.) Telephone interview, 20 January 2014.

(16.) ‘The Reform of the Public School’, in Sir Cyril Norwood and Arthur Herbert Hope, (eds), The Higher Education of Boys in England, London: John Murray, 1909, p. 523.

(17.) S. P. B. Mais, A Schoolmaster’s Diary: Extracts from the Journal of Patrick Traherne, Sometime Assistant Master at Radchester and Marlton, London: Grant Richards: 1918, pp. 22–5.

(18.) R. Gurner, I Chose Teaching, London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1937, p. 55.

(19.) G. G. H. Page (ed.), An Angel Without Wings: The History of University College School 1830–1980, London: University College School, 1981, p. 37.

(20.) Ian Anstruther, Oscar Browning: A Biography, London: John Murray, 1983, p. 24.

(21.) Ibid., pp. 15, 23–4, 39–40, 51.

(22.) Ibid., p. 52; Alisdare Hickson, The Poisoned Bowl: Sex, Repression and the Public School System, London: Constable, 1995, p. 59.

(24.) Tim Card, Eton Renewed: A History from 1860 to the Present Day, London: John Murray, 1994, pp. 59–66.

(25.) Matthew Davenport Hill, Eton and Elsewhere, London: John Murray, 1928, p. 114.

(27.) Ibid., p. 69.

(28.) Ibid., p. 73.

(29.) George Parkin, Edward Thring, Life, Diary and Letters, London: Macmillan, 1898, pp. 74–7.

(30.) Geoffrey Hoyland, The Man Who Made a School: Thring of Uppingham, London: S.C.M. Press, 1946, p. 56.

(31.) Ibid., passim, for example p. 201.

(34.) Anstruther, Browning, passim, but especially p. 77ff.; Card, Eton Renewed, p. 64; see also entries on Browning and Johnson in ODNB.

(35.) Sir H. C. Maxwell-Lyte, A History of Eton College, 4th edn, London: Macmillan, 1911, p. 114; Tim Card, Eton Established: A History from 1440 to 1860: London, John Murray, 2001, p. 38, quoting William Edgerton, Udall’s biographer.

(36.) Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 2, Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1924, p. 81.

(37.) Peregrine Worsthorne, ‘Boy made Man’, in George MacDonald Fraser (ed.), The World of the Public School, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977, p. 90.

(42.) Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days, Cambridge: Macmillan, 1857, p. 257.

(43.) Frederic Harrison, Autobiographic Memoirs, London: Macmillan, 1911, Vol. 1, p. 35.

(44.) E. F. Benson, David Blaize, London: Hogarth Press, 1989, p. 184.

(46.) Martin D. W. Jones, Brighton College 1845–1995, Chichester, West Sussex: Phillimore, 1995, p. 95.

(48.) Richard Davenport-Hines, entry for Browning in ODNB, Vol. 8, p. 251.

(50.) Alan Bennett, Plays 1, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996, p. 34.

(51.) T. W. Bamford, The Rise of the Public Schools, London: Nelson, 1967, p. 82.

(53.) O. F. Christie, A History of Clifton College, 1860–1934, Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1935, p. 35.

(56.) Derek Verschoyle, ‘Indian Innocence, Ltd’, in Graham Greene (ed.), The Old School, London: Jonathan Cape, 1934, p. 210.

(57.) Harold Nicolson, ‘Pity the Pedagogue’, in Greene, Old School, p. 119.

(60.) Ibid., pp. 133, 143.

(61.) Josephine Kamm, Indicative Past: A Hundred Years of The Girls’ Public Day School Trust, London: Allen & Unwin, 1971, pp. 46–7, 50.

(62.) Ibid., pp. 77–8.

(63.) Nigel Watson, And Their Works Do Follow Them: The Story of North London Collegiate School, London: James & James, 2000, p. 46.

(64.) Sara Delamont, entry on Agnata Butler in ODNB, Vol. 9, pp. 114–15.

(67.) Gillian Avery, Cheltenham Ladies: A History of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, London: James & James, 2003, p. 247.

(68.) Dorothy De Zouche, Roedean School, 1885–1955, Brighton: Roedean School, 1955, p. 27.

(69.) Lorna Flint, Wycombe Abbey School 1896–1986, privately printed, 1989, p. 28.

(70.) Ibid., p. 23.

(72.) Winifred Peck, A Little Learning, or A Victorian Childhood, London: Faber and Faber, 1952, p. 36.

(74.) Angela Brazil, The Youngest Girl in the Fifth, from The Angela Brazil Omnibus Book, London and Glasgow: Blackie & Son, 1937, p. 15.

(76.) Ibid., pp. 43, 4.

(77.) Ibid., p. 52; Jeffrey Williamson, ‘Structure of Pay in Britain 1710–1911’, Research in Economic History, vol. 7, 1982, p. 48. I have used two sisters, of ten and fifteen, to work out affordability.

(79.) Ibid., p. 77.

(80.) Ibid., p. 85.

(83.) Edward Mack, Public Schools and British Opinion Since 1860, New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, p. 218.

(86.) Geoffrey Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency: A Study in British Politics and Political Thought, 1899–1914, Oxford: Blackwell, 1971, p. 305.

(87.) Christie, History of Clifton College, p. 122Mack, Public Schools and British Opinion Since 1860, p. 100M. C. Morgan, Cheltenham College: The First Hundred Years, Chalfont St Giles: published for the Cheltonian Society by Richard Sadler, 1968, p. 128;Card, Eton Renewed, p. 131; email from Eton archivist, 1 May 2013

(90.) Henry Lowther Clarke and W. N. Weech, History of Sedbergh School 1525–1925, Sedbergh: Jackson and Son, 1925, p. 194.

(92.) J. B. Wainewright (ed.), Winchester College, 1835–1906: A Register, Winchester: P. & G. Wells, 1907.

(93.) Clarendon Commission, Vol. 1, p. 81.

(94.) W. D. Rubinstein, Capitalism, Culture, and Decline in Britain, 1750–1990, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 113–19.

(95.) Office for National Statistic, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ctu/annual-abstract-of-statistics/no–146-–2010-edition/annual-abstract-of-statistics.pdf (accessed 1 July 2013). The author’s calculations assume a roughly equal distribution of ages within the ONS’s specified age groups.

(97.) Bryan Maybee, Pro Liberis, Independent Schools Association 1878–2010, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational, 2010, p. 31.

(98.) John Lawson and Harold Silver, A Social History of Education in England, London: Methuen, 1973, pp. 337–8.

(99.) Frank Richards, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, London: Hawe Books, 1991, p. 21.