Despite their emphasis on moral integrity, public spirit and manliness of character, the public schools insisted on the preservation of the classics as the main core of their teaching. By so doing the Victorians separated the children of the elite from those of all other classes, and created an efficient, segregated and unique system of education for the governing classes.
It was the lively antics of Tom Brown’s “School Days”1, published in 1857, that so captured the imagination of Victorian boys for a form of education that their fathers had never known. At the time in life when the adolescent was ready to break out and start doing things for himself, Arnold’s model of a boarding school offered a whole new world for the energy of privileged youth (some one percent of the boys of the country) to explore. Boys were away from home, organised into relatively small House units, given plenty of sports, left largely to organise themselves with a strict “boy-imposed” hierarchy of fags and prefects, imbued with a sense of purpose, vision and idealism, while often living in a Gothic recreated past which was part monastery, and part stately home. Such boys had a feeling of mighty superiority over all those they didn’t understand. Boys loved it; fathers envied it, and saw just the process whereby their sons, and by association themselves, could progress up the social ladder. Parliamentarians saw it as the training ground for those who would administer an empire.
The Rugby School that Arnold created was ahead of its time, and attracted an increasing number of parents eager to find a more modern form of education to that of Eton or Winchester. To achieve this Cheltenham College2 was set up in 1841 to be run like a business, but operating as a charity. Cheltenham’s location as a popular Victorian spa was significant, and the school defined its product very carefully. Cheltenham didn’t deny the classical curriculum but diluted this with science, modern foreign languages, history and geography, so creating an excellent background for the higher ranks of the civil service. Other new foundations quickly sought to do the same thing. Cheltenham willingly gave its advice: “Had we admitted tradesmen… we must have done so almost without limit, and in the confined circle of shops in the town we should have had the sons of gentlemen shaking hands perhaps with school fellows behind the counter and a fusion of ranks (that would have been distressing to gentlemen)” which was exactly what Arnold had feared would happen. Cheltenham, as with the other soon-to-be-established Victorian public schools (thirty more were founded by 1869), was to be about consolidating the power of the new social elite.
In 1853 Edward Thring3, aged thirty-three, and a former pupil of Eton himself, was appointed headmaster of the old Elizabethan grammar school of Uppingham4, established in 1584 to provide a free education for the boys of the town. When Thring arrived there were twenty-five pupils and two teachers. Thring was vastly ambitious, and as convinced of his Christian duty as ever had been Dr. Arnold, but he was more modern in his approach and quite extraordinarily energetic and enterprising. He believed that no school should have more pupils than the headmaster could possibly know. Like Arnold he was little interested in the local, possibly dull, sons of local tradesmen, neither had he any interest in day pupils. “As a fact beyond dispute”, he wrote, “Englishmen of the upper class send their children away from home to be educated… and the reason… is not the teaching” but that the boarding school is “a better place for a boy to grow up in than the home”5. In twelve years Thring had transformed the ancient grammar school into a purpose-designed Public school of nearly three hundred boarders drawn from all over the country, with just eight local day boys.
Harrow School6 (today seen as representing alongside Eton the very epitome of a public school) had been founded in 1582 to provide a free education for the boys of the parish. Only twenty miles from the centre of London, and still largely surrounded by fields in the early nineteenth century, it had been easy for an enterprising headmaster in the previous century to take in as fee-paying boarders the sons of wealthy London merchants. Progressively these ‘outsiders’ came to outnumber the local pupils being, ‘foreigners who are chiefly the sons of the nobility and gentry of the kingdom, and who constantly scoff at and ill-treat the local boys”7. By 1862 there wasn’t a single local boy left at Harrow, and the whole endowment was being used to subsidise the education of ‘outsiders’ well able to pay for themselves (such as was the young Winston Churchill twenty-five years later). “This amounts to a wicked confiscation of private rights and privileges”8, stated irate townsfolk in a response to government Commissioners. “The hereditary curse of English education is its organisation along lines of social class”, wrote the historian R. H. Tawney9 nearly a hundred years later in 1931.
Thesis 46: 24th August 2006