A Gentleman's Education – Then As Now Oliver Hadingham

November 28, 2016

Drawing on research presented at The Asian Conference on Education 2016, Oliver Hadingham of Japan’s Waseda University discusses the reform and growth of the English public school system in the nineteenth century and the forces that drove its change during this period.

That the English public school system survived the last two centuries is surprising given that at the turn of the nineteenth century public schools were viewed as parochial establishments where nothing much was learned beyond dead languages and how to flog and be flogged. That they thrive in a more global age is even more unexpected. English public schools (i.e. private, fee-paying schools, independent from the state sector) have never been more popular. Competition for places and bursaries at schools like Eton and Harrow, Westminster and St Paul’s is fierce, drawing applicants from all over the world. What makes parents undergo the serious financial commitment of paying school fees is something less easily definable than simply the promise of good exam results. Public schools are believed to develop students’ character, giving them the confidence and inner resolve to thrive in an increasingly challenging world. This belief, and the emerging practice of instilling character through a certain style of education, goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that the public school’s ability to “mould” gentlemen emerged.

Public Schools in the Eighteenth Century

At the turn of the nineteenth century, public schools had little to recommend them. A general atmosphere of unruliness prevailed. Schools were commonly run, as Strachey noted, through a form of “anarchy tempered by despotism”. Writing of his time at Westminster school in the 1810s, one old boy claimed: “The boys fought one another, they fought the masters, the masters fought them, they fought outsiders; in fact we were ready to fight everybody.” This mood of anarchic violence had a long pedigree. In 1710 Winchester boys had mutinied over beer rations. In 1768 a rebellion at Eton over the rights of prefects became the first of a series of seven uprisings reaching into the 1830s. In 1771 the carriage of a visiting Harrow governor was attacked and the school closed for nine days; in 1797 an Eton staff member was taken prisoner, precipitating the reading of the Riot Act and a summoning of soldiers and special constables and armed farmers.

“Masters and pupils endured an atmosphere of mutual suspicion.”

Part of the problem was that public schools were understaffed, often purposely, to turn a profit. In the late 1760s, for example, 12 masters at Eton were tasked with the education of 520 boys. The consequence of chronic understaffing was a harsh enforcement of discipline in large classes and strict rote learning. Masters and pupils endured an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. It may well have been true that the brutal and turbulent school environment was a great preparation for the trials of adult life in an age that was much harsher than our own. Increasingly, however, parents shied away from submitting their sons to such treatment once word of riots, rebellion and anarchy spread.

Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century the old public schools were enjoying a remarkable renaissance and were considered the ideal place for the sons of aspiring parents. The nine public schools (Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Charterhouse, Rugby, Westminster, Merchant Taylors’, St Paul’s, Shrewsbury) had by the close of the century been joined by between 40 and 60 new schools, with many grammar schools adopting certain public school practices. This mid-nineteenth century renaissance is usually seen as the consequence of one man’s efforts: Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), headmaster of Rugby School from 1828-1842.

Arnold of Rugby

Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster of Rugby School, it is claimed, largely on the strength of a testimonial from the Provost of Oriel that he “would change the face of education all through the public schools of England”. Immediate changes were made. The assistant masters were forced to relinquish outside church income and apply themselves fully to the school. The classics-heavy curriculum persisted, though to Arnold classics had relevance to real-world contemporary problems and was not merely the study of a long-dead world. French and mathematics were made regular subjects rather than “extras” added on to the curriculum. Arnold’s overarching aim as headmaster was to instruct and nurture the boys in an idea of Christian “manliness” in replacing debauchery and violence with restraint and gentleness. The chapel at Rugby became an integral part of the school, where Arnold delivered regular sermons on the necessity of faith for real-world living.

Arnold fostered in Rugby pupils a seriousness of purpose. Boyhood was to Arnold a state of riotousness and insolence “annoying to others, like the gaiety of a drunken man”, but through constant application boys could learn the responsibility required of Christian gentleman. Work was a sacred duty, though intellectual ability and achievements were of less importance to Arnold than moral earnestness and the diligent conquering of a boy’s sinful tendencies in forming a Christian character. To pupils who succeeded in this, Arnold would stand “hat in hand”. Arnold entrusted the sixth form with the governing of the boys outside of the classroom, and consulted them regularly. The independence granted to older boys built on a longstanding feature of the public schools, yet the difference was that Arnold’s sixth form governed responsibly, not as tyrants exploiting their power for selfish ends or as rabble-rousers, but as benevolent overseers of younger boys’ moral path towards maturity, a sacred duty to the school as an institution.

The mythology that grew up around Arnold after his death suggests that he alone was responsible for the growth and popularity of public schools. Dean Stanley’s Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold (1844) and the success of Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1858) fuelled the myth of Arnold of Rugby. Many parodied this legendary status. Thackeray, writing in the Morning Chronicle, asked, “Why had I not Arnold for a master?” Dickens gushed, “I respect and reverence his memory beyond all expression”. Yet Arnold was not the pioneer his legend suggests. Samuel Butler at Shrewsbury (1798-1836) had introduced modern subjects and stressed the pastoral responsibility of senior boys. Pre-Arnold Rugby school did not experience the lawlessness that Westminster had a reputation for; much of the violence at Rugby and other schools had been stamped out well before Arnold’s headship.

The mauling received from Lytton Strachey in the 1920s, dismissing Arnold as a prim and pious Victorian whose eminence was unearned, obscures how far his presence lingered well after his death. The Clarendon Commission of the Public Schools Inquiry Commission, active in the 1860s, stressed that even though Arnold himself may not have proved much of a reformer, crucially, “great things were attempted in his name”. The Commission was broadly supportive of the new public school approach Arnold did much to promote. The Commission did recommend a widening of the curriculum at public schools, but that classics should remain the staple diet of every public school boy for its apparent ability to cultivate virtue.

“There was a growing realization that the public schools were now to be cherished as national institutions…”

Arnold did much to encourage high-flying young men to enter teaching when formerly they would have entered the Church. Arnold did inspire many ex-pupils to become headmasters and build on his ideas, including Charles Vaughan (headmaster at Harrow), Conyweare (Liverpool), and Thomas Priestley (Mill Hill). George Cotton (future head at Marlborough) attended a Rugby at which the presence of Arnold was still felt. Others were influenced by the posthumous reputation of Arnold that Hughes and Stanley magnified, such as Thomas Jex-Blake (Cheltenham College, Rugby) and George Moberly (Winchester). There was a growing realization that the public schools were now to be cherished as national institutions, due, according to the Clarendon report, “to the good sense, temper, and ability of the men by whom during successive generations they have been governed”.

Population, Railways, and Growing Professionalization

Yet Arnold’s influence could not match larger social and economic forces swirling around outside the walls of public schools, evident at the time of his death and gaining pace through the mid- to late nineteenth century. The subsequent popularity and growth of public school education is better explained by additional factors such as population increase, the spread of railways and the growth of the professions. What these developments did was fuel the desire among a broader section of society for the “gentleman’s education” that public schools provided. As the nineteenth century progressed, there was also a greater need for the “man of character”, someone who could take on the responsibilities of guiding the nation and improving it. A view gained traction that public schools could serve as character factories, usefully turning boys into gentlemen.

The general boom in new public schools that took place in the middle decades of the century was driven by the needs of an expanding market. In 1781 the population of the UK was estimated at 13 million; by 1851 it was 27 million. Britain was a very young country – under-24-year-olds accounted for 60% of the total population during the first half of the nineteenth century. With so many children around, vast numbers required schooling of some sort. This is not to imply that population alone accounts for the increased popularity and number of public schools, only that it is one factor among many – economic booms and slumps, cholera and disease, a school’s reputation, publicity (good and bad), headmasters, resources, war, and the desire to expand intake among them. Some schools observed an overall upward trend in intake over the middle decades; others, particularly the London ones, struggled. New schools were founded, such as Cheltenham (1841), Marlborough (1843), Rossall (1844), and Lancing (1848) Wellington (1853), Clifton (1862) and Malvern (1864). A network of public school masters grew up from the mid-century, most of public school origin themselves; many moved between assistant masterships at various schools and then to headships at one or two others. Growing numbers of people were employed within education: in 1851 95,000 people, 1% of the total working population, by 1881 183,000 (1.6%). Not all were employed in public schools, though a fair proportion would have been.

Other schools existed, of course. There were old provincial grammar schools, newer private schools, and dissenting academies. With rising fertility rates, affluent families would often feel besieged by offspring “getting in the way” at home, something which such day schools only partially solved. Indeed, if a satisfactory school could not be found nearby, parents had no qualms about sending their sons away. Boarders at new and old public schools stayed away for months on end, often miles away thanks to an expanding rail network. The railway enabled parents and relatives to visit them more easily (and the Penny Post of 1840 made correspondence easier and quicker). Rail construction, passenger numbers, and revenue increased markedly in the middle decades. Not all schools were conveniently placed for rail access. Yet by 1870 most towns had stations, and with the progressive extension of lines to remoter areas in subsequent decades many schools would have been more accessible. This suited many a Victorian parent; at far-off public schools their sons were not heard, and only on occasion were they seen. Sending children away was not deemed callous or uncaring, quite the contrary. Childhood was shorter and independence was experienced much earlier in the Victorian period. And time away at boarding school was a valuable lesson in itself.

The recognition of the demands of a changing society inspired the push for qualifying examinations and greater professionalization. In 1836 and 1837 the passing of a written exam was required to practice in common-law courts and the Chancery Court. The British Medical Association was founded in 1858 to oversee the medical profession. In 1858 the College of Surgeons granted special licences in dentistry. Through more meritocratic entry to the professions, an aristocracy of birth would be transformed into an aristocracy of talent, whose skills were certified. The 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan civil service report gradually introduced open exams for entry to the higher grades of the civil service. The purchasing of Army commissions was fully abolished in 1871. Entering the professions became the surest way to respectability and gentlemanly status, a much-cherished value to Victorians – and a public school education the first of many steps towards achieving this goal.

An Elite Reconstituted

Victorian society was far from static. Population exploded, towns and cities grew, and as the economy shifted away from agriculture, society changed with it. The position of aristocracy and gentry remained largely unchallenged, despite protests before and after the 1832 Reform Act and throughout the “hungry forties”. Fears rose that traditional hierarchies would be threatened as Britain hurtled towards an increasingly urban and industrial future. Even though the upper classes proved doggedly adaptable throughout the Victorian era, diversifying into property, minerals, and rich (often American) marriage partners, fear of coming democracy unnerved the aristocracy, as did the rising middle classes, richer but also more politically and culturally significant from the mid-nineteenth century. If the middle classes sided with the poor, the traditional elite would be done for.

The solution was one of compromise and adaption, to assimilate sections of the middle classes within the existing, largely landed, elite. The goal for the mid-Victorian generation, as the historian F. M. L. Thompson underlines, was “fashioning the elements of a new society in step with the appearance of its material and human components”. The public schools of the mid-century could provide an education in leadership, an ennobling endeavour that would create gentlemen from a growing proportion of society in size and significance, ready to share the burdens of state and guide Victorian society.

Initially those assimilated were drawn from the middle classes closest to the aristocracy and gentry, barristers and physicians at the top of their professions, substantial earners who could negotiate with ease the social graces required of Victorian high society. Later, the provincial industrialists were accepted, trailing the successful admission of people like Sir Robert Peel (educated at Harrow and Oxford, son of a wealthy textile manufacturer) and William Gladstone (Eton and Oxford, son of a Liverpool merchant). Later still were the aspiring sections of the middle class, who sent their sons away to new public schools, more minor than major, so they could receive an education befitting a gentleman, whether aspiring or actual. All were transfixed by the magic of the public school ethos, the surest way to be considered a gentlemen and actually become one. The public school had replaced Oxford and Cambridge in importance in a society where status mattered. From roughly the 1860s onward, “Where did you go to school?” became the definitive question to ask someone in order to place them.

Equality at the Top

A shared identity and values were vital to the assimilation of large numbers of the new middle classes, and the public school ethos encouraged this in fostering a love of and loyalty toward the school as institution, larger than any one individual. This was seen as mirroring the entrustment of leadership of the country, broadly understood, whose institutions were the foundation of continued prosperity. Sharing a school in common meant sharing values – and interests. As Dr Arnold’s school inspector son Matthew claimed, “It is only in England that this beneficial salutary inter-mixture of classes takes place. Look at the bottle-merchant’s son, and the Plantagenet being brought up side by side…Very likely young Bottles will end up being a lord himself”.

The Clarendon Report underlined the importance of shared values among the higher ranks of society. The idea of the public school as cherished national institution emerged:

These schools have been the chief nurseries of our statesmen; in them, and in schools modelled after them, men of various classes that make up English society, destined for every profession and career, have been brought up on a footing of social equality, and have contracted the most enduring friendships, and some of the ruling habits, of their lives; and they have had perhaps the largest share in moulding the character of an English Gentleman.

The increased popularity of public schools was also due to the desire for self-improvement. The mid-Victorian generation was eager to improve themselves and the society around them. Entry into Oxford and Cambridge was becoming fiercely competitive, and most of the scholarships available went to public school boys – they were better prepared for the classics inspired exams. This stimulated a scramble for places; there were so many eligible young men about, certainly more than there were respectable positions vacant. This may explain why public schools moved towards a more games-focused “muscular Christianity” from the 1860s on. The safety valve of empire was a safety valve for undesirables – criminals, ne’er-do-wells – as well as those more desirable (but not quite desirable enough to secure positions at home), self-reliant types calm under pressure, whose stiff upper lip would rarely quiver, destined to bring civilization (narrowly understood) to the colonies as administrators, doctors, missionaries and military officers.

“Then as now, the confidence of gentlemanly status – however discreetly it is declared or acknowledged – ensures the continued popularity of English public schools in a global age.”

The reform and growth of public schools was a response to the demands of a particular section of a rapidly changing society. Arnold and his disciples articulated and channelled this demand. Wider changes stimulated the desirability of a public school education: the spread of railways, the competition for scholarships to Oxbridge, and growing professionalization of certain occupations. Perhaps most important was the growing desire for a ‘gentleman’s education’ and the opportunities it offered. In meeting this demand the public schools reformed, which fuelled further demand, leading to an explosion in the number of public schools throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. More recently, Harry Potter’s exploits at Hogwarts may have emphasized the sheer fun and camaraderie of a boarding school life, but parents are more concerned with other things. For those with the means, schools that instil confidence are worth paying for. Then as now, the confidence of gentlemanly status – however discreetly it is declared or acknowledged – ensures the continued popularity of English public schools in a global age. Tellingly, Harrow has opened schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok, catering to an expanding Asian middle class, newly affluent and eager that their sons receive an education befitting their status, whether real or yearned for, within a rapidly modernizing society. Sound familiar? And if Prince William’s son enters Eton in the coming years, he will be entering an institution that, while still markedly English and steeped in tradition, is adapting to changing circumstances and attracting a more global clientele. Revealingly, the most popular name among Eton pupils is no longer English or aristocratic in origin. It is Patel.

Image | The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons

This research was originally presented at The Asian Conference on Education 2016 in Kobe, Japan.

This is the first of two articles by Oliver Hadingham on the nineteenth-century British education system. The first article, “Oxbridge Adjusts: Renewing an Elite“, was published in THINK on July 31, 2017.


A select bibliography follows.

Bamford, T. W. (1960). Thomas Arnold. London: Cresset Press.

Best, G. (1971). Mid-Victorian Britain: 1851-75. London: Fontana.

Briggs, A. (1955). Victorian people; a reassessment of persons and themes, 1851-67. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cannadine, D. (1994). Aspects of aristocracy: Grandeur and decline in modern Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Chandos, J. (1984). Boys together: English public schools, 1800-1864. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Heffer, S. (2013). High minds: The Victorians and the birth of modern Britain. London: Random House.

Hilton, B. (2006). A mad, bad, and dangerous people?: England, 1783-1846. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Honey, J. R. (1977). Tom Brown’s universe: The development of the Victorian public school. London: Millington Books.

Hoppen, K. T. (1998). The mid-Victorian generation: 1846-1886. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Newsome, D. (1961). Godliness and good learning; four studies on a Victorian ideal. London: Murray.

Simon, B. (1965). Studies in the history of education. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Thompson, F. M. L. (1988). The rise of respectable society: A social history of Victorian Britain: 1830-1900. London: Fontana Press.

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About Oliver Hadingham

Oliver Hadingham works in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, Japan. He graduated in government and sociology, and holds a higher degree in political behaviour, for which he received ESRC funding. His research interests include nineteenth-century history, elites and education policy.


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