This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


William Conybeare, the kindly headmaster who welcomed boys through the gates of the newly opened Liverpool Collegiate Institution in 1843, lived with a very physical reminder of the fact that Britain’s public schools needed reform. He monitored the establishment of the day-school, which provided a relatively humane education marked by a minimum of corporal punishment, through only one eye. The other had been lost in a dispute with fellow pupils at Westminster School, a place where, he remembered with some bitterness, Sundays had been marked by a total absence of productive activity. As a result, “we had nothing to do, and employed the idle time in reading novels or in quarrelling”.

Sometimes, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this low-level organised violence turned into something more organised and ambitious. In 1797, for instance, the boys of Rugby School took staff prisoner at sword-point. The Riot Act was read by the local authorities and a force of soldiers, special constables and farmers armed with horsewhips mustered. Winchester’s Great Rebellion of 1818, meanwhile, ended soon after the warden, the overall head of the school, was held hostage in his rooms overnight by boys armed with axes.

London schoolboys on strike, Shoreditch, September 1911. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Even when the schools didn’t erupt into outright violence, the education left much to be desired. It had declined since the early centuries of the public schools – starting with the foundation of Winchester College in 1382 – when it had generally been of a very high quality.

Part of the problem was that there were so few teachers to educate the pupils. Teachers cost money – and, as headmasters could pocket much of the surplus revenue from running schools, they were anxious to keep costs down. A pupil at Eton College in the early 19th century later recalled that he was only called up to have his work assessed twice a term. This is not surprising, since the headmaster, John Keate, taught up to 190 boys at a time.

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This personal incentive for cost-cutting also explained why living conditions were so bad. At Harrow, for instance, Joseph Drury perfected the process of squeezing as much out of the school as possible. His method was to take as many pupils as he could into the school – since he personally received a fee for each one – stuff the maximum possible number into his own house as boarders, and spend as little as he could on what had become slum accommodation. During his 20-year tenure as headmaster he earned the modern equivalent of approximately £8.5m.

To make matters worse, the schools taught little aside from ‘the classics’, making the curriculum extremely narrow. “At St Paul’s School we teach nothing but the classics, nothing but Latin and Greek,” John Sleath, high master of St Paul’s School from 1814 to 1837, told parents. “If you want your boy to learn anything else you must have him taught at home, and for that purpose we give him three half-holidays a week.”

Violent character

This could not go on for much longer. Fathers who had been to public school were deciding to shun the same institutions when it came to their own sons’ education. Speaking of his old school, 18th-century prime minister William Pitt the Elder declared that he had “hardly known a boy whose spirit had not been broken at Eton; and that while a public school might be an excellent thing for a youth of hot and violent character, it was not the place for a tender or docile disposition”. He responded to his own education by having Pitt the Younger, who would one day follow his father as prime minister, educated at home.

Members of the elite also worried that the education their children were receiving was irrelevant. Baden Powell, an Oxford professor (and father of Scouting pioneer Robert Baden-Powell), said in 1832: “Scientific knowledge is rapidly spreading among all classes except the higher, and the consequence must be, that that class will not long remain the higher.”

So the public schools decided to modernise. One of the most important reformers was Thomas Arnold, whose awakening to the faults of the public school system came early: he was attacked on his first night as he knelt to pray at his bed at Winchester College by other boys who took a dim view of such religious display. After becoming headmaster of Rugby School in 1828 he decided to revamp the troubled prefect system, strengthening prefects’ power but keeping a close eye on them: four were invited to dine with him and his family every week.

Another important change was the introduction of organised sport. When George Cotton became headmaster of Marlborough College in 1852 following a full-scale rebellion (involving fireworks) that disgraced his predecessor, he decided to encourage the unofficial sporting activities that already existed, to help boys let off steam.

Cotton and other heads also improved the syllabus. Boys were still able to concentrate on Greek and Latin, if they opted for the ‘classical side’ of the school. However, many schools introduced a parallel ‘modern side’. At Cheltenham College, this ‘side’ retained the usual Latin and maths but added French, German, history, geography, drawing, experimental science and Hindustani – the last of which was particularly useful for future civil servants in India.

Their darkest hour had passed, but it would still take more than a century for everyday public school life to reach anything like what we would now regard as satisfactory. Decades later, in the 1920s, the maths master ‘teaching’ the author Roald Dahl was still able to adopt a very unorthodox approach at Repton School. “He was meant to teach us mathematics, but in truth he taught us nothing at all and that was the way he meant it to be,” Dahl wrote.

As late as 1961, Winchester College’s most senior doctor wrote that “records of weight and heights carefully kept over the past seven years” showed how “the new approach to feeding has undoubtedly benefited the present generation of boys, who are better fed and bigger than their predecessors”. They had, in other words, been under-nourished until that point: a strange state of affairs for sons of the upper classes attending one of the country’s most elite public schools.

The process of improvement sped up in the second half of the 20th century due to the goad of competition from the rapidly expanding state education system. But progress has brought its own pressures. In 2014, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published figures showing the proportion of the elite who had attended public school. It included 7 in 10 senior judges, and more than half of the permanent secretaries, senior diplomats and leading media figures.

The success of public schools in vaulting students into positions of power has led to increasing criticism, the tone of which has often changed from ‘they’re no good’ to ‘they’re not fair’. Dealing with the criticism will require significant change, but the experience of the past few centuries shows that public schools have gradually become rather good at adapting themselves to meet the requirements necessary for survival in each new age.

Tough lessons

Famous figures recall their days at public school...

"Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.” - Charles Darwin (1809–82) describing his time at Shrewsbury School under headmaster Samuel Butler.

"The inadequacy of the staff could be accounted for in one word: inexperience. Many of them had spent their boyhood at Sherborne before taking modest degrees… whence they embarked on a cultural tour of the continent as a fashionable preliminary to… [settling] down to spend the rest of their lives teaching from textbooks. No wonder they behaved like overgrown kids.” - Actor John LeMesurier (1912–83) recalling Sherborne School

"I cannot say that I look back upon my life at a public school with any sensations of pleasure or that any earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again.” - Lewis Carroll (1832–98), who was bullied at Rugby School

"Pillingshot’s idea of a French lesson was something between a pantomime rally and a scrum at football.” - PG Wodehouse (1881–1975), drawing inspiration from his own time at Dulwich College, in Tales of St Austin’s (1903). Modern language teachers were often ill-treated because of their junior status.


David Turner is the former education correspondent for the Financial Times.