From Walpole to Boris: a brief history of Eton College and the 20 prime ministers it has produced

The illustrious Eton College has produced 20 British prime ministers since it was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. But why have Old Etonians have been so pre-eminent in politics?

Prime ministers Robert Walpole and Boris Johnson

Here, journalist and historian David Turner investigates the history of Eton and asks why its scholars – from Robert Walpole and William Pitt to David Cameron and Boris Johnson – have gone on to dominate British politics…

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When I wrote my history of Britain’s public schools five years ago I remarked in the penultimate paragraph that David Cameron was the 19th prime minister educated at Eton College, and would not be the last. It did not take long for my prediction to come true: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is the 20th. No other school comes close to this, though Harrow can boast seven.

Eton College has also contributed disproportionately large numbers of MPs and cabinet ministers, even by comparison with other public schools. Founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as “Kynge’s College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore”, the peak of Old Etonian power came probably in 1866, when they accounted for nine of the Earl of Derby’s 16-strong cabinet, including Derby himself.

There are clear historical reasons why Old Etonians have been so pre-eminent in politics:

The entrance of Eton College
The entrance of Eton College. Eton has contributed disproportionately large numbers of MPs and cabinet ministers, even by comparison with other public schools. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Royal connection

Eton was not the first of what would become known as the public schools – schools where, for the first time, children of the British elite were educated together in large numbers, rather than at home or in small monastery schools. Winchester College was founded 58 years before, in 1382. But while Winchester was established by a bishop, Eton’s creator was the king of England, Henry VI, who set it up in a hamlet of the same name not far from the Thames to provide free education to 70 underprivileged boys who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge, which he founded in 1441. Henry took a close interest in the school, as did a number of future monarchs – perhaps because it was not much more than a stone’s throw away from the royal residence of Windsor Castle.

This royal connection gave Eton College a lustrous patina from the start, which explains why the gentry and nobility that supplied most prime ministers up until the 20th century came to embrace Eton. An early example is the erudite 3rd Earl of Bute, prime minister 1762–63.

According to Eton, the earliest records of its school life date from the 16th century and “paint a picture of a regimented and Spartan life”. Students were awakened at 5am each day and chanted prayers while they dressed, and by 6am they could be found studying in the Lower School. All teaching was in Latin and there was just a single hour of play, with lessons finishing at 8pm. There were only two school holidays – one at Christmas, when the students remained at Eton, and the summer break, both of which lasted for three weeks. For this reason, Eton’s three terms that make up one school year are still known, confusingly, as “halves”. In the rest of the world three halves make one-and-a-half, but not at Eton.

A statue of Henry VI at Eton College
The statue of Eton’s founder, Henry VI, watches over the college yard. (Photo by John Phillips/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Ambition

The grand aristocratic clans that patronised Eton drew in families that were less exalted but highly ambitious. In the early 19th century an energetic Scot from an unremarkable middle-class family worked his way up to become an immensely rich merchant. Determined that at least one of his sons should succeed in politics, he decided that the best route to this was Eton followed by Christ Church, Oxford. The elder son was a relative disappointment: he never made it beyond the Tory backbenches. The other was William Ewart Gladstone, four times prime minister.

Boris Johnson himself comes from a solid middle-class rather than upper-class background. He was born in New York City to British parents – his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, was aged 22 at the time and had given up her English degree at the University of Oxford to accompany her husband, Stanley Johnson, to the US, where he was an economics student at Columbia University. He later worked at the World Bank in Washington DC while his wife became a respected painter.

Political training

William Gladstone’s father doubtless saw the advantages for his sons of mixing in the exalted company of aristocratic schoolboys. However, he also understood the political education that Eton could provide. Gladstone honed his debating skills in ‘Pop’, a College society whose future members include Boris Johnson, though by Johnson’s time Pop had become less of a debating chamber and more of a club for prefects: the little leaders of men of the public schools, who often go on to senior positions in public life.

Members of Pop at Eton College
Members of Pop at Eton College are allowed to wear a waistcoat of their own design which differ from the black waistcoats of other boys. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Members of Pop are allowed to wear a waistcoat of their own design (often highly gaudy), which differs from the black waistcoats of other boys, and checked spongebag trousers (rather than black pinstripes), though they sport the same black tailcoat as other pupils. John Boughey, president of Pop in 1938 two years before his death in the Second World War, said that for every holder of the office, the post “teaches him in the microcosm what should be the behaviour of the public servant”.

While at the school, Gladstone joined a political faction known as the Canningites, named after their leader George Canning, later a Tory foreign secretary and briefly prime minister. Canning, who had himself attended Eton a generation earlier, is if anything an even greater advert than Gladstone for the political advancement the college can provide. It is certainly difficult to see the boy, son of a failed wine merchant and actress, rising so far, had he not gone to the school courtesy of his uncle’s generosity. A great orator, Canning excelled at public speaking while at the school, as did Johnson, whose mastery of rhetoric is probably what landed him Britain’s top job.

Inclusiveness

This may look like a typo, since Eton is clearly not inclusive when compared with a state comprehensive, but it has often been more inclusive than other public schools. For example, at a public meeting organised in 1840 to set up Cheltenham College [a public school in Cheltenham, England], it was resolved that no one could become a shareholder of the new school, giving them a right to nominate pupils, “who should not be moving in the circle of gentlemen. No retail traders being under any circumstances to be considered.”

By contrast, Eton has tended historically to accept most children if their families had the money or the talent. William Sherlock, who after leaving Eton in 1657 eventually became chaplain to James II and then William III, making him a powerful figure at the court (though not strictly speaking a politician), was the son of a tradesman living in the evocatively named Gravel Lane, Southwark. Sherlock was probably one of the 70 King’s Scholars, educated for most of the College’s history for free, as provided for in Henry VI’s endowment. Fellow Scholars include both our very latest prime minister (who by the time he attended Eton had to pay fees) and the very first one, Robert Walpole.

These days the College means-tests its approximately 1,300 students so that those from wealthy families pay full fees, currently £14,167 a term, and even Scholars pay 90 per cent if their families are wealthy (some past Scholars have hailed from great riches, such as the academic and precocious Harold Macmillian, Eton prime minister number 17). However, in 2014 Eton announced that 274 boys were on bursaries, where fees are reduced or waived altogether because parents cannot afford to pay them, with 70 boys (among both Scholars and non-Scholars, known as Oppidans) to receive an education for free in the coming year. This enables the College to cast its net still wider in the search for talent.

Reform

For most of its history Eton demanded scholarliness of its Scholars, but not of anyone else. In the early years of the new A-Level examinations, introduced in the 1950s, results were above the national average, but not conspicuously so. This began to change in the 1960s, with notable improvement under Johnson’s head master, Michael McCrum, who markedly improved exam results by improving educational standards and introducing stricter entrance requirements. A much lower proportion of boys accepted were the sons of Old Etonians – in other words, accepted through family line rather than ability – and the pass mark in Common Entrance, the standard public school exam, was raised.

By making the school more selective, this drew in intelligent boys who might previously have gone to historically more academic rivals such as Westminster, some of whom went on to become politicians in an era when prospective Tory MPs were supposed to be clever rather than merely posh.

The new millennium saw the introduction of what Eton itself describes as “a more meritocratic entry system, with boys no longer being entered on house lists at birth – from 2002, all boys had to win their places through the current procedure of an interview, reasoning test and reference from their previous school.”

Eton College schoolboys
Eton College schoolboys wearing the traditional dress of the school, c1978. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

History

The college’s success in schooling so many senior politicians over the centuries has created an air of expectation among both pupils and the school’s leaders. Baron Caccia, provost (chair of the governors) during Johnson’s time, used to give a power pep talk to new Scholars, according to someone who had been on the receiving end (quoted in Sonia Purnell’s 2011 biography, Just Boris): “He told us we were the future leaders, that we had a responsibility and a destiny that was not to be taken lightly.” The effect? “You found yourself thinking of someone like Pitt the Elder [Old Etonian premier number four] and asking yourself, am I really potentially that great?”

As Tony Little, the current head master’s predecessor, put it with customary understatement: “If you know that some interesting people have gone on to do some interesting things, whether it’s George Orwell or the Duke of Wellington [Etonian premier number eight], that does implicitly ask the question, why not you?”

For these six reasons, I have no trouble in renewing my prediction: just as I forecast that Cameron would not be Eton’s final prime minister, I can say with assurance that Johnson will not be, either.

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David Turner is a journalist and historian, and author of The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School, published by Yale University Press (2015).