Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 20. The Public Schools: Eton and Westminster

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 20. The Public Schools: Eton and Westminster

Eton and Westminster were commonly accounted the public schools par excellence during the first half of the eighteenth century, Winchester taking third place. Rugby’s greatness only began with the headmastership of Thomas James (1778–94), while Harrow and Shrewsbury suffered from that instability, or decline in number of pupils, which was general throughout the century at all public schools. The fact is paralleled by the paucity of grammar schools founded under George I and George II. Carlisle gives nineteen schools as founded between 1702 and 1760, of which eight belong to the reign of Anne: scarcely one of the nineteen can lay any claim to importance.

Not in the official plan of studies alone had schools lost touch with the general life of the nation. While domestic manners, comforts and existence generally had become much less austere than they were in the sixteenth century, public schools retained their severity of discipline and roughness of manners. The retention was valued by some as affording a counter-agent to the supposed effeminacy of the times; but it accounts for the unwillingness of many mothers to entrust their boys to boarding-schools. Nor were roughness of manners and frequent floggings the most serious objections to be found in school life. The brutality of an earlier time survived in some of the school sports; at Eton, the “ram-hunt,” in its most cruel and cowardly form, was not abolished until 1747. “All that gentleman’s misfortunes arose from his being educated at a public-school,” said parson Adams, commenting on the downfall of the dissipated Mr. Wilson.

Schools were understaffed, and it was not possible, therefore, to fill all the waking hours with a supervised routine which would keep the more audacious spirits out of mischief. “Westminster’s bold race” was notorious for its readiness to defy law and order, whether of the school or of the city. “Schemes,” or illicit excursions out of bounds, were by no means confined to the hours of daylight, and boys in their ’teens were brought into contact with some of the worst evils of a great city. It was at Westminster that young Qualmsick acquired “a very pretty knowledge of the Town,” before he “took lodgings at a University,” at the age of seventeen. School discipline was ineffectual to restrain the more reckless boys: Smollett sees no absurdity in making Peregrine Pickle at fourteen “elope” from Winchester, spend some days on a visit and return, to have his escapade winked at, or condoned by the headmaster. Indeed, Perry’s private retinue of clerical tutor and footman furnishes a hint as to the way in which laxity on the part of the headmaster might arise.

The growth of tutoring was, also, in itself, one of the reasons for the decline in the number of schoolboys. While William Pitt and his elder brother, Thomas, retained their own domestic tutor at Eton (1719–26), other boys of their rank were educated entirely by tutors and away from schools. The objections to public school education made on grounds of health, or morality, were the more cogent, because boys frequently entered the schools very much younger than they do to-day. In 1690, we read of a child of six being admitted to Westminster: Jeremy Bentham went to the same school at that age in 1754. Marbles, hop-scotch, and the “rolling circle” of Gray’s Eton Ode, tell of boys much younger than the public school-boy of the present time.