The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 5. Public schools

At the public schools, the studies and the method of education remained in substance the same as they were in the earlier period described in a former volume. The interesting point in their history is the prominent social place now assumed for the first time by Harrow, under a succession (1760–1805) of former Eton masters, Sumner, Heath and Drury, and by Rugby under another Etonian, Thomas James (1778–94). The number of boys in residence fluctuated considerably during the second half of the eighteenth century, and in some schools that number, at the close of the century, was very much less than it had been at the beginning. Westminster, Winchester and, in particular, Shrewsbury, are cases in point. Cowper’s incomplete and prejudiced picture of the public school, which he drew in Tirocinium, was less true in the year 1785, when the poem appeared, than in his own school-days (1741–9); but the character of turbulence ascribed by the poet to public school education was well deserved at both the later and the earlier period. The stock question addressed by George III to Etonians whom he chanced to meet—“Have you had any rebellions lately, eh? eh?”—might have been put quite as aptly to any public school boy of the time. From 1770, when the Riot act was read to the Wykehamists, down to 1832, when Keate suppressed his last rebellion at Eton, there was a constant recurrence of these outbreaks; insubordination was met by arbitrary measures that seem to show an ignorance or wilful disregard of boy-nature, which in itself gives a partial explanation of the boy’s unruliness. But, rough as public school life confessedly then was, it was not wanting in gentler elements. At Eton, a small editorial committee, of which John Hookham Frere was a member, produced, in 1786, The Microcosm, modelled on the periodical essays and miscellanies in which the time was prolific. The rival school, Westminster, had its Trifler in 1788, to which Robert Southey, then in the school, made a rejected contribution; his management of his own magazine, The Flagellant, led to his expulsion. Like most of their kind, of which they were the first, these school miscellanies were ephemeral.