[In the following passages from the author's Eton in the Forties by an Old Colleger (1898) Coleridge describes both the brutality of some of the older boys towards the younger and the rather odd unwillingness of the kind headmaster to do anything to curtail it in part because it was an established practice. Here one can perceive the unusual courage of the reforming Thomas Arnold of Rugby, who not only preached weekly to students but urged that religious people had to act as reformists and not conservatives
Reading Charles Frederick's anonymously published Recollections of Eton, which appeared in 1870, one receives a vastly better impression of life at the school. In fact, Frederick seems to have experienced an entirely different school than the one Coleridge, Lyte, and others describe — and in a real sense he did. First of all he was not only an Oppidan, who had comfortable lodging in town, he arrived at school just after the 1846 construction had drastically reconfigured the Long Chamber, removing a living situation that had led to some of the worst offences. Even his experiences of fagging differed. As Frederick tells it, shortly after his arrival one boy delivered unsatisfactory coffee to an upperclassman, who ordered his fag kicked down the stairs. But rather than hearing cries of pain, the newly arrived Etonian hears the young boy yelling . . . and laughing — GPL].
THERE is no exaggeration in saying that some of the best men I have ever known ran a considerable risk of becoming the worst, from the ordeal of Long Chamber, as I remember that famous dormitory, more than fifty years since. Our forefathers, of yore, possibly fared rather worse than their descendants, but ours was a sufficiently stern baptism in the expiring days of Long Chamber; it was a Spartan training which required some stoicism to put up with. and one not likely to be forgotten by any who survived such a purgatory. The evidence of two old collegers in past generations accords with my own testimony and experiences. I quote a printed statement of Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy, formerly Chief Justice of Ceylon; my second witness is the late Provost of King's College, Cambridge, whose letter now lies before me. The Chief Justice and the Provost were not given to exaggeration or random statements, and this is their evidence, which confirms in most particulars my own recollections. 'The lads,' says Sir Edward, underwent privations that might have broken down a cabin-boy, and would be thought inhuman if inflicted on a galley slave.' Now for the Provost: 'My recollections of Long Chamber date from 1809. My master was a beast and a bully, and the reign of terrorism upon certain occasions was a horror I shall never forget. The following may be an old story to you, but it is not the less true:
'In July, 1826, contemplating matrimony, I went to the University Life Insurance Society for a policy. (It is always good for administrative personages to have a policy.) I went before the board — some sixteen men seated at a table covered with green baize — with friend Wray at the head. "You are a Fellow of King's, I see, Mr. Okes, from your papers?" "Yes sir." "I infer, then, necessarily that you were at Eton and in College?" "Yes, sir." "How long were you in College?" "Eight years." "Where did you sleep?" "In Long Chamber, sir." "All that time?" "Yes, sir." "We needn't ask Mr. Okes any more questions." And they did not. You may interpret this as you please. I thought it meant, "If you passed the last eight years of your youth in Long Chamber, and are alive at the age of twenty-nine, you are a fairly safe life."' [2-3]. . . .
Eton borrowed many of the good customs, and some of the bad, from the older foundation of Winchester. Amongst the bad, I reckon a traditional connivance at tyranny, in which upper boys, armed with a little brief authority, could, with impunity, indulge. I do not admire even a partial and limited power of corporal punishment vested in the sixth-form of certain schools, and I think that any sixth-form is in a bad way if it cannot enforce discipline amongst the lower boys without a cane, and a traditional license to use it. This conviction was forced upon me in my first year as an Eton colleger. My tormentor operated on other subjects besides myself, and one evening took to battering a friend of mine aoout the face and head so savagely, that the poor lad was kept in bed for days, until his bruises were healed. I was a witness of that performance, and shall not forget it to my dying day. I marvelled at the sixth-form boys at their supper-table, conscious of all the brutality going on, and never lifting a finger to interfere with their comrade's all-licensed cruelty. The chief executioner was safe — safe from the vengeance of his fellows, who dared not interfere with the exercise of his power; safe from the higher authorities, who must have screened such iniquity, from the fear of a public exposure of the system. A more humane man never lived than Dr. Hawtrey, but I am convinced that he shrank from investigating the case; I suppose for no other reason than that he had been bullied in his time, and emerged none the worse for the purgatory; yet in public and private he was an eloquent champion of justice and kindness. I remember his sending for me one evening, to invoke my authority, as a sixth-form boy, on behalf of a lad whose notorious oddity and awkwardness seemed to mark him out as a butt for all professional [39/40] bullies. 'They used to call Shelley "mad Shelley,"' he said. 'My belief is, that what he had to endure at Eton made him a perfect devil.' On one of the rare occasions when our headmaster was allowed to address us in chapel, the enlarged on the subject of the remorse which he had known to haunt in after-life the memories of men who had used their powers at school cruelly and capriciously. Never were truer words uttered — never was a message more faithfully delivered on behalf of the timid, Is the eccentric, and the unsociable, whose young lives can be made so miserable by an arbitrary exercise of power. By wanton abuse of authority' (said he), you may excite in the minds of the boys beneath you a lasting sensation of bitterness towards yourselves, which may, in spite of better feelings, sometimes be recalled in after-life. This will be the case with gentler natures, on whom injustice falls more painfully; but when you have to do with rougher and harder tempers, an injury which may be forgotten towards you will be treasured up as an example; and there are many who, at a later day, may suffer, from those whom you have roughly or unjustly treated, all and worse than you ever inflicted, your example being pleaded as ample excuse. [[37-40]
Coleridge, Arthur Duke. Eton in the Forties by an Old Colleger. 2nd ed., rev. London: Richard Bentley, 1898.
Last modified 19 July 2006