"The Established System" — Reforms at Victorian Eton

The improvements that Eton saw between 1830 and 1870 suggests why Woodward labelled his volume of the Oxford History of England "The Age of Reform." At the turn of the century and for several decades, this most famous of English Public Schools had an almost unbelievably grotesque assemblage of financial mismanagement, mistreatment of students, lax supervision, and, above all, poor education. Like the situation at Barchester in Trollope's The Warden, recipients of a charitable bequest received the same minute amount of money that the original recipients did four hundred years before while those who administered the charity received enormously more than their predecessors. In Trollope's novel, however, the old men in the almshouse receive excellent food and lodging, but such was not the case at Eton. That is not all: the school had major problems with governance, finance, education, student activities, food, and lodging. A large part of these problems came directly from the organization of the school mandated by King Henry VI, who founded both it and King's College, Cambridge, which originally admitted students only from Eton. According to the original charter, a Provost had control of finances while the Headmaster, who taught at the school and oversaw its day-to-day operation, had no power to make changes, even if he wanted to do so. Headmasters, some of whom were talented classicists, had to teach 170 students or more.


First, definitions of the two categories of Eton students: Collegers were King's Scholars — that is, students essentially guaranteed admission to King's College, Cambridge, upon successfully completing Eton — who lived on campus. Oppidans (coming from the Latin for "town dweller") were not King's Scholars and boarded in town at homes run either by elderly women or teachers at the school. From what I can gather, collegers initially had more prestige but by the nineteenth century they seemed to live and eat in much worse conditions. [If anyone knows differently, feel free to correct this statement.]

According to Sir H. C. Maxwell Lyte's history of the school, an Eton graduate would know three (and only three) ancient authors well: Homer, Vergil, and Horace. A boy who attended Eton for eight or more years were "sure to go through the Iliad once and a half, the Ænid twice; there was no certainty that he would know the Eclogues or the Georgics at all; and of the Odyssey he must needs know, only too familiarly, a few hundred lines" (382). Thus, of the three periods of Greek texts — the Homeric, the Golden Age of Pericelan Athens, and the New Testament — the student would know The Iliad and a little of The Odyssey but encounter little or none of writings by the Greek historians (Herodotus, Thucydides), dramatists (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes), philosophers (Plato and Aristotle), or lyric poets (Pindar, Sappho), and they would not read the Greek New Testament either. Latin didn't fare any better, for again students did not study more than snippets of the works of classical Rome. When reading assigned texts, moreover, students concentrated almost entirely on grammar and vocabulary, ignoring or, better, remaining completely ignorant of the relations of individual works to their historical, literary, philosophical, or religious contexts.

The state of other subjects appears even worse when they appear in th curriculum at all: Neither science nor religion were taught, and "Mathematics fared little better than Divinity, eight years ago [1830], the study of Euclid, of algebra, and even of arithmetic being practically optional" (Lyte, p. 390).

In 1868 radical changes occurred in the school's statutes, its relation to King's College, Cambridge, and its curriculum: The new statutes

Perhaps more important for the individual student, both the subjects studied and the school schedule changed:


Oppidans, students who lived off campus in boarding houses, seem to have had better conditions that the Collegers, many of whom lived in the infamous Long Chamber, a crowded, unsanitary, and apparently unheated place where a particularly brutal Etonian version of the law of the jungle prevailed. Lyte, the historian of Eton, touches somewhat cryptically upon the destructive effects of these arrangements when he writes that the complete absence of "privacy was quite as injurious to the moral feelings" as fagging and other practices. "A boy who passed unscathed the ordeal of a Colleger's life must have been gifted in no common degree with purity of mind and strength of will." The historian's vague remarks here do not make clear whether he refers to homosexuality, the traditional sadomasochistic relations between older and younger boys that seems to have such an effect on Swinburne, or to masturbation. that great bête noire of the Victorians. "Without dwelling longer on this painful topic," Lyte concludes, "it should be recorded that, in 1834, the writer of a pamphlet entitled ' The Eton System of Education Vindicated' was obliged to admit that, wherever the fame of Eton had spread, the name of Long Chamber was " a proverb and reproach."[451]

The first great change for the better came in the early 1840s when the New Buildings were built at a cost of 14,000, to which the Provost, Headmaster, and fellows donated 2,100.

Soon after the completion of the work in 1846, separate rooms were assigned to the first forty-nine Collegers, the western part of Long Chamber being retained as a dormitory for twenty-one others. Arrangements were made for warming the whole building in winter; water was laid on; and lavatories and studies were provided. The upper storeys of the old tower containing the staircase and the tower at the northern end of the New Buildings were fitted up as sick rooms. One remarkable innovation was the provision of tea-rooms, the College having resolved to supply the King's Scholars with breakfast and tea, similar to the corresponding meals in the boarding-houses of the Oppidans. The cumbrous old bedsteads were broken up, and suitable furniture was provided for all the rooms. A proper staff of servants was also engaged to do all menial work, under the supervision of a resident matron. [459]

The use of servants did a good deal to solve the widespread abuse of fagging by older students, who had made younger boys make their beds, clean their rooms, obtain food and beer for them, and cook snacks. In the same year that the New Buildings opened, Eton also completed an improved drainage and sewer system that made the school a much healthier place.

Food: "the inmates of a workhouse or a gaol are better fed and lodged than the scholars of Eton"

During the period at which we are looking the younger students at Eton fared as badly or worse than did Oliver Twist, for, as Lyte explains, "the food which the College provided was in its way as bad as the accommodation. In the early part of the reign of George the Third, the daily dinner in the Hall was limited to mutton, bread, and beer." Lord Godolphin's bequest provided for plum pudding as a Sunday treat, and "during the reign of William the Fourth, the King provided turkeys on Founder's Day; throughout the rest of the year mutton was the only meat" (451). Even worse than the limited quantity and variety of food was the way the older and stronger boys here, as in other aspects of Eton life, tyrannized the young.

Every one carved for himself, and those who were entitled to lead the attack fared pretty well, as the quality of the meat was generally good. There were, however, strict limitations upon the quantity supplied. Even after an increase in the second or third decade of the nineteenth century, a leg or a shoulder of small Southdown mutton had to suffice for eight hungry boys, a loin for six, and a neck for four. After several had helped themselves, there was little or nothing left for the juniors, and "an old Colleger" describes himself as often dining on dry bread, or bread dipped into cold gravy and some mashed potatoes. He expresses doubts too whether any beverage was ever so "villainous and detestable" as the beer provided for him and his schoolfellows. [J. H. Blake, Reminiscences of an Etonian; quoted by Lyte]

At six o'clock, the scrags of the necks of mutton which had been served for dinner were put upon one of the tables, by way of supper for those few, mostly lower boys, who would, or could, attend at that hour. A cold loin of mutton was supplied for the members of the Sixth Form, who supped together in Lower Chamber at ten o'clock. There three juniors waited on them and cleaned their plates, knives, and forks, with surplices or anything else that came handy. The relics of the food were used as bait for the numerous rats that infested the College, and so it was that when the floor of Long Chamber was taken up in 1858, two large cart-loads of mutton-bones we're removed. [451-52]

To make matters worse, the college provided neither breakfast nor tea, but since the boys "were theoretically under the charge of a dame, at whose house they could, after morning school, wash their faces and hands, and snatch a hasty breakfast duly paid for by their parents" (452). The older boys not only took an unfair share of the food provided by the school, they also forced younger boys to violate rules and risk severe punishment by sneaking out to get cans of beer from the Christopher, a nearby pub eventually declared off-limits (366).

In 1846 when the New Buildings, which had rooms for breakfast and tea, opened, food at Eton began to improve at last. Beef appeared on the school tables twice a week, and then the light supper at six o'clock moved to eight and became a larger meal.

Governance and Funding

Lyte, one of the major historians of Eton, writes as scathingly about administrative malfeasance at the school as did the The Jupiter in Trollope's The Warden about the Almshouse — and with much more justice:

The Fellows might speciously demonstrate that the amount yearly expended on food for the Collegers was larger than that authorized by Henry the Sixth; they might, like Goodall [Headmaster, 1802-9; Provost, 1809-40], claim credit for having provided plates, knives, and other such luxuries not specified in the statutes; and they might urge that Scholarships on the Foundation were not intended for the sons of gentlemen; but they could hardly convince any fair-minded enquirer that they and their predecessors had not grossly neglected the interests of the boys whom it was their duty to protect. Considering the great change in the value of money since the fifteenth century, nobody could reasonably maintain that salaries and allowances ought to be limited to the particular amounts fixed by the statutes; a large increase would have been justifiable if made proportionally, in accordance with the intentions of the Founder. In point of fact, however, those who administered the common property had, for generations, acted as if the establishment and its revenues existed mainly for their own benefit. The Clerks, the Choristers and the Conducts had alike been ejected from their rooms within the precincts of the College, while the Head Master and the Lower Master had been encouraged to migrate into private houses. Thus the whole of the Cloister had been monopolized by the Provost and Fellows; a costly Library had been built for their exclusive use; and an extra storey had been added on two sides of the Cloister, in order to provide ampler accommodation for the Fellows, during their comparatively short periods of residence. All this was patent to the eye.

The very worst feature of the old system was the traditional method of dealing with the estates of the College. Instead of letting lands and houses to the different tenants at their approximate values, the Provost and Fellows had for a long time been in the habit of granting leases at inadequate rents [456]

as part of an elaborate and highly unethical system of kickbacks. Fortunately, the replacement of the old statues, like an increasing commitment to reform by those inside and outside Eton, dramatically improved this ancient school.

Sports and Other Amusements

As the very light student work-load at Eton before the 1860s might suggest, the boys had a great deal of unsupervised time during the day and after they were supposed to be sleeping. "The absence of any effective supervision of the Collegers after 'lock-up,'" Lyte reports, "left them free to do whatever they pleased, and some spent their evenings in gambling" (p. 367), winning and losing large sums of money. Bullying and rat-catching were long popular indoor activities, and outside school, students amused themselves driving gigs and other carriages, duck hunting, poaching game, and the ever-popular fighting.

Sports as we know them developed fairly late in the history of the school. Boating, for ample, was not formally recognized by school authorities before 1840, and at one point a planned race against another Public School had to be cancelled when Headmasters threatened to expel students involved (414). Modern shells came on the scene during the nineteenth century, but competitive rowing had not fully taken its modern form, since students paid professional boatmen to steer; bumping, fouling, and otherwise hindering one's opponents were permissible (415). One of the more bizarre (and yet typical) rules involved areas outside the school that the authorities declared out of bounds (or off limits). The area between the school and the river was such a place, and yet the Headmaster and other members of the school teaching staff knew that students rowed and occasionally even came to watch them! Similarly, dramatic productions violated Eton rules, and yet headmasters who were at other times brutal disciplinarians ignored performance and preparations for them, even when that meant pretending not to see stage scenery in rooms at the school. Here, as in some other areas, the Eton rule seems to have been,"Pretend that perfectly benign things which violate ancient rules do not exist rather than change the rules for the better."

Eventually, rowing, cricket, football (what North Americans call soccer) became sponsored by the school, and reminiscences by alumni of Eton and other Public Schools show that students often considered them far more important than their studies.


Coleridge, Arthur Duke. Eton in the Forties by an Old Colleger. 2nd ed., rev. London: Richard Bentley, 1898.

Lyte, H. C. Maxwell, Sir. A history of Eton College, 1440-1910. 4th ed., rev. London: Macmillan, 1911.

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Last modified 25 July 2006