The Railway Station. [Click on thumbnail for larger image]

In the near-middle foreground of William Frith's painting, The Railway Station (1862), is a triangular group depicting the artist's own family. Frith's two elder sons are being seen off to boarding school, the younger one for the first time. The artist/father looms at the back, impressive in fashionable hat and greatcoat, with one gloved hand resting on the older son's shoulder, while his wife hugs the younger boy, whose arms are clasped around her neck. Beside them stands their grown daughter, holding the hand of another boy, evidently the baby of the family. Consider the grouping and the emotional nuances of the scene. How does Frith view himself? What roles do the older two siblings play, and what kind of interaction can you see between them? What is the youngest child doing, and what does this tell us about him? In particular, what does Frith's "subject matter" here reveal about this particular milestone in Victorian family life?

"[T]hat first night at school," writes Thackeray, who entered Charterhouse at the height of its reputation in 1822, "hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment — as for the first night at a strange school, we most of us remember what that is. And the first is not the worst, my boys, there's the rub" ("On Two Children in Black" (text outside VW). Homesick, forced to endure spartan conditions and undergo punishments and other impositions without showing his feelings, striving to make his mark among his peers whilst in awe of, often in thrall to, his seniors, a public schoolboy of this period had more to occupy him than his struggle with the Eton Grammar.

Adjustment could be especially painful for those sent off at the earliest possible age (see Kincaid 86). This was true of Thackeray himself, a mere five years old when he was dispatched to England from Calcutta. More of a shock, too, for those brought up in the nursery with their sisters — the majority, perhaps. "Little boys are looked upon as girls in a school, till they show that they are little men," explains Harriet Martineau's Dan Firth to Hugh Proctor, who arrives at Mr Tooke's school at the age of eight, still innocently sporting his fair flowing locks. "'And then again, you have been brought up with girls, — have not you?' 'To be sure; and so was he.' 'And half the boys here, I dare say. Well, they are called Bettys till — '"(The Crofton Boys, 1841). Till they have endured their first flogging, perhaps? Look up The Crofton Boys to see how Hugh gets on (text outside VW).

At this time, forced inculcation of knowledge, often without understanding, and of a kind totally unsuited to the children's future needs, was still the order of the day right across the board. Schoolmasters in the eighteenth-century novel, like Fielding's Thwackum (Tom Jones, 1749) and Smollett's Keypstick (Peregrine Pickle, 1751), were bad enough. But nothing quite prepares us for the host of cruel, wrong-headed and self-righteous schoolmasters of Victorian literature. Although Thackeray was particularly fond of Fielding, and Dickens of Smollett, both were also drawing on their personal experience of the educational system of their age. As the educational reformer James Kay-Shuttleworth remarked early in the reign: "I think the great majority of such schoolmasters would conceive that they deserted their duty if they treated the children kindly" (qtd in Rooke 33). Pick out some examples of these schoolmasters in Dickens. Try adopting a different standpoint, and arguing against seeing such characters as a direct reflection of the social reality of the time.

Although the public school situation certainly began to improve with Thomas Arnold's reforms at Rugby, it was years before such changes were widespread. When Arnold died in 1842, for instance, "nothing material at Eton, Winchester and Harrow had changed since the beginning of the century," writes John Chandos (268). This is certainly borne out by what we know of the frail and sensitive Swinburne's time at Eton, which he entered in 1849. His experiences there seem to have been even worse than Thackeray's at Charterhouse in the 1820s. Note that the other three famous headmasters whose respective schools blossomed during this time were younger than Arnold and considerably outlived him: Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804-1889, headmaster of Shrewsbury 1836-1866); Edward Thring (1821-1887, headmaster of Uppingham 1853-87); and William Haig Brown (1823-1907, headmaster of Charterhouse 1863-97).

As Frith's canvas suggests, we are talking here almost exclusively about boys. Charlotte Brontë came to know Kay-Shuttleworth personally before writing Villette (1853), in which she relates his opinion to her personal experience of girls' education; but girls from good families, even the minority not exclusively educated at home by governesses, were unlikely to be subjected to the extreme methods used in the boys' public schools. When Thackeray stems the flow of the narrative in Vanity Fair (1847-48; text outside VW) to ask schoolmasters angrily in his own voice, "how many of those gentle souls do you degrade, estrange, torture, for the sake of a little loose arithmetic, and miserable dog-latin?" (Chapter V), the "gentle soul" he is referring to is his central male character, Dobbin. To what extent, then, is it ironic that Victorian girls should have envied their brothers their "opportunities"?

Violence breeds violence, and the threat from other boys at public school could be even worse for the sensitive child than the threat from teachers. The bouts of fisticuffs in the largely unsupervised quadrangles could be horrific: in "Mr and Mrs Frank Berry," Thackeray describes a fight which runs to 102 rounds, perhaps a backward glance at the notorious fight at Eton in 1825, in which Lord Shaftesbury's brother had died. Bullying, even beyond what was institutionalised in the "fagging" system that required small boys to slave for their elders, was endemic. Moreover, it could be both highly inventive and excruciatingly painful, as illustrated when Clarence in Charlotte Yonge's Chantry House is hung by the wrists out of a third storey window at Harrow, and made to hold a red-hot fire-grate with bare hands.

Yet an even sterner test of a boy's spirit was the threat of moral contamination. This is the greatest fear of Anne Brontë's fictional parent, Helen Huntingdon, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): against all opposition, Helen opts to protect her son from it by keeping him at home. As usual, there was undoubtedly some basis for this fear in real life. "At the very sight of a knot of vicious or careless boys gathered round the school-house fire," says Arnold's first biographer, the great headmaster himself would be put in mind of the devil (Stanley 114). A common site for the hero's first moral battle is the classroom itself. Given long passages from the classics to construe, pupils in Victorian public schools would resort to widespread cribbing: Eric's yielding to this practice, in Dean Farrar's Evangelical tale, Eric, Or Little By Little (1858, written while the author was a housemaster at Harrow) is what eventually leads the boy to the verge of complete moral breakdown and finally death. This is extreme, of course; Eric is a cautionary figure in a moral tale, not a hero to be emulated.

Arthur, Tom and East work together one night from a 1906 edition of Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

For a positive role model, boy readers had to look instead to the other famous school story of the era, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857; text outside VW). Once converted by the pious new boy, Arthur, Tom Brown is soon encouraging his old confederate Harry East to adopt a new, conscientious approach to schoolwork. This process accurately reflects Arnold's own belief and practice. By delegating authority to trusted "praepostors" among the older boys he had done his best to promote better discipline right down the school.

The only danger was that self-consciously good boys would seem priggish, even emasculated (see Nelson, passim). To prevent this, they needed to retain some of their boyish high spirits. One way of simultaneously fostering and channelling their natural energies was though sport, and boys' books of this time often feature accounts of football and cricket matches. Look for examples of these in Tom Brown's Schooldays and consider their roles in the narrative. Athletics also flourished. Even delicate young Arthur learns to run, swim and play cricket (if not rugby) with the rest of the boys. Another way of ensuring continued manliness was not simply to allow but actively to promote fighting for a good cause. Hence Dobbin's thorough thrashing of the strutting and bullying Cuff in Chapter V of Vanity Fair. Arnold himself was no pacifist, and Tom Brown too covers himself with glory when he batters "Slogger" Williams. Throwing oneself into the fray like this is seen as "proof of the highest courage" when "done for true Christian motives" (Part II, Chapter V). This was good training for the future: public school boys were expected to go on to fill the highest ranks of the armed forces and to hold sway in the colonies, principally India. How does Vanity Fair reflect these expectations?

Bates's statue of Haig Brown

Two portraits of William Haig Brown of Charterhouse [Click on thumbnails for larger images]

Notice Hughes' words, "Christian motives." Similarly, Charles Kingsley tells his young readers at the beginning of Part II of The Heroes, " there is a better thing on earth than wealth, a better thing than life itself; and that is, to have done something before you die, for which good men may honour you, and God your Father smile upon your work. [text outside VW) Public schools at this time were imbued with the mid-century ideals of muscular Christianity, and the chapel features as prominently in accounts of school life as the football pitch. No wonder public school chapels like those at Eton and Charterhouse provide some of the finest specimens of Victorian Gothic architecture. For an idea of their importance to school life, look at Haig Brown's statue at Charterhouse, in which he is shown holding a model of the (then) new chapel at his school.

Yet worship was not confined to the chapel. The Heroes itself is a vigorous retelling (originally, for Kingsley's own children) of the adventures of Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, and Theseus. As this suggests, muscular Christianity meshed brilliantly with the chivalric ideals to which the Victorians were now returning for inspiration in literature, art, design and architecture. It was a time for heroes and hero-worship — a phenomenon which flourished in the hierarchical, high-minded hothouse environment of the public school. The headmaster himself, once having abdicated the role of tyrant, could now be at the receiving end for some of this. Arnold, seen as "a strong, true man, and a wise one too, and a public-school man too" in Chapter VI, Part I of Tom Brown's Schooldays, was not the only "great doctor" to loom impressively in front of his pupils. Read Chapter V of Harold Begbie's biography of Robert Baden-Powell , who went to Charterhouse, and note the description of Haig Brown too as "the great Doctor."

Nevertheless, it was the usually the older boys rather than the masters who attracted the most passionate following. Homoerotic elements often come close to the surface in the novels. For example, when E. F. Benson recreates his own mid-Victorian public school experiences in David Blaize (1916), he shows David's beloved Frank coming back from Cambridge to visit his sickbed. Lamplight falls like a halo around the older youth's face, and the scene is charged with powerful emotions. Such attachments feature very prominently in two earlier bildungsromans: David Copperfield (1850) and George Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871; text outside VW). In both novels, the attachments have to be outgrown, relinquished. David Copperfield's Steerforth and Harry Richmond's head boy, Heriot, are cut down to size later, so that the hero himself (the hero of the narrative, that is) is free to become truly the "hero of [his] own life" (David Copperfield, Chapter I). Yet it is doubtful that these strong attachments are ever really lost. Consider the power of the storm scene (Chapter LV) in David Copperfield, and how much it owes to Steerforth's final appearance.

Public schools exerted a huge influence on their pupils' later lives. However poignant the parting for Harrow in William Frith's The Railway Station, the rising planes of the triangular family group imply something positive as its outcome. Frith's eldest son, already somewhat aloof in his smart uniform, is clearly well on the way to becoming a man like his father. Boys' sufferings at these unique establishments were felt to be, and indeed normally were, part of the process of growth. The physical, moral and emotional challenges they faced there were probably more of a preparation for life than the classical education they were offered. Looking back in The Newcomes (1855), even Thackeray could feel glad that he had passed through those flames, and now felt a lingering warmth in the memory of them.


Begbie, Harold. The Story of Baden-Powell "The Wolf That Never Sleeps".

Chandos, John. Boys Together: English Public Schools 1800-1864. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Nelson, Claudia. Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children's Fiction, 1857-1917. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.

Rooke, Patrick. The Age of Dickens. New York: Putnam's, 1970.

Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D. New York: Scribner's, 1884.

Note: see also Lytton Strachey's reassessment of Thomas Arnold in the chapter on him in Eminent Victorians (1918; text outside VW), but beware! Strachey's evidence has been criticised in its turn as unsound. For an update on public school life, specifically at Eton, see J.F.O. McAllister, "A New Kind of Elite." Time Magazine, 26 June 2006: 28-35.

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Last modified 16 July 2007