decorated initial 'L' ike many revered British institutions, the so-called Public Schools had changed so much since their founding that they were unrecognizable by the age of Victoria. Although the seven elite boarding schools (Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, and Shrewsbury) and two London day schools (St. Pauls and Merchant Taylors's) identified as "Public Schools" certainly educated many major figures, some historians blame them for doing far more harm than good to the nation.

Virtually all secondary and tertiary (university) educational institutions in Great Britain were originally founded to train clergy for the established church, the Church of England (or the Anglican Church, as it was also known). Since members of the comparatively tiny nobility and wealthy classes had private tutors, many, if not all, the public schools were intended for the deserving poor. By the nineteenth century many of these schools had become means of upward mobility, not for the poor, but for the upper-middle classes, who wished to move their children into the aristocracy. By the time Thomas Arnold, the poet's father, assumed the headmastership of Rugby, Public Schools had become characterized by dreadful teaching, archaic curricula, bullying, sexual abuse, and dreadful living conditions. Rugby led the way in raising the general moral tone of Public Schools and for a time even pioneered modern practices of art education for children and other innovations. Nonetheless, even at their best, Public Schools concerned themselves more with producing gentlemen than with preparing their graduates for the economic, political, and technological challenges facing contemporary England. Some observers in fact blame the Public Schools for much of England's subsequent economic and political decline.

In his TLS review of James Brooke-Smith’s Guilded Youth (published a dozen years after the rest of this essay was written), A. N. Wilson points out that Thomas Arnold’s “most significant act” was that “he closed the free lower school,” effectively shutting out the poor for whom Rugby had originally been founded. “All the older public schools during the nineteenth-century played this game” of redefining themselves in ways to keep out the poor for whom the schools had been founded and instead concentrated on becoming “specifically institutions designed to strengthen class privilege. The Public Schools Act of 1868, completed the process, removing all remaining obligations on the seven schools affected to provide for poor schools” (15). Fortunately, says Wilson, these acts produced a “vey much needed reaction” that led to state-funded grammar schools between 1870 and 1960 whose education equalled or surpassed the schools for grandees.

Eric Hobsbawm, who considers Public Schools in the context of Britain's rise and decline, treats them harshly and convincingly:

The assimilation of the British business classes to the social pattern of the gentry and aristocracy had proceeded very rapidly from the mid nineteenth century, the period when so many of the so-called "public schools" were founded, or reformed by finally excluding the poor for whom they had originally been intended. In 1869 they were more or less set free from all government control and set about elaborating that actively anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, games-dominated Tory imperialism which was to remain characteristic of them. (It was not the Duke of Wellington but a late-Victorian myth which claimed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, which did not exist in his time.)

Unfortunately, the public school formed the model of the new system of secondary education, which the less privileged sectors of the new middle classes were allowed to construct for themselves after the Education Act of 1902, and whose main aim was to exclude from education the children of the working classes, which had unfortunately won the right to university primary education in 1870. Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, therefore took second place to the maintenance of a rigid division between the classes. In 1897 less than seven per cent of the grammar-school [academic secondary school] pupils came from the working class. The British therefore entered the twentieth century and the age of modern science and technology as a spectacularly ill-educated people. [147]

If Public Schools failed to notice the importance of science and technology and hence had little effect on these fields, they also did little to advance literature and culture. How many of the following British authors who define Victorianism attended one of the elite public schools? Harrison Ainsworth, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Sir Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Kingsley, Rudyard Kipling, George Macdonald, George Meredith, John Stuart Mill, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Walter Pater, Charles Reade, Christina, Michael, and Dante Gabiel Rossetti, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde


To be fair, one must add that a few major British authors attended Public Schools: Matthew Arnold of course attended Rugby, where his father was headmaster, and so did Arthur Hugh Clough. Anthony Trollope did poorly at both both Harrow and Winchester, William Morris attended Marlborough for several years, leaving after school riots. Arthur Henry Hallam studied at Eton, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) went to Westminster, and William Makepeace Thackeray went to Charterhouse.


Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Wilson, A.N. “Private Vice: The Oddness of the British Educational System.” Times L (12 April 2019): 15.

Last modified 1 May 2019