decorated initial 'I' n his thoughtful history of Eton, Christopher Hollis points out the complexities involved when discussing matters of class distinction at the school and in society as a whole during the centuries since its founding. First of all what we may call a Whig theory of history doesn't really apply; that is, class distinctions have not, as many have claimed, gradually attenuated. Things are more complicated than that. When discussing either British society or the institution of the English Public School, one frequently encounters the claim, as Hollis puts it, "that class distinctions are perhaps still strong but . . . that they have been gradually and steadily growing less over the generations. The truth is . . . by no means so simple. Turning to the issue of class in the Eton Henry VI founded, he argues,

It would be somewhat less than a half truth to say that Eton was in its foundation a school for poor boys. In the first place of course the 'poor and needy' boys whom Henry had in mind were not the sons of serfs. They were rather the sons of tradesmen. In the second place in the Middle Ages instruction in a school was almost always free. Eton was in no way unique in providing free tuition. The originality in Henry's plan was his conception of a school in which poor and needy' scholars were to be educated side by side with richer commensales.

Nonetheless, despite the king's apparently radical juxtaposition of sons of tradesman and nobility, one form of class distinction — well known since Victorian times — did not yet exist:

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century no one ever suggested that the local tradesman's son — the son of the man who made no pretence to be a gentleman — should be excluded from the school. Eton of the early nineteenth century was by no means what could be called a democratic or an egalitarian school. The sons of noblemen had what would seem to us offensive and ridiculous privileges within the school —a special dress — a special seat in Chapel and the like. On occasion at any rate, as appears in various Memoirs, they behaved with ill-bred insolence towards their inferiors within the school. Yet class distinctions were so clearly established in society at large that it was not thought that the nobleman's son could be in any way contaminated or his prestige put in jeopardy if he had to spend his school days sitting at the same bench or kneeling at the same block as a tradesman's son.

When and why, then, did fear of class contamination come about? With increasing social mobility, for as long as everyone assumed they existed in a rigidly hierarchical society in which each order and occupation had an essentially fixed position, no one feared that they might be mistaken for someone of a lower social and economic class. Perhaps surprisingly — until, that is, one thinks about the matter a bit — the upwardly mobile, rather than members of the established nobility, first demanded class separation:

It was the middle class after their victory in 1832 which brought in this notion of personal segregation — of the class school. It was the manufacturers who had recently raised themselves from the ranks who did not feel confident that their children would preserve their refinement if they were educated alongside tougher and poorer boys. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that there appeared for the first time the notion of a school to which only the sons of gentlemen should be admitted and reforms, desirable in themselves, were then for the first time twisted so as to preserve the exclusive character of the school.

One paradoxical result of these changed attitudes was that during the first two decades of the twentieth century Eton "was much more egalitarian within itself than had been the Eton of fifty years before. The boys were less conscious of social differences among themselves. But also the social differences among them were much less. To be an Etonian was then in itself the real social distinction, and it was much more firmly believed than it had been earlier that gentle birth both required and produced a higher moral code" (291).


Hollis, Christopher. Eton: A History. London: Hollis and Carter, .

Last modified 26 July 2006