Eton College

Eton College

The statue of the Founder /

The statue of the Founder /

Eton is not only the name of the best-known school in the world; it is also historical, in that it was founded by a king. Henry VI, the physically weak and sick son of the hero of Agincourt Henry V, founded the college in October, 1440. The school has just passed its 570th anniversary. Obviously, it is one of the oldest established places of education in Britain, and the world. I believe the oldest is St. Albans, founded for poor boys in the 11th century: I will probably be corrected.

King Henry endowed the corporate body of the school (including the parish church in the village of Eton) with large estates spread over much of the southern half of England. The school is rich. It always has been. Henry decided the school would be managed by its Provost and Fellows, and the boys led and controlled by a Head Master. The King intended his foundation to be not only a fine school, but a centre of pilgrimage – religious and educational functions being at that time inseparable.

The buildings were and are splendid, but Henry expected the Chapel to be twice the size it is. He copied an even more ancient school at Winchester, founded by William of Wykeham.  Teaching would be by means of schoolmasters called ushers. At Eton the masters were almost immediately nicknamed beaks; even the beaks at Eton wear a uniform of a kind; subfusc dark suit with dress shirt and white tie.

Unfortunately for Henry and his well-intended and high-minded foundation, the English Wars of the Roses (QV.) broke out just after its beginning. The school nearly perished along with three-quarters of the English nobility, but survived (true to the legend), thanks to the intervention of a mistress of the new king, the Yorkist usurper Edward IV (QV.). The school lived on, but religious functions and pilgrimages ceased.

By the early seventeenth century Eton had become the foremost school in England, boasting 70 Scholars (as decreed by the founder), educated and boarded free, living in the College, and more than 100 ‘Oppidans’ living in houses in what had become the town of Eton. Scholars and Oppidans received the same education, and were subject to the same rigid disciplines.

School hours were long, and packed with a classical education with heavy emphasis on Greek and Latin. There were few day boys, if any, and conditions were hard. The Head Master was assisted by the Lower Master, in charge of the younger boys (13 & 14 years old).

In the 18th century the school’s progress and growth were erratic, as its numbers varied according to economic and political changes. There were also good and bad Provosts and Head Masters, but the latters’ names invariably became famous (or infamous). George III helped with much patronage. Assistant Masters were found and appointed, and each boy had a personal Tutor (to whom he paid a fee) supervising his studies and giving pastoral advice.

The Tutors began running boarding houses adjacent to the College, and thus became House Masters – always known as ‘M’Tutor. If the boarding house was managed and owned by a woman, she was called Dame. There have been many Dames in the history of Eton, mostly proficient, caring and occasionally charming – though not always.

Boys have have their own rooms, or cubicles, though in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was considered normal for brothers to share both room and bed. A good lunch was provided, but apart from this the boys were supposed to look after themselves. This was and is called messing. This is the sharing of a study, boys messing together not necessarily of exactly the same age, or in the same class. These conditions applied only to the Oppidans, whose parents paid fees. The Scholars were rather poorly off, living in sparsely furnished, cold dormitaries, into which they were locked at night.

With no hurry, traditions arrived, some of which survive today. It did not take long, for instance, for the more senior boys to arrange matters so that juniors fagged for them, cleaning shoes, cooking toast, making beds, giving them wake-up calls etc. No small boy could escape the sometimes rigorous burden of fagging. The older boys were called fagmasters and it is inevitable that Americans who do not know might assume that this practice indicates a degree of homosexuality. It is interesting to read school lists and discover how many Americans, north and south, have been sent by willing parents to Eton. The Yanks have a deserved reputation for all sports, but are not celebrated for their learning or academe.

In the earlier centuries school rules were observed by the Ushers, but historians of the school are of the opinion that rules were not necessarily well policed. Discipline was placed in the not always gentle hands of senior boys in the Sixth Form; masters, unless they were housemasters, could not physically punish the boys, but the seniors could, and did. By the eighteenth century a system of school aristocracy was established. ‘Captain of the School’, ‘Captain of the Boats’, ‘Captain of Games’, Captain of the Eleven’ etc. These were the dukes, marquesses and earls at Eton College. Quite frequently they actually were the heirs to dukedoms etc. It used to be said that a father wanted his boys to have brains, he sent them to Winchester. If he wanted them to be very fit, ready to rise to Prime Minister or Field Marshal, be tolerant of others, and drawl their words like in no other school – he must send them to Eton. It is lore that any two Englishmen, meeting by chance in the middle of a jungle, could instantly recognise the other as a Wykehamist or Etonian. Both ancient schools maintain their unique accent.

The most famous Headmaster of Eton was probably Dr. Keate (1809 – 1834). His job was to control (frequently he failed) more than five hundred pupils. His harsh disciplinary methods with birch-rod and cane caused rebellions, but it is noted that his management was not all bad. Unbelievable though it may seem, Dr.Keate was personally popular with the boys, and an excellent teacher, but he is beyond doubt most celebrated for the number of floggings he administered during his twenty-five years as Headmaster. Later, in the twentieth century, a Head Master who had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second War became notorious for his beatings. The satirical weekly Private Eye immortalised Dr. Chenevix-Trench in a parody of The Eton Boating Song called ‘Jolly Beating Weather’. The good Doctor was finally asked to leave by the Provost and Fellows, and Eton survived the scandal, as it always has.

In 1811 a very famous institution was founded, the Eton Society or Pop as it became known. It was founded for debate, but soon became more responsible for school discipline than self-education. Senior boys in each House had a self-selecting group of five or six boys called the Library, responsible to the House Master for house discipline.   Eton is famous for its Games. Football was played from the beginning, though rugby football never caught on. Rowing (wetbobs), cricket (drybobs), and Eton Fives have always been popular, as well as cross-country running and swimming. Boys were regularly drowned in the treacherous waters of the River Thames. The Eton/Harrow cricket match is an important event in the Calendar. Boxing in the eighteenth century form of prize-fighting was not only popular, but a money-making activity for the sportingly inclined. A son of Lord Shaftesbury was killed in a boxing tournament. Sorting each other out with fists was always an acceptable remedy for inter-house hatreds or jealousies.

It is no use trying to avoid the impression that life for an Etonian, in the fifteenth century or in this one, was and is tough. Toughness at Eton has always matched the toughness of the century. Life was extremely hard, especially for weaker boys, in the XVII and XVIII centuries, but became more tolerable in the XIX and succeeding centuries, when manners became more relaxed, and the rules with them.

With Hodgson as Provost in 1840, the Scholars (or Collegers) were at last re-housed, and it was possible to attract more able boys by scholarships. Keate’s successor, Hawtrey, introduced Mathematics as a subject in the syllabus, and greatly improved the teaching staff. By 1860 the College was a thriving mass of boys, nearly nine hundred of them. The school, unlike most of its contemporaries or equals, has never become truly co-educational, though experiments have been made.

Eton has produced more Prime Ministers than any other school, indeed the present PM was an Oppidan, while Mayor of London Boris Johnson was an exceedingly clever Colleger. The princes William and Harry went to Eton. The famous writers George Orwell (Eric Blair), Anthony Powell, Harold Acton, Ian Fleming, Aldous Huxley, Cyril Connolly, A.C. Benson and John le Carré (as a Master) were there. Prime Ministers the Duke of Wellington, W.E. Gladstone, Lord Roseberry, Lord Salisbury, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home and others were there, as was Field Marshall Lord Chetwode. Leopold King of the Belgians was there. Actors Jeremy Brett and Timothy Dalton were there. The list of Etonians dead in the Great War is longer than those of most of the other great public schools. Contrary to popular thought, Eton is not as expensive as certain other great schools: Malvern College, for example, and the Roman Catholic institution Ampleforth cost more per term.

Essential sources:

Eton Renewed by Tim Card: published by John Murray in 1994.

To Keep the Ball Rolling: Memoirs of Anthony Powell

Personal reminiscences recounted by the late Rowland Windsor-Clive and Jeremy Brett.

By | 2011-11-30T09:15:33+00:00 November 30th, 2011|English History, Today, World History|1 Comment

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

One Comment

  1. Ross McComish September 4, 2019 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Reputed to be the oldest school in the world: –,_Canterbury

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