I once visited the remains of the camp at Auschwitz with a party of British journalists. Afterward we continued our journey in total silence. Our Polish guide, also speechless, passed around a bottle of Georgian cognac as the car droned on across that greenish-gray Silesian plain. Some twenty minutes went by. Then one of us stretched his arms, like a man wakening from an uncomfortable dream, and drawled: “I was never so glad to leave anywhere since I left my public school.”

This remark tells nothing about Auschwitz, but it has always seemed to me to say a very great deal about the public schools of England and their products. Even if we allow for the wild hyperbole, it’s significant that the public schools can evoke in the mind of an expupil other places of confinement and forcible indoctrination supported by the sanction of inflicting physical pain. The remark also reveals that easy arrogance of spirit which instinctively brushes off any intense emotion or any attempt to make an impression undertaken by people who are not “our sort.” It also, of course, belittles the agony of alien human beings, in order to keep cold air out of a sealed, comfortably heated room.

The history of the public schools is the history of English continuity (Scotland, Wales, the Irish dominions came in the last century to be the sites of a few public schools, but they remained mere outstations of another culture). It is the history of how rising social classes were absorbed not without effort, into the mores and the general outlook of much older ruling groups with quite different forms of property; in other words, of how the son of a self-made cotton manufacturer from Victorian Lancashire could take on his father’s business while possessing the mental furniture of a landed aristocrat. It is a great part of the reason why England never underwent a proper bourgeois revolution (given that the events of 1688-1689 were not comparable to the revolts of the new industrial bourgeoisie against the old regimes in the rest of Europe, which began a hundred years later). To some writers, like Correlli Barnett, the English public schools and their monopoly of educating the elite are the main reason for the decline of the British state in our own times.

English education began in a normal European pattern. The Church selected clever boys and taught them, to ensure its own future generations of scribes and priests. In the later Middle Ages, some of the rich and the Crown itself began to found schools. These had some charitable motive, in that the “scholars” were required to be poor. But, especially in the case of royal foundations like Eton (1440), there was also the intention to rear up an embryonic central bureaucracy, a corps of educated royal servants on whom the king could rely in his struggles against the centrifugal challenges of his barons. The fact that the seventy scholars at Eton had to be “poor” was significant; beside the motive of piety, there was the intention that these boys should owe everything to their royal patron.

But the founding of schools was never a royal monopoly. Some rich lay founders provided that their own descendants should be educated at the schools they established. By the sixteenth century, inflation had rendered the yield of the old medieval endowments inadequate, and there began the practice of taking in fee-paying pupils to share the education of the “poor scholar” nucleus.

As Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy points out, the habit of living on fees as well as endowments was to transform the schools into independent money-making businesses—which they still remain. On the one hand, there were vast sums to be made: in the eighteenth century, the headmaster of Blundell’s was said to have taken £60,000 for himself in twenty-three years, while it was common to find school governors rolling in wealth although their boys were living in squalor and semi-starvation. On the other, there was now a penalty. If the fee-paying parents took their sons away, and the number of pupils withered, the school had to choose between swift reform and financial ruin.

From at least the sixteenth century on, the rich were moving into the schools with the best traditional reputations. Their boys came from far afield and were lodged locally, the lodging-houses slowly being integrated into the “house system” of the typical Victorian public school. By the late eighteenth century, the “great schools” had become places for the children of the landed and wealthy. The nucleus of endowed “poor scholars” survived, as it still does at Eton and Winchester, but they were swamped by the fee-payers. The old purpose of rearing a clerkly elite, dependent on royal or ecclesiastical employers, had been lost.

Until about 1820, the public schools decayed. They were the possession of the ruling class, already a distinct “nation” in their speech and manners. But they also became spectacularly corrupt and violent. Boys did much as they pleased; masters carried out mass floggings when they dared. Food and conditions were often unspeakable; when Long Chamber, the original dormitory at Eton, was rebuilt, they took away two cartloads of rats’ bones from beneath the floorboards. Bullying verging on torture (the nightmare experiences of “mad Shelley” at Eton were mild, by some standards) and the enslavement of smaller boys were common. Education consisted in the main of Latin, battered home with rod, birch, and fist. From time to time, the boys rebelled, and the French Revolution—comically—inspired the sons of aristocrats to fling up barricades for “the Rights of Boys.”


But the system, now moribund, was about to be reborn. Already, as Gathorne-Hardy puts it, “the new ambitious industrialist…had to value idleness as the supreme mark of status.” The industrial revolution had long begun in Britain, by the 1820s. A new class was surging upward, and being forcibly fed with the utterly irrelevant values of the squirearchy. Either the ruling institutions would modify their values, or the new class would thrust those institutions aside.

Gathorne-Hardy suggests three causes for the reform which now began: the general climate of political reform in the 1830s, the rise of that new middle class with its ancillaries in the professions, and—above all, in his view—the coming of Evangelical Christianity and the horror of its devotees at the debauchery and disorder reigning in the ancient schools. He points out that John Wesley had set up a forerunner of the reformed public school nearly a century before at Kingswood, a dreadful, drilled reformatory of a place buried in the countryside away from temptation and undernourished on gruel. Thomas Arnold, the great Evangelical headmaster of Rugby from the 1830s, was now to make these ideas general. The public schools were to become institutes of character formation. Dr. Arnold beat his boys, but whereas old dragons like Dr. Keate of Eton had simply flogged boys to keep discipline much in the spirit of Captain Bligh, the tearful Arnold beat them because they were sinful.

Not that they stopped sinning. To throw a book at a master and stroll off to a cockfight or a brothel certainly became more difficult. But riotous homosexuality and the extremes of sadism to weaker and smaller boys persisted. The difference was, as Gathorne-Hardy says, that these practices and traditions now became sanctified by the much more intense corporate feeling of the reformed public schools. Scandals could be concealed. Society never knew about Dr. Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow, who was engaged in a passionate affair with a pupil while preaching against the sin of Sodom from his pulpit; he was discreetly persuaded to resign. Dr. Udall, a sixteenth-century headmaster of Eton, had actually been jailed for buggery and then permitted to resume his office. Times had changed.

Through the later nineteenth century, the monolithic and class-exclusive nature of the public schools grew steadily more intense. Much energy was spent brewing up a stifling climate of guilt and terror about masturbation (“the sin of Kibroth-Hathaavah”). The public schools took on their familiar shape; the administration of “justice” by prefects, the initiations, the conformity, the fear of women, the prejudice against intellectualism, and the dreary obsession with competitive sport. As George Orwell put it: “This was the pattern of school life—a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak.” Or as the Marlborough school magazine wrote in 1867, “a truly chivalrous football player…was never yet guilty of lying or deceit or meanness.”

It was now that English society really divided into two cultural nations: the upper classes educated at public schools, and “the rest.” And yet there was a chance, even then, that the public schools might have been integrated into a national system of state-sponsored education on the modern European pattern. The Clarendon Commission and the Taunton Commission investigated the great public schools and the endowed grammar schools in the 1860s, and the Taunton Commission recommended that the endowments should be used to finance such a system of non-class national secondary schooling.

This was a real parting of the ways in English social history. As Gathorne-Hardy describes with vigorous detail, the public school lobby was able to defeat the Commission. The chance was missed. The endowed schools now merged into the increasingly monolithic mass of the public schools, and new foundations sprang up. This book quotes estimates of about 7,500 boys boarding at thirty-four such schools in 1865, and something like 20,000 at sixty-four public schools by the end of the century.

The great age of the English public schoolboy was at hand. Great? Only in the elite positions which public schoolboys filled nearly to exclusion. Between 1918 and 1955, 70 percent of Conservative cabinet ministers were public schoolboys, 45 percent of them from Eton or Harrow. (Nearly 10 percent of Labour ministers in that period were Old Etonians or Harrovians, Mr. Gathorne-Hardy’s tables point out). Other professions, the army and navy officers, above all the top levels of the clearing and merchant banks, would show an even higher percentage intake from the public schools.


But at what cost in social justice, and in human happiness? Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy is a novelist, and it would be wrong to treat this book only as a well-reasoned lump of social history. He insists that The Old School Tie should be seen as a sequel to his previous The Unnatural History of the Nanny (Dial, 1973); his real interest is less political or sociological than imaginative. He wants to record and understand the miserable, evasive psyche of the English public schoolboy, and sexuality is as much his theme as equality. Always good on upper-class sex in his novels, he describes here the autumn of the ex-“garçon fatal…that familiar figure, the aging English male beauty, perfectly preserved, frequent glancer into the plate glass of shop windows, with a curious way of walking with his feet turned in developed self-consciously years and years before, when he was an object of desire….”

Gathorne-Hardy helps himself lavishly to Kinsey and much too lavishly to what they call the “explicit” scenes in homosexual novels. He writes wisely and amusingly about the “progressive” boarding schools, some of them much less sexually permissive than the one-sex establishments they professed to supersede, and makes the case for letting the amorous life of adolescents (seldom as turbulent as the schoolmaster fears) take its course.

It is part of the comedy of British decline that no Labour government has yet dared to lay a finger on these schools, although they form the most blatantly effective factory of inherited privilege in the world. Indeed, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy points out that Labour education policy is actually rescuing the public school system from a time of grave uncertainty. This policy, leveling in its intention, placed before the “grammar schools” and old city academies which receive state grants the choice of dissolving into the new structure of “comprehensive” secondary education or losing their grant. In consequence, a huge afflux of such schools is now reinforcing the older public school system; they are resolved that they would rather be fee-supported establishments for the children of the rich than “lose their identity” in the state education structure.

The author concludes that the public schools must be abolished, but only in the context of some sort of Illichian general revolution in which all citizens are prepared by their education to perform all kinds of work. At present, “the more stimulating and awakening…education becomes, precisely to that degree does it make people less fit for the lives they will actually have to lead.” That’s well said, and in this long book, Gathorne-Hardy finds his own very subjective way into profound questions about education and its relationship to society. The writing is uneven: sometimes it is as brilliant as the “garçon fatal” passage, sometimes it commits words like “minizeitgeist” or suggests that “the years around 1898…seemed to the majority of those living in them like some cosmic womb.” But he is always humane, observant, honest with his own feelings.

One reaction in Britain to this book has been: Who cares? Who is interested in what took place in these snobbish haunts except those who were educated and flagellated there? This is quite wrong, and I don’t think Gathorne-Hardy can be accused of “fondness” in his choice of subject. These schools do matter. The Victorian public schools like the Elizabethan church settlement still determine English attitudes. The schools offer teaching which remains much more intensive than the normal education in the state sector, although a modern comprehensive school would offer a wider subject choice. The public schools continue to supply the elite, to preserve what Noel Annan called “the paradox of an intelligentsia which appears to conform rather than to rebel.” They integrated two rising classes into the traditional values of the ruling group—the landed gentry and then the industrial bourgeoisie—but then lacked the creative energy to take on the industrial working class as well. The great rise in working-class living standards after 1945 was outstripped in the end by the recovery of middle-class wealth. The system of private education was never seriously in danger.

There are gaps here. I wish that the author had included a full chapter on the “prep schools,” which in England are private boarding schools for children of eight to thirteen whose curriculum is so intimately adapted to that of the public schools that they almost monopolize the number of public school entrants. I wish, too, that he had discussed the way in which the English upper classes are now using and exploiting the state primary schools—and sometimes the comprehensives in big cities. But this is a fine book, even if it should have been both fuller and shorter. I’m left with the image of the girls’ public schools at Roedean and Cheltenham, the files of pupils swishing through the corridors in silence to the tingle of bells, the great cry which bursts from the headmistress in times of disaster: “Go quickly and quietly to bed!” Yes, Miss England.

This Issue

September 28, 1978