Thomas Arnold’s public-school reforms and their importance for mid-Victorian British society

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of content

1. Thomas Arnold’s public school reforms and their importance for Britain’s society

2. What is a public school?

3. Thomas Arnold: the most prominent public school reformer
3.1 The person Thomas Arnold
3.2 Thomas Arnold’s reforms at Rugby
3.2.1 “I want to be A1 at cricket and football, and all the other games”: Muscular Christianity and competition
3.2.2 “I want to carry away just as much Latin and Greek as will take me through Oxford respectably”: the classical-oriented curriculum
3.2.3 “I want to leave behind me [] the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy”: the prefect system

4. The influence of Public Schools on the society of mid-Victorian Britain

5. Public schools and economic decline

6. The British public school in the late 19th century: friend or foe of the British society?


1. Thomas Arnold’s public school reforms and their importance for Britain’s society

Talking about education in Britain, one has to differentiate between state schools and private schools. Of the latter ones, the traditional public schools are probably the best known ones being famous for the celebrities attending them (Prince William, for example, was a pupil at Eton College for a long time). This distinction between state and private education goes back to the nineteenth century when the topic of education become more and more a matter of discussion, leading to the 1870 Education Act that intended to provide education for everyone in Britain. If state education became an element in Britain, the questions to ask are: What made the elite public schools so attractive for upper-class parents that they paid the extraordinary school rates in order to see their children educated there? And, as a following question: Did these schools really fulfil these high expectations? These questions become especially interesting considering the important reforms that took place at public schools in the middle of the 19th century. The questions arise, what was reformed and how did the reforms contribute to the perception of these elite schools and their role in mid-Victorian society.

In order to answer these questions, the first step will be to define how the term public school will be used in this paper, that is, to show what the most important characteristics are that distinguished these elite schools from others in mid-Victorian Britain.

Having thus defined the term public school, Thomas Arnold will be taken as an example to show how public schools were reformed during the 19th. Arnold was the most prominent reformer of the 19th century and many of the changes that he brought to Rugby School as a headmaster can as well be found at the other public schools, sometimes even brought there by his former pupils. To make the changes and their effects of Thomas Arnold’s reforms a bit more vivid, several quotations from Thomas HUGHES’s semi-autobiographical novel “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” will be used as guiding quotations. Hughes himself was a pupil at Rugby during Arnold’s time as a headmaster. The changes thus directly affected him and he gives his opinion about them. Although his point of view is a rather nostalgic one, his views can well be taken as an example of how Arnold’s reforms affected the pupils themselves.

A further look will then be taken at how British public schools affected British society in the second half of the 19th century. The guiding question will be what kind of occupations public-school leavers decided for i.e. which roles they played in mid-Victorian British society and how the reformed schools could contribute to that. This entails the question why parents would have been so keen on sending their children there.

Eventually, a heavily-discussed topic will be hinted at: the relation of public-school education and the economic decline at the end of the 19th century. This is to show, that public schools were always a topic of controversial discussions with several good arguments on both sides. The question behind this is, whether public schools really met the expectations of the upper class or whether, by meeting these expectations, they neglected their task for the British society.

2. What is a public school?

As the topic of this paper is the importance of English public schools for the English society in the middle of the 19th century, it is indispensable to define the term public school and its usage for the paper’s argumentation. It was especially during the 19th century that a multitude of different school types developed, each slightly differing concerning their (financial) dependence on institutions such as the state or the church or on private people, their pupils’ social background, the subjects that they taught, the methods they used, whether they were free or not, etc.[1]. It is therefore important to define what distinguished public schools from these other educational facilities. However, this is not as easy as it seems to be.

It is not only that the compound term itself is misleading, giving the impression that a public school is a school “connected with ordinary people in general” or “provided, especially by the government, for the use of people in general” (HORNBY/WEHMEIER 2000, pp.1022). Though it might have been the case that these schools, or at least some of them, were originally meant to be for the poor public (cf. MACK 1938, 10), this is certainly no more the case in mid-Victorian Britain, the target group being mainly the upper and the upper-middle classes (cf. SELCHOW 1980, 64).

Furthermore, there exist numerous possibilities of how the term public school can be defined which leads to a rather blurred than distinct notion of the term (cf. for example KAMPE 1976, pp.9-13; 29-31 or OGLIVIE 1957, 1).

To clarify the meaning in the context of this paper, a definition by Vivian OGLIVIE will be used who gives a very nice summary of the decisive characteristics of a public school:

“(1) It is a class school, catering for a well-to-do clientele.
(2) It is expensive.
(3) It is non-local.
(4) It is a predominantly boarding school.
(5) It is independent of the State and of local government, yet it is not privately owned or run for profit”
(OGLIVIE 1957, 7)

This is already a very precise definition of what a public school is. This paper, however, will mainly concentrate on the nine so-called Clarendon Schools, denominated by the Clarendon Commission in 1868[2] (cf. BERGHOFF 1990, 158) because they obviously served as ideal schools for other public schools (cf. OGLIVIE 1957, 6) and because they are most often referred to in the different sources. These Clarendon Schools, and here especially Rugby School, are thus more closely dealt with as an example for the other public schools.

According to DAVIS et al., even Matthew Arnold, son of the former Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold, called the nine Clarendon Schools “’Barbarian’ schools because they maintained the gentry tradition” (DAVIS et al. 2004, 653). Although this is by no means any satisfactory definition, it should already be noted that opinions about these schools were widely divided, even among people that were closely related to these schools, and that they neither were nor are always invariably seen as well-perceived places of education.

3. Thomas Arnold: the most prominent public-school reformer

Before a closer look will be taken at Thomas Arnold’s reforms at Rugby School, it is important to mention that he is not the only one who was responsible for public-school reforms in mid-nineteenth century. Other reformers at other schools, for example, Samuel Butler and Benjamin Hall Kennedy of Shrewsbury, George Moberly of Winchester, Christopher Wordsworth of Harrow, Edward Craven Hawtrey of Eton and John Russel of Charterhouse contributed to the reforms that took place at several public schools in England (cf. DAVIS et al. 2004, 658; SELCHOW 1980, pp.69). Nevertheless, the focus in this paper will be on Thomas Arnold and his reforms at Rugby, as he can be considered the most prominent and written-about school reformer. Moreover, his reforms can be taken as an example of the reforms that took place at other public schools. Arnold’s influence could not only be felt during his lifetime but still after his death in 1842. Vivian OGLIVIE gives several examples of former Arnold-pupils who went to other schools and thus “carried his spirit and methods [there]” (OGLIVIE 1957, 148)[3].

3.1 The person Thomas Arnold

When talking about the reforms of Thomas Arnold at Rugby, it is indispensable to have a quick look at the person Thomas Arnold himself, i.e. at a few stages of his biography that seemed to shape his life. This is to promote an understanding of why his reforms the different focal points that they are famous for[4].

Thomas Arnold was born as the third of seven children at Cowes (Isle of Wight). His father was a Collector of the Customs as well as a postmaster. After William’s death in 1801, his wife’s sister Susan Delafield educated the children. Two years later, Thomas attended Warminster Grammar School before he changed, in 1807, to Winchester College. It was here where he made his first personal experiences with the punishment of flogging and where he discovered his partiality for classical languages as well as history and geography under Winchester’s headmasters Dr Goddard and, later on, Dr. Gabell. Although Arnold applied for a place at Oxford New College, he was not accepted and, therefore, attended Corpus Christi College which he left with a “First Class Honours Degree” in Latin and Greek (SELCHOW 1980, 48). After that, he was elected Fellow of Oriel College, which enabled him to do further research on Greek Classics and late medieval history. Though he himself had considered the possibility of a clergyman career, he was discouraged by the Provost of Oriel College Edward Hawkins and decided to found an own private school together with his brother-in-law. Another important influence, apart from his education, came from his wife Mary Penrose, a clergyman’s daughter, whom he married in 1820. According to SELCHOW, it was due to her that his religious beliefs and morality became much more stable. In 1824, he already started preaching in Laleham once every fortnight. His strong moral and religious principles as well as his experiences in teaching and preaching will, from 1828 onwards, strongly influence his teaching at Rugby School.


[1] This paper will not further try to distinguish the different school types from each other, but mainly focus on the specific features of public schools. A very detailed description, however, of the different school types gives, for example STEPHENS (1998).

[2] The nine official Public Schools, according to the Clarendon Commission, are Eton College, Harrow School, Westminster School, Charterhouse School, Merchant Taylor’s School, Shrewsbury School, St. Paul’s School, Winchester College and Rugby School. The number was, however, reduced to merely seven schools, omitting St. Paul’s and St. Merchant Taylor’s, probably because of being day schools (cf. OGLIVIE 1957, 5).

[3] For a more detailed description of how Thomas Arnold’s disciples influenced on public-school education after his death also cf. MACK 1938, 300-323.

[4] For biographical reference to Thomas Arnold cf. SELCHOW 1980, 42-59 and, more precisely, MCCRUM 1989.


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Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg – Fakultät III Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaften
Thomas Arnold’s British Victorian Britain



Title: Thomas Arnold’s public-school reforms and their importance for mid-Victorian British society