Violence, cruelty and sexual confusion are as much a part of boarding school literature as japes, cricket and a cast of swots, cads and cowards. Alex Renton traces a troubled genre from Rudyard Kipling to JK Rowling
8 April 2017, The Guardian (this is an amended version of the original article, here)
“Michael was ordered to take down his trousers and kneel on the Headmaster’s sofa with the top half of his body hanging over one end of the sofa (sic). The great man then gave him one terrific crack. After that there was a pause. The cane was put down and the Headmaster began filling his pipe from a tin of tobacco. He also started to lecture the kneeling boy about sin and wrongdoing. Soon, the cane was picked up again and a second tremendous crack was administered upon the trembling buttocks. Then the pipe-filling business and the lecture went on for maybe thirty seconds. Then came the third crack of the cane… At the end of it all, a basin, a sponge and a small clean towel were produced by the Headmaster, and the victim was told to wash away the blood before pulling up his trousers.”
The writer is Roald Dahl, on his school, Repton, in the early 1930s. Apart from one detail, it’s run-of-the-mill, one in a stack of boarding school stories from the 19th and 20th centuries that tell quite blithely of acts of extraordinary violence and psychological cruelty. These were as traditional an element of the curriculum for the privileged child as were fagging, rugby, chapel and Latin. What stands out is that the “great man” was a clergyman named Geoffrey Fisher, soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
Dahl’s story (which may have confused Fisher with another man) is told in his autobiography, Boy. It came to mind recently when a Channel 4 documentary outed another hard-flogging Christian, a former QC called John Smyth. He would select boys, some future bishops among them, at Winchester College’s Christian summer camp. He whipped them till they bled, too. Smyth – and Fisher – were nothing unusual in a long parade of moralising, high-placed Anglicans who brutalised and assaulted the children of the ruling class. It was a job that needed doing: “conscientiously whipping virtue in and vice out,” as the critic Cuthbert Worsley, a master at Marlborough College in the 1930s, put it.
Archibald Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 until his death in 1882, “sobbed in a religious passion” as he birched the boys in his charge at Rugby. Edward Benson, a favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, succeeded Tait to the archbishopric: he was another cane-happy head at Rugby and Wellington schools. These were high-minded men: while at Wellington, Benson became so worried about outbreaks of bed-hopping among the boys that he installed cubicles in the dormitories and had their partitions crowned with tangles of wire.
Savage discipline, sexual confusion and formalised bullying are so common in the schooldays memoirs of the British elite that you have to conclude that parents wanted their children to experience these things. To most of the class that used them, the private schools were factories that would reliably produce men and women who would to run Britain, its politics, business, and culture. Boarding school was a proven good investment. So thousands of men and women who had suffered awfully, by their own admission, sent their children off for just the same.
At St George’s School, Ascot the eight year old Winston Churchill was whipped hard for damaging the head-master’s hat and for taking sugar from a pantry. ‘Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum,’ he wrote in My Early Life. Two or three times a month the whole school was gathered to listen to the screams of offenders being ‘flogged until they bled freely’. Churchill’s headmaster was another clergyman, the Reverend Henry Sneyd-Kynnersley. He is said to have died, aged just thirty-eight, while in action against one of his charges . Another St George’s old boy, the artist Roger Fry, wrote in his private diaries of these “solemn rituals”; Virginia Woolf, Fry’s first biographer, censored the details of both Fry’s and Sneyd-Kynnersley’s sexual arousal during the ceremony.
Churchill duly sent his boy Randolph off to board at nine; though when he found out that a master at Sandroyd School had been taking the child into his room to “manipulate his organ”, he drove straight to the school and ensured the man was sacked. That was unusual. From the hundreds of accounts sent to me of predation by teachers most children who made such complaints were ignored – or punished for lying.
What most of the published memoirs, from Churchill’s to Christopher Hitchens’ and a host of others, share most obviously is their tone: wry, tolerant of predators and floggers, and rather proud. It didn’t do to make a fuss or – more important – betray the caste. There are few men or women who went through the boarding school system who were prepared to wholly deny the benefits of the experience, at least before the later 20th century. George Orwell and his schoolmate Cyril Connolly had a go, using – and in Orwell’s case, fictionalising – the baroque horrors of their South Coast prep school, St Cyprian’s.
In the Thirties, a perception grew that Britain’s social divides, and the peculiar psychology of its ruling class, might possibly owe something to the uniquely bizarre education the elite underwent. Fascism became a metaphor for the schools, at least among leftish intellectuals. In 1934 the 29-year old Graham Greene gathered a team of young writers including WH Auden, Antonia White and Anthony Powell to assault the noble edifices that had raised them (HE Bates is also there, to give the view from Kettering Grammar School). The dominant tone is anger. Auden dubs the teachers at Gresham’s in Norfolk, “lifeless prunes and spiritual vampires”. Another essayist in Greene’s The Old School, the novelist Elizabeth Arnot Robertson: “Run about, girls, like boys, and then you won’t have to think of them.” Her essay, “The Potting Shed of the English Rose, is a portrait of a prison-factory designed to machine the girls into spiritual clones and reliable spouses for rulers. She tried to rebel, was stamped down, and survived her time dreaming of the future: “How exquisitely delightful it would be to be an adult! And it is…”
There are not many negative accounts of the traditional boarding schools by women. That may be in part because physical violence was less common, though the emotional abuse and neglect they encountered could be just as damaging. The women’s institutions were founded later – there were only five “public” schools for girls by the end of the 19th century, all of them quite deliberately aping the boys’ ones. But in the late 1960s 150,000 British children were boarding, about a third of them female. By then the girls’ schools had their own literature: the addictive, unambivalent stories of japes, hockey and simple social quandaries turned out by Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. Like JK Rowling, Blyton did not board at her schools and Brazil only did in her late teens. The only anti-boarding school novel by a woman before the 1970s I know of is Frost in May (1933), Antonia White’s fictionalised account of her rigid Catholic convent school, Woldingham. There sexuality was so feared that the girls were not permitted to see their own bodies: baths were taken in tents made of calico.
Novelists were telling of the dark and brutal times to be had at boarding school much earlier than the essay-writers. Dickens sent Nicholas Nickleby to Dotheboys Hall and Charlotte Bronte put the orphan Jane Eyre into Lowood Institute: at both of them hypocritical, grasping adults set out to break the children, physically and spiritually. In 1888 Rudyard Kipling published a heart-rending short story about little children despatched – as he was, at five years old – from the colonies into the hands of uncaring adults back in Britain. Ten years later, he invented a school fiction sub-genre, with the rebellious schoolchild as hero, battling dictatorial and stupid adult teachers: Stalky and Co leads to the stories of Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter, to Molesworth and Down With Skool and finally to Harry Potter. The schoolmaster-baiting pranks of Stalky and his friends reappear again and again in subsequent English fiction – not least in British officers in WW2 POW camps, chirpily fooling dim German guards.
Having set The Longest Journey (1907) around his snobbish, militaristic school Tonbridge – it is called Sawston in the novel – EM Forster delivered the harshest of all one-liners about the product of the British public school. They go out into the world, he wrote in 1927, “with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts.” But of course Forster did not bring down the schools. More kept opening. To most Britons possession of limited knowledge and not too much emotional intelligence must have seemed a sensible preparation for joining the club that ran the British world. Anti-intellectualism was prized. “They say that Eton taught us nothing,” crowed the First World War general Sir Herbert Plumer at a dinner of the school’s old boys’ society in 1916. “But I must say they taught it very well.”
Traditional boarding school, with its cricket-field triumphs and the practical jokes, the floggings and the bullies, were by the 1890s the staple of a literary genre with an audience far beyond the class that used them, or even the ones that aspired to them. The simple cast of honest sportsmen, swots and of cowards, cads, and bullies presented by Tom Hughes in Tom Brown’s School Days marched on through hundreds of novels for children and in comics; if you read accounts of British foreign policy before and after the Second World War it seems as though the schoolyard precepts and stock characters of the schooldays novel have peopled the world. School and sport provided metaphors for proper Britishness. “Play up and play the game!” – the refrain of Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem immensely popular poem Vitai Lampada – was a guiding motto for everything from war to marriage.
And it was clear that a stiff upper lip, loyalty to the team and a smile at adversity were the attributes most useful in life – and you obtained these at the right schools. Or even the worst ones. Evelyn Waugh portrayed a shambolic prep school in his first novel, modelled on one at which he had taught. Decline and Fall features fiction’s first account of another traditional cast-member of the boarding school drama, the predatory paedophile Captain Grimes. His actual crime is only hinted at in the novel; the BBC’s rollicking TV adaptation is much more open about the “peg-legged pederast”. But the sophisticated reader would have had no problem understanding what Grimes did – and had been sacked from the army and many boarding schools for doing. Grimes remains acclaimed as one of the century’s greatest comic creations. In his diaries Waugh writes with loving admiration of Grimes’s original,the disgraced former army officer WB “Dick” Young. A serial molester of small boys, certainly: but a resourceful and witty man of “shining candour”, and they remained friends until Decline and Fall was published. Later Young, by way of revenge, wrote a school novel in which Waugh was the paedophile teacher.
And so to Hogwarts. With all its Gothic filigree, this most exclusive college looks very like the 19th century Fettes School and Arundel College: Harry Potter location fees have been a windfall for many fading institutions. The series has the archetypes – sinister teachers and over-friendly ones, sporty heroes and school bullies. The books don’t – and it seems a missed opportunity – have any flogging in them. But they have the other key elements, arcane ritualistic the training to join an elite.
Harry and his friends may well have been the best advert for private boarding schools since the Duke of Wellington boasted that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It could be coincidence, but the 30-year decline in boarding school numbers came to an end in 2000, just as the third Harry Potter novel was published. Since then, though full-boarding fees are now around £35,000 per annum, the pupil count has been stable at 70,000, a third of them the children of foreign wealthy. Later this month, when the Easter holidays end, more than 4,000 children under 10 years old will say goodbye to their families, off to where there is the promise of adventure, but not love. Some of them – as one mother, “forced” by her daughter to allow her to board, told me – will pack Harry Potter wands too. Your heart breaks for them still.
Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson – buy it here
This is a longer version of the original article published in the Guardian on 8th April 2017.