THOMAS ARNOLD’S SCHOOLDAYS

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:31

Judged by today’s standards, the regimen at Winchester was extremely severe. The day began at five-thirty, with attendance at the chapel at six. For four days out of seven, three hours’ work was done before breakfast. In a room where, because there were insufficient ‘scobs’ (combined desks and bookcases), some boys had to stand, ten-year-olds were expected to write sixty Greek sentences complete with declensions, etc., or recite word-perfectly ten pages of that language – all this to be done amid a hubbub punctuated by the shouting masters of different classes. There followed a thirty-minute break during which bread with rancid butter, beer or milk were consumed. At ten-thirty work comprising the composition of Latin verses was resumed. At twelve, shepherded by prefects, the pupils went to a prehistoric site to play games. For the midday meal bread, cheese, and plum-pudding were served, with the addition of beef on Sundays. A four-hour session interrupted by a fifteen-minute break for bread and beer occupied the afternoon, and in one session Thomas Arnold was required to learn two Latin poems, read a lecture on the Classics, and reduce to a précis forty pages from Adams’ Roman Antiquities. Dinner at six gave them meat, mouldy bread, and beer. Thus fortified, they did their evening prep., entered the Chapel at eight, and went to bed at nine. Although sent to bed, the boys were not compelled to go to sleep. Many, including Arnold, studied by candle-light. Wymer tells us that, for six successive days in order to learn 3,000 lines of Homer, Thomas rose at three in the morning, employing an alarm of his own invention, a device that allowed a candle flame to part a piece of string which held books suspended over his sleeping head.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays very little work was done, which makes one wonder why they were not used to relieve the pressure imposed on other days.

In the film Tom Brown’s Schooldays, we saw senior boys at Rugby behaving like embryonic Gestapo members. Such scenes frequently took place at Winchester, with bullying of such incredible brutality that one wonders how the culprits escaped expulsion. The answer, apparently, being that the masters turned a blind eye – behaviour not perhaps so unbelievable when it is known they themselves were prepared to administer on bare backs from six to fifty strokes with a birch made of apple twigs, and were capable of breaking a cricket stump on a boy’s spine. In addition to being held near a fire until they fainted, victims had their hands burnt with red-hot sticks, had wooden platters broken over their heads, were beaten with ash rods until they bled, were locked in chests and, after being tossed in blankets, were dropped to fall heavily on the floor. Further evidence of the authorities’ callousness was given when, after a boy had fallen into the river, Mrs Gabell would not let him change his wet clothes.

Surprisingly, in spite of what appalled him when he saw it and, presumably, suffered similar fates, Thomas soon resigned himself to the inevitable and made no serious complaints when writing home.  When writing to Mr Lawes concerning the headmaster and usher, it was characteristic of him to express preference for the latter, the Rev. Henry Dixon Gabell, because although less tolerant than Dr William Stanley Goddard he was the greater scholar.

As at Warminster, Thomas Arnold at first was not popular, his reserve being interpreted as sulkiness, and by his schoolfellows he was regarded as being too formal, stubborn, and self-opinionated. Once, quite out of character, when feeling unable to cope with his work he pretended to suffer from earache. The ruse did not work. Soon, however, the curriculum presented no insuperable problems and, despite not heading his form, he was suggesting that Cicero was inferior to Demosthenes and Xenophon, expressing his approval of Herodotus and Thucydides, and voicing his opinion that much Roman History was an exaggeration. When he asked Gabell to add English and Greek composition to the syllabus, it is probable the nine boys with whom he shared a dormitory, and any others who knew of his request, questioned his sanity. Later a second request to Gabell asking to be promoted to the next form was not refused.

In an establishment where food was Spartan in quantity and poor in quality, any variation in the menu was thought by Thomas worthy to be recorded. As a reward for delivering an oration at a traditional ceremony he dined on mock turtle soup, veal cutlets and marrow pudding. For 4d a day he and his nine companions had boiled milk, and a letter reveals how he and three friends regaled themselves at an inn with giblet pie, a brace of partridges, and an apple pie. He wrote also of walking three miles to drink cherry brandy at a public house. Such departures from the norm exhausted his seven guineas a term pocket-money, compelling to confess that he lacked the sum required for a chaise to Southampton. Nourished by buttered toast and food parcels sent by Martha and Susan he put on enough weight to split his breeches.

Having made friends, Thomas produced plays and probably astonished his detractors by participating in night raids on other dormitories – riotous forays that broke windows, smashed doors, ripped bedding, flooded the room with slops thrown by the defenders, and caused injuries. Thomas, hit by a stone washing-box, luckily escaped with a superficial head wound. If it is difficult to reconcile such hooliganism with his other qualities, it is even harder to accept that, when a prefect, he was caught with three others playing Five Card Loo for money – an offence for which, anticipating a call to the headmaster’s study, he went and apologised and apparently escaped punishment.

We are told he disobeyed only those rules he thought unimportant, that his principles were above average, and that he never did anything he thought morally wrong. Bullying disgusted him, and in 1810 a letter to his aunt related how boys with a prefect started to damage trees, and when ordered by a soldier’s wife to stop they threatened her with a bayonet – behaviour he thought despicable. Shocking, too, in his estimation were the immorality of the Dukes of York and Cumberland, the follies of the Church, and the Parliamentary intrigues.

In 1811, fully aware of the evils of school life, the need for reformation in the Church, and the need for a religious revival among the public, he left for Oxford determined to start a crusade against the enemies of those essentials.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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