THOMAS ARNOLD: FLOREAT RUGBEIA

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:28

In the post-war year of 1827 a prominent feature that affected Thomas Arnold’s otherwise happy life was the alarming price increases which, despite the prosperity of his school, threatened financial difficulties, and led him to consider taking part-time work. With this in mind, he applied to London University for a position as Professor of History. My available records do not give the university’s reply, but they show that a simultaneous occurrence was Dr John Wooll’s resignation from the headmastership of Rugby School, which prompted Dr Edward Hawkins, the Provost of Oriel, to urge Arnold to apply for the vacancy. Having doubts regarding his ability to run a big school, Arnold hesitated and, even when Dr Richard Whately, the Bishop of Dublin, joined Hawkins in trying to persuade him, he still wavered, for the question of his religious outlook prevented him from complying – the obstacle being that he thought the Trustees would expect their headmaster to be an ordained priest with a doctor’s degree. Once again the two sponsors discounted his arguments, and finally his application was dispatched. Competing for the post were fifty candidates, including two from Charterhouse and one from Harrow; but a recommendation from the Provost of Oriel carried such weight that it was Thomas Arnold who was selected and, in December 1827, became the Headmaster of Rugby at £113.6s.8d. a year, plus £2 a head for every boy living within ten miles of the town.

When, early in 1828, Thomas and Mary were invited by Dr Wooll to make an introductory visit, Mrs Arnold recorded how the windows were filled with curious eyes as they entered the town. While at Dr Wooll’s, Arnold was assured by him that he would not be asked to act against his conscience. Arnold, however, did not like the thought of being in any way inferior to an assistant master who was the school’s chaplain, so was ordained a priest in June 1828, and took his degree as Doctor of Divinity in November. Accompanied by John Buckland he had, in July, paid a second visit to Wooll before a month later preaching his last sermon at Laleham.

At this period the conditions at all public schools were extremely bad, in most cases the brutality of the boys being equalled by that of the masters. The Earl of Chatham and the Duke of Wellington, we are told, thought them praiseworthy. In the eyes of the latter, no doubt, the semi-literate but courageous alumnae accustomed to taking and giving punishment were ideal material for military service; but many thinking men condemned the system – Sheridan denounced Harrow, Coleridge Christ’s Hospital, Shelley Eaton, and Southey Westminster. The Rev. Sidney Smith, the Canon of St Paul’s, wrote that ‘every boy is alternately tyrant and slave’. In 1824 the Whig Press castigated the system’s inadequacy and immorality. William Wilberforce and John Bowdler blamed its irreligion.

Understandably, the new rich middle-class, to which the Industrial Revolution had given birth, eager to give its sons a good education, but disturbed by the adverse publicity, engaged private tutors, in consequence of which the entrants at public schools had decreased alarmingly.

As in our day the need of the hour found the man in Churchill so, in 1828, Thomas Arnold, exercising judgment gained by experience at Warminster and Winchester, stepped in to introduce the necessary reforms without destroying all the old traditions.

Had it not been for a codicil and the soaring value of eight acres of land in Holborn, the free grammar school founded in the 16th century by a grocer, Lawrence Sheriffe, might not have reached its present eminence, for the original legacy was £50 for the building, £100 for maintenance, and £12 a year for an M.A. as master.

Circa 1816, by then transformed from a grammar to a public school, the old buildings were razed to be replaced by new ones at a cost of £35,000. In 1821 a new chapel was built for £7,500.

In 1826 the 1816 total of 381 pupils had fallen to 116, some of whom, from lack of accommodation, slept in the masters’ homes, some in Dames’ houses. As at Winchester, scholars were divided into two categories, Foundationers who paid five guineas, and Non-Foundationers who were charged thirty guineas per half term. For the six forms there were six regular masters plus several others who taught writing, drawing, dancing, and French. History, geography, and English verse also were taught, but ninety per cent of the time was devoted to the Classics. Prior to Arnold’s reign, severity had prevailed. A record of thirty-eight floggings in a quarter of an hour had been set by Dr Wooll when a whole class boycotted a lesson. Masters, when possible, avoided contact with the boys, and let the evils of the prefectorial system, which gave licence for excessive fagging and flogging to go unchecked, as did stealing, poaching, and drinking. To eradicate unhealthy relationships, in addition to the foregoing, and to instil religious knowledge, of which a negligible amount seemed to exist, presented a challenge that required very delicate handling.

Realising his first step must be to gain the support of the masters, Arnold asked the Trustees to raise the fees to twelve guineas for Foundationers and fifty guineas for Non-Foundationers, the extra income to be used to increase the salaries which, at the time, were so low that masters were compelled to take curacies, a practice that occupied time which should have been devoted to the school.

September 1828 saw the inauguration of staff meetings at which all were encouraged to speak freely, an innovation to which even the older and more conservative men were not too strongly opposed. Further, to create a friendly atmosphere, masters were invited to dine and in the garden to join Thomas in pole-jumping and other sports. In 1829 salaries were lifted to £500 per annum plus extra for special duties. In return the Headmaster demanded that no curacies be held, more time spent in studying schoolboy psychology, and in ensuring their own scholarship was first class.

Operating gradually, Arnold abolished the existing system of extra-mural accommodation, and introduced the present method of boarding boys with a house-master, for whom this provided another source of income. The Rev. G. A. Anstey was the first of the new genre. When two assistant masters resigned, Arnold was able to inject fresh and enthusiastic blood. The success of these unorthodox ideas may be measured by the fact that, in 1831, the masters were prepared to join their superior in sacrificing part of their earnings to employ an extra teacher the Trustees would not sanction.

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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