THOMAS ARNOLD: THE FINAL ACHIEVEMENT

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:26

Although Thomas Arnold, D.D. had accomplished so much that other public schools were beginning to benefit from his educational reforms, he was not a man to be satisfied with the status quo, and we find him suggesting to Dr Longley of Harrow and to Dr Hawtry of Eton that, to ease the strain on masters, there should be three terms instead of two. He suggested also that the Latin and Greek grammars used should be standardised. Headmasters’ conferences, too, were his idea. Under his rule the standard of behaviour had reached an unprecedented height, an outbreak of thieving in 1837 being a disturbing exception.

Academic successes at Oxford and Cambridge in 1838 muted press abuse and subdued critics. Heedless of his detractors, Arnold continued to write potentially explosive articles, and it saddened him to admit Roman Catholics and Protestants always would violently disagree. His crusade to get better living and working conditions for the poor was unabated, and he agreed with Thomas Carlyle, whose History of the French Revolution he admired, that unless the upper classes were made aware of their duty, and modified their greed, they would be sowing the seeds for future unrest.

Far from being the villain of the piece, Arnold was now a hero, acknowledged as an outstanding theologian, and one whose influence would be felt in all English public schools. In October 1839 Rugby was honoured by a visit from the widowed Queen Adelaide, and a sketch by Jane Arnold shows her watching a game of football requested by her, in which seventy-five School House boys opposed two hundred and twenty five from the rest of the school – a match in which Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays) scored a winning goal. Lady Denbigh presented Mary to Her Majesty in the presence of the Arnold children.

When appointed Governor of Van Diemen’s Land in Australia, Sir John Franklin, before leaving England, went to Rugby to study Arnold’s administration, and in 1839 Lord John Russell, the Colonial Secretary, asked him to name a suitable headmaster for Hobart’s new university, and to draft its constitution.

Having thought about colonisation, Arnold was of the opinion that the practice of populating a country with convicts was wrong. People of good character who were suitable to assume authority would have been his choice. At one time, thinking being compelled to work would be good for them, he considered the possibility of sending abroad both Matthew and Thomas. The former, when young, had been somewhat lazy, but in the sixth form at Rugby he and Thomas had done reasonably well, and in 1840 Matthew astonished his father by winning a scholarship to Oxford.

By this time wise investments had solved Arnold’s financial problems, for he had bought a considerable amount of land in New Zealand and Australia, acquired stock in America, and had money in both the London and Birmingham and the North Midland Railways.

The year 1839 found him toying with the notion of letting an assistant take his place as the master of School House – an idea he abandoned when petitioned by the boys to remain in office. Having little ambition beyond his wish to do what he considered to be his Christian duty, when Lord Melbourne offered him the Wardenship of Manchester University he refused it. Later, however, when the Whig Prime Minister suggested he fill a vacancy at Oxford caused by the demise of Dr Nares, the Regius Professor of Modern History, he accepted it with pleasure, having earlier confessed to Chevalier Bunsen how much he desired a professorship at Oxford – one he was convinced never would be his. One can imagine his delight when his inaugural lecture in December 1841 was attended, not by the customary thirty or forty people, but by a crowd that overflowed into the street. The eight lectures subsequently given early the next year also drew enthusiastic audiences.

In 1842 Jane, with her parents’ approval, became engaged to George Cotton (later to become the headmaster of Marlborough and a bishop) who, for six years had been one of Rugby’s assistant masters, and a great admirer of his prospective father-in-law.  Then, when a June wedding had been arranged, Cotton told Jane he did not love her, and broke the engagement; the shock of which caused her father to collapse and probably started his fatal illness. Jane, heartbroken, suffered from severe depression.

After a few days, although still unwell, Arnold returned to work, but was unable to concentrate. With sentiments typically Victorian in their ultra-piety his diary reveals the extent of the writer’s devout Christianity, his gratitude for God’s blessings, and his humbleness regarding his achievements. On June 11th, three days before his forty-seventh birthday, he made his last entry.

That afternoon he and his wife walked in the garden. A disturbed night followed, and in the small hours pains in his chest made it necessary to call in a doctor who prescribed brandy, hot flannels, hot water bottles, and mustard poultices. Conjured by Arnold to tell him the truth, he diagnosed angina pectoris, the disease that had killed Arnold’s father.

Later that day the doctor returned and told Mary her husband was better and probably out of danger. His verdict was wrong. Shortly after his departure Arnold died. Seven days later his body was placed in the Rugby Chapel vault which had been made to his instructions.

Though Thomas Arnold’s premature death interrupted his good work, it did not by any means put an end to it. Assistant masters, pupils, and Arnold’s sons were responsible for its continuance. In 1845 a praepositor, Charles John Vaughan, became the headmaster of Harrow where he increased its student body from about seventy to four hundred and sixty-nine: Matthew Arnold became a lay inspector of schools: Thomas took a Government job organising schools in Tasmania: Edward was appointed by the Government to inspect schools in Devon and Cornwall: and William Delafield became the Director of Public Instruction in the Punjab.

In 1850 Jane made a happy marriage with William Edward Forster who, two decades later, was involved with the passing of the first Elementary Education Bill, the contents of which undoubtedly included much advocated by Thomas Arnold and passed on by his daughter – a fact confirmed by Jane’s niece, Mrs Humphrey Ward.

Indubitably, Thomas Arnold must rank as one of the greatest men ever to be born on the Isle of Wight. Surely a plaque on the wall of his birthplace as his only memorial is lamentably inadequate?

T. C. Hudson

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

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