The English Boarding School System and Muscular Christianity

Nigel Sinnott

(Talk given to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, on 8 April 2014.)

This evening I plan to give you a revised and enlarged version of a talk I gave to the Melbourne Unitarian Church in July 2013.1 On that occasion my delivery time was limited to about 23 minutes but, with your indulgence, I will speak for rather longer, about 46 minutes. What I have to say is partly a description of the boarding school culture and its history, and partly an account of my own experiences of and feelings about English private boarding schools.

I will start with some background history. Conventional English boarding schools seem to have several origins. From the early mediaeval period boys of influential families were often sent away to be educated by literate priests or at monasteries, and many monasteries established schools, a few of which survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Other schools were established by royalty, guilds or wealthy merchants, sometimes, ironically, for gifted children of poor families. In the eighteenth century a number of grammar schools attracted students from wealthy families who did not live nearby. Finally, in the nineteenth century, a lot of new private boarding schools were established to cater for the rising middle classes, or at least for the wealthier and more conservative section of them.

Most of the traditional, conservative private schools belong to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, established in 1869 as the Headmasters’ Conference and now an international confederation with about 243 members.

With the exception of a few progressive private schools, the ideology that pervaded conventional boarding schools by the end of the nineteenth century was muscular Christianity, an austere and spartan system that combined cold dormitories, poor food, lots of sport, especially team games, plenty of religious services and indoctrination, hierarchical discipline and a rather exaggerated masculinity or manliness. Dr Thomas Arnold encouraged sport and introduced senior boys acting as praepostors, or prefects, at Rugby School in the 1830s. The system was copied by existing private schools and by the many new ones founded in the nineteenth century. Muscular Christianity also became popular in books, for example, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1856) by Thomas Hughes, and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850).

English boarding schools aimed at turning boys into conservative Christian gentlemen and trained them for entry to Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities, the civil service, the army and particularly as administrators of the growing British Empire. This explains why a number of new schools were founded in the nineteenth century and why the system was exported, with varying results, to Scotland, Australia, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere. The schools subjected boys to a process that I would sum up with a little-used word, induration: to become or make callous, hard or unfeeling. It is epitomised by the notion of "Stiff upper lip, chaps!" and upheld in Sir Henry Newbolt’s hideous idea that war is like a game:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,

Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —

The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with the dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed its banks

And England’s far and honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

This is the word that year by year,

While in her place the School is set,

Every one of her sons must hear,

And none that hears it dare forget.

This they all with a joyful mind

Bear through life like a torch in flame,

And falling fling to the host behind

"Play up! play up! and play the game!" (Vitai Lampada)

It was written in 1892, and I am hardly surprised that junior officers in the British Army died rapidly and in droves during the First World War.

Boarding school "products" are usually represented in fiction nowadays as high academic or professional achievers who are emotionally constipated or repressed. Those of you who have watched the television series Death in Paradise will recall Detective Inspector Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller); and the series Doc Martin had two such people: Dr Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) and his former girlfriend Dr Edith Montgomery (Lia Williams). The 1968 film If . . . , by contrast, paints a grim picture of private boarding school life and concludes with a very black, far-fetched and bloody ending. Its script writer, David Sherwin, drew on his experiences at Tonbridge School, Kent, such as for one of the brutal corporal punishment scenes.

You may be interested in how much English boarding schools cost. Well, by happy coincidence I have very recently received from a friend in England an article on this subject.2 It lists the seven most expensive schools; and you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that Eton and Harrow do not top the list. I have converted the fees into Australian dollars, to the nearest five dollars, at present exchange rates.

Top comes Queen Ethelburga’s College, York, whose annual fees for international sixth formers are $71,865 (£39,885). Next comes Cheltenham Ladies’ College with $61,805 (£34,302), followed by Tonbridge School, $61,510 (£34,137); Sevenoaks School, $60,195 (£33,408); Westminster School, $58,540 (£32,490); Marlborough College, $58,160 (£32,280); and seventh, Eton College, $57,780 (£32,067).

By way of comparison, I tried to find the fees for Geelong Grammar School, but could not. Melbourne Grammar School was more forthcoming. It lists tuition and boarding fees separately, and I have added these together here. Year 12 fees for Australian boarders are $49,680 (£27,570), and for Year 12 international students are $75,120 (£41,690). Melbourne’s major Catholic private school, Xavier College, charges Year 12 boarders $42,350 (£23,500) a year, but there are discounts for fees paid early.

The article also mentions that Britain has 36 state boarding schools which combine "high quality state-funded education with parent-funded boarding facilities", and it says they have been called "education’s best-kept secret". They cater for the children of armed forces families serving overseas, but not exclusively. The article gives as an example Keswick School in Cumbria which charges $16,430 (£9,120) a year for boarding and has an outstanding academic reputation. I suspect these schools have a different ethos from the conservative private schools, but I have no other knowledge of them.

I spent just over ten years in English private boarding schools, from April 1952 to July 1962; and I loathed almost every day of it. Indeed, one of the worst moments of my life was the first Sunday at boarding school, probably two days after my arrival and about two months after my eighth birthday. I hated institutional, semi-monastic life and felt imprisoned for months on end, even though I went home for the school holidays. I would much rather have gone to co-educational day schools, where I could have had the company of girls as well as boys.

My first experience of boarding was at Christ Church Cathedral School, housed in a red-brick building in a side-street in Oxford, next to Campion Hall, the Jesuit training college. The school had been founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII for choristers at Christ Church Cathedral, but it later took non-choristers, like me, and day boys as well.

It was a private preparatory school: it catered for boys aged eight to thirteen and prepared them for the Common Entrance examination or scholarship examinations for what the British, at any rate, call public schools. These public schools are not state schools: they are private secondary schools where the word "public" signifies that they will take children of parents all over the country and overseas; they are not restricted to a limited geographical area.

I did not need to be at a boarding school. My parents lived in rural north Oxfordshire and my father worked in Cowley, the industrial suburb of Oxford, about half an hour by car from the family home. Sending me away was my father’s idea, almost certainly because he did not want me at home for most of the year. But then boarding schools are far more about child rearing, class identity and indoctrination than about education. As my mother remarked on two or three occasions, "This will make you or break you!" which gave me the insight to spot the indoctrination component and resolve, at about the age of ten, never to be "made" in my parents’ image, whatever the cost. I vowed that no children of mine, if I had any, would be sent to schools like this. I can still remember exactly where I was when I made these decisions, and the time of year: it was a long summer evening, around sunset.

Some years later I discovered that my mother, when a girl, had been sent to board briefly at a small Catholic convent school in rural Oxfordshire. She had been unhappy there, and had asked her parents, neither of whom were Catholics, to remove her, which, being kind and reasonable people, they did.

I was desperately unhappy about being sent to boarding school, but my pleas and complaints went unheeded. I started biting my nails and put on a lot of weight, so I was taken to a paediatrician who put me on a diet, though he failed to realise that the problem was mainly emotional: comfort eating. The school’s headmaster, a snobbish and rather cold clergyman, gave me the nickname "Bunter", from the character Billy Bunter in books by Frank Richards, one of several noms de plume of the writer Charles Hamilton (b. 1876) who glorified the boarding school system. I was watching television at my maternal grandparents’ home one afternoon in 1961 when the news announced that Hamilton had died. I cheered loudly!

Boarders at my preparatory school were allowed parental or home visits every third Sunday, but their parents were not allowed to collect them until after the morning service in Christ Church Cathedral; and they had to be back in time for evensong at the Cathedral at 6 p.m. For many years afterwards a wave of misery would break over me when I heard the tune of the hymn "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended".3

I think a case may perhaps be made for allowing emotionally secure teenagers to go to boarding schools, but only if they want to and if they are promised they may leave as soon as possible after a brief trial period. I am firmly of the opinion that sending younger children, especially those of eight or younger, to boarding schools is a form of emotional abuse and cruelty.

I soon discovered that I lacked ability for strenuous exercise and was non-competitive, so I disliked activities like football (soccer), cricket and athletics; and after considering Catholicism, as an alternative to Anglicanism, for about a year and a half I concluded that the basic concepts of Christianity were false, and the way its practitioners behaved, especially towards children, was downright unethical. I became a staunch atheist. My sympathies were, and still are, with the prey rather than the predators, with the underdogs rather than the overlords, the Sioux not the Seventh Cavalry. In other words, I was not keen on being a member of England’s smug, Tory, Anglican Herrenfolk.

I liked most academic subjects, except mathematics, and although no science was taught at the school I picked up a fair knowledge of elementary biology from reading, especially during the holidays.

The staff at the school were a mixed bag of talents and personalities. The worst example was a mathematics master, a former naval man, who walked with a stick and was a disgraceful bully, verbally or physically, to one or two boys he picked on. I very occasionally fell foul or his tongue or his spite, but his treatment of others incensed me. I would cheerfully have watched him hang, and I am sure there would have been a queue of boys willing to lend the hangman a rope.

At the other extreme was a young history teacher who was a breath of fresh air. He came from Nottinghamshire, and read the Manchester Guardian (The Guardian today), which was subversive literature in that atmosphere. He got me interested in the English Civil War by allowing me to embellish my history notebook with bloodthirsty illustrations. He also spotted that there was a small cell of exercise-shy aesthetes in the place, of which I was one of the ringleaders, and bestowed on us the title of the Soft and Sloppies. I wore it with pride like an invisible medal!

When the history master came to leave the school he was invited as guest of honour to a midnight feast in one of the dormitories. I am sure no other teacher in the school’s history was esteemed so highly.

In about 1963 I was surprised and pleased to see a former member of the Soft and Sloppies on B.B.C. Sunday evening television, putting the case against religion in schools and for atheism.

The other ringleader of the group is still a friend of mine. He is now a professor of music in the United States, and when not engaged with music writes about neo-pagan ideas and fashions in the Renaissance, and about wacky religious and pseudoscientific cults, such as the hollow earth movement, which flourished like toadstools on a compost heap in the nineteenth century. He has also done a definitive English translation of a very early and beautiful book, published in Venice in 1499. The State Library of Victoria holds a copy of the original book and of my friend’s page-by-page translation.

Another friend, though probably not one of the Soft and Sloppies, was a lad named Richard Stott. He also lived near me for a while, which was handy during the holidays. After trying and failing to get into Oxford University, he resolved to be a writer or journalist. He got a job on a local newspaper and soon graduated to London. I lost contact with him after 1962 until he became international front-page and television news in 1991 as the Fleet Street editor who was lumbered with the job of clearing up the mess when press baron Robert Maxwell died and was founded to have stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies and employees’ pension funds. My younger daughter was arranging to meet and probably stay with Richard when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was, as is usually the case, very swift and lethal. He died far too young at 63 in July 2007. But I have a signed copy of his memoirs, Dogs and Lampposts (2002) which was a delight to read. He had a nimble sense of humour and a great command of English.

I left Christ Church Cathedral School in 1957, but was then sentenced to another five years’ boarding at Denstone College, on top of a windy hill in Staffordshire. It was one of a number of schools founded by Canon Nathaniel Woodard (1811-91) for "the Christian education of the sons of the middle classes".

St Chad’s College, as it was first called, opened in 1873, and when I was there the mind-set and atmosphere of 1870s muscular Christianity pervaded the place like a sour, musty smell. There were chapel services at least once and sometimes twice a day, and almost all were compulsory. Sport was also compulsory. Two afternoons were devoted to parades of the Combined Cadet Force, compulsory as well; and the only free afternoon was Sunday, when the boys were supposed to take a walk. With a few short gaps, life was timetabled and regimented from the moment you got up until you went to bed.

Denstone struck me as a miniature fascist community: lots of heavy-handed hierarchical authority, an emphasis on middle-class symbolism like jackets and ties, a superficial veneer of respectability; and just below the surface an ethos that I would summarise as: Think and act like we do or we’ll ostracise you or worse.

Discipline at the school was maintained not so much by the masters as by house prefects and school prefects. It was sometimes rigid, sometimes arbitrary, and occasionally downright unfair. I recall one obnoxious senior prefect announce that the use of the word "unfair" in his hearing would be a punishable offence! The prefects could dole out the task of writing lines to boys who infringed minor rules. If a boy accumulated more than a certain number of lines during a given period, he could, in addition, be caned by the prefects. For serious offences, beatings were administered by the housemasters or the headmaster.

Strangely enough, I was never beaten at Denstone College; those who were tended to be both academic strugglers and also emotionally immature or disturbed. In other words, they were often boys who were least able to cope.

A few weeks after the start of either my first or second term the housemaster called the younger boys together, just before bedtime, and among his announcements told us that another new boy was about to join us. He explained, in a dry and brief fashion, that this boy had had a lot of problems at home, and asked us to go easy on him, though no mollycoddling was suggested either.

The new boy arrived a few days later. I remember him as fairly tall and big, and rather quiet but amiable. If he had any problems, he did not parade them in my presence.

About six weeks after this boy started at the school, he was summoned by the prefects one evening, after lights out for the younger boys, to the large washroom at one end of the dormitory. Here he was caned by one or more of the prefects, presumably for the offence of accumulating too many lines during a prescribed time.

I did not see the beating, but I was lying in bed and I heard it very clearly. The sound of it haunts me to this day. From that time onwards, I detested Denstone with an enduring vengeance, and despised any system of pretended education and discipline that could promote and perpetrate such barbarity. I have loathed and shunned corporal punishment ever since.

One of the authoritarian traditions at Denstone was the fagging system, a form of petty slave labour whereby young boys were assigned as fags to work for a particular prefect. Their jobs could include making beds, cleaning shoes, making toast for the prefects, and washing up and cleaning in the prefects’ room. Fags were supposed to be rewarded for their services every so often by a treat, such as baked beans on toast, outside normal meal times.

Boys were liable for service as fags if they were in the third and fourth forms of the school, and for no more than two years if they repeated a year in these forms. I was more fortunate. Because I had won an exhibition, or minor scholarship, and was considered academically promising, I started in the fourth form, during a year when there was a large intake of third-formers. So I was eligible for fagging service for only a year, and, because of the third-former influx, I in fact had to fag for about two terms.

The boys at Denstone College were arranged in a series of houses. These were administrative units rather than buildings. Each house except a new one had a long dormitory holding as many as 42 boys, and a common room for the junior members. You were supposed to have "house spirit" and be prepared to compete for your house against others. But I was unimpressed. There were several house prefects, and one or two school prefects one of whom was head of house. Each house had a housemaster, who had his own study and bedroom.

Sport was one of the things that made life at Denstone a misery for me. The summer term was not too bad: there was cricket and, occasionally, athletics. In the winter and spring terms I was at first made to play rugby, a game for which I had neither skill nor liking. Consequently, I was selected for fewer and fewer games; but this meant that, instead, I had to go for cross-country runs, along a prescribed course. I found running for any appreciable distance unpleasant and painful, and having to do it in the dank Staffordshire countryside was frustrating and depressing.

About once a month, on a Saturday, there would be an inter-school rugby match at Denstone. On these occasions I did not have to play rugby or go for a cross-country run: I had to watch the match! This meant standing for an hour and a half, with my feet getting colder and colder, in a crowd of other boys, while a spectacle went on in front of us that I loathed. When not stamping my feet, I walked up and down or occasionally had a chat to someone who was not interested in the game. Or I daydreamed of descending on a famous rugby ground, ploughing up the hallowed pitch, and planting saplings on it!

The school had a large and imposing chapel. On weekday mornings there would be prayers, lasting about twenty minutes; and on Sundays there were matins or communion in the morning and evensong in the late afternoon. The Sunday services each lasted an hour. During Lent, there was an additional compulsory service in the evening: compline, I think. Fortunately it was short. Although I had to attend the services, I refused to sing. "You can force a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink." And, of course, I refused to be confirmed in the Church of England. I bitterly resented the hundreds of hours I wasted because of sport and chapel at Denstone, for I could have put all this time to good account, walking or reading.

Yet the people who promoted private schools had the gall to prattle about excellence in education! The frustration and waste say very little for the type of mind that ran institutions like this or sent children to them!

Eventually a couple of boys were naïve enough to ask for voluntary chapel services. They got them in addition to the compulsory ones.

On another occasion the junior chaplain gave a series of sermons on "fringe" Christian denominations. One was on the Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), and another, I am fairly sure, was on Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. A little while later he was asked if a speaker from these religions could come to Denstone to put the denomination’s case. The assistant chaplain, of course, refused the suggestion.

There was a debating society at Denstone College, believe it or not. But it was not allowed to debate religious matters!

I have mentioned reading; my one place of solace was the school’s library. It had some very interesting magazines and books, such as old bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine and Punch; and it included a copy of School for Barbarians (1938) by Erica Mann, about education in Nazi Germany. I was also a volunteer school librarian for several years, and while browsing through several poorly-lit rows of shelves that no one else besides me ever visited, I found that the library held some old, rare and very valuable scientific books. One of them, on fungi, kindled my life-long love of mycology. I suggested to the zoology master that some of these rare books might be put in a safer place in the biology and chemistry building; he agreed. A year or so after I left, the school sold most or all of the rare volumes to the antiquarian book trade.

I was not the only misfit at Denstone. 35 years before me a boy named Denis Charles Pratt (1908-99) arrived there. He stayed four years, left in 1926 to study journalism and later art, and was forgotten for half a century. But in 1975 he suddenly rocketed to fame under his new name of Quentin Crisp, "the Naked Civil Servant" and raconteur on all things camp and effeminate. I am afraid Canon Nathaniel Woodward was not available for comment.

I have mentioned the fagging system. Well, once I was no longer required to be a fag, I made it my business to say that I disapproved of compulsory chapel, compulsory sport, corporal punishment and the fagging system. The other boys were not greatly fussed about my views on Christianity and the cane, but threatening the ancient, hallowed privileges of the prefects was quite unpardonable. I was told that prefects could not do all their duties without fags to wait on them. And I did not make myself unpopular with just the senior boys: I was banned from joining the Junior Scientific Society.

Later I was about the only boy in the Sixth Form not to be a house or school prefect; and I knew very well why. I received a tip-off that the prefects in my house were embarrassed about the Sinnott situation and were discussing trying to do a deal with me. Now I may lack most military skills, but the one thing I pride myself in doing is setting an ambush. I prepared. A morning or two later, I had a visit from a house prefect who wanted a private word with me, and I obliged him. The trap was set.

"We’ve been talking over the possibility," he informed me, "of making you a monitor." Monitors were probationary or junior prefects, peculiar to the new house I had been transferred to in 1958.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes, but on one condition."

I tried hard not to show a triumphant smile. "Oh, what?"

"That you agree to having fags!"

I had won! The fool had broken one of the authoritarian’s vital tactical rules: Never negotiate with bloody-minded dissidents unless they have offered to surrender.

"You mean that, if I agree to have fags when I’m a prefect, I can be made a monitor?"

"Yes, that’s right!".

I struggled hard to keep a straight face. "Well," I replied, "Can I have a think about it?"

"Yeah, okay," he said; and we parted.

I knew exactly what to do.

I went straight to see our housemaster. I told him of the deal that had been put to me, and then said in a determined voice I was not prepared to be made a monitor or a prefect ever if a fag or fags went with the position.

My second housemaster once described me to my face as "a self-centred individualist"; but he and I both knew that in this case he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. When he arrived at the school, he had posed as a reformer. If he met my conditions, he would further fan the flames of disdain in the minds of the prefects, who regarded him as half-way to the Kremlin or even on the outskirts of Moscow. If he placated the prefects, the insufferable Sinnott would go around blabbing, and the housemaster’s reforming image would be ruined!

He chose the lesser of two evils. I was made a monitor and, the following term, a house prefect. And I was able to do the duties perfectly well, of course, without being waited on by a fag.

In late December 1961 I won an open exhibition to one of the Oxford Colleges, and when I returned to Denstone a fortnight or so later I found I was now a school prefect and had been appointed to the new post of Senior Scholar. The former pariah was now introduced to parents of prospective new students on tours of the school. My only duty as Senior Scholar was to compile a roster of school prefects to say grace at lunchtimes, and this was convenient as I could ensure my name was not rostered to say grace.

I also felt confident enough to, well, disappear when sport was on the timetable for the afternoon. I even absented myself from watching rugby matches. One day, however, an obnoxious young man accosted me with, "I didn’t see you watching this afternoon’s match!"

"That’s because I wasn’t there." I had gone for a country walk, looking for fungi.

"Well, if the headmaster hears about this, you could be deprefected."

"Fine. By all means go ahead and report me; and tell him I said you could!"

I had an idea that would hear no more, and I was right.

During what I think was my last term I found I could partially escape the boredom of chapel services by raising my head and listening to the chirpings of sparrows nesting high above in holes in the outside of the walls. I greatly appreciated the birds but, alas, others did not. One afternoon as I walked past the chapel I found a workman who had just cleared out all the nests from the walls of the building. A wheelbarrow was piled to overflowing with débris and dead fledglings. I was disgusted and angered by this needless barbarity. I have had a soft spot for sparrows ever since.

I left Denstone on 29 July 1962. It was a day I had looked forward to for years. Ten years of misery and resentment were finally over. And as my father drove me out of the school grounds for the last time I swore lifelong enmity towards indoctrination and bullying masquerading as education, the Church of England, church privilege and Christian triumphalism.

Two terms after I left Denstone, the headmaster abolished the fagging system. Some years later the school decided to take girls as well as boys, and day students as well as boarders. Today there is shock! horror! an art department with its own building and even a bar for students over 18. I do not know when corporal punishment was done away with, but in any case it was banned in British state schools and state-aided schools in 1987 and in all private schools in England and Wales in 1999. Denstone’s fees today are nowhere near the top of the scale. It charges fourth to sixth-form boarders $41,340 (£22,944) a year.

By the time I left Denstone I was emotionally run down after a decade of resisting what I saw as a miseducation system. I would much rather have spent my childhood exploring, growing and enjoying learning. But in the circumstances in which I found myself, I had done my duty as I saw it. My experiences then and since have left me with a rather sceptical view of formal education, and a corresponding respect for self education. I acquired a visceral loathing of most forms of sport, though I loved archery as a child, and a lasting detestation of authoritarian ideologies: religious, social or political.

My experiences of the authoritarianism, callousness and religious indoctrination of the boarding schools I attended led me fairly swiftly to getting involved in the freethought movement. Within three months of leaving Denstone I joined the Oxford University Humanist Group; in 1963 I joined the National Secular Society and the Rationalist Press Association4, and am still a member of both. And at the end of that year I became a founder member and first secretary of a humanist group in the Greater London area. In late 1971 I was appointed the editor of The Freethinker, an atheist magazine that has been running since 1881. When I moved to Victoria in 1976 I joined freethought organisations here.

I was also well aware of the emotional damage that boarding schools can do to children. So more recently I was pleased to find that efforts were being made to help such people. I am now a member and supporter of Boarding Concern, founded in Britain in 2002.5 It was an offshoot of the provocatively named Boarding School Survivors, started by Nick Duffell in 1990.6 Boarding Concern publicises the adverse effects boarding schools can have on children. Through its web site and newsletters it provides information to parents and to former boarders; it publishes research findings, runs conferences, deals with the media, and gives links to psychotherapists with specialist knowledge about the effects of boarding school on later life. I should perhaps mention that the opinions in this talk, unless attributed elsewhere, are my own, rather than Boarding Concern’s.

Most objectors to boarding schools are of the opinion that sending children, especially young ones, to such schools disrupts their healthy and normal emotional bonds with and dependence on parents or carers, and places them in institutions that extol premature independence. Later problems may include difficulties relating to partners and children; obsessive or workaholic behaviour, including inability to relax and often or always feeling "on the run"; an overbearing or bullying manner or feeling a failure; feeling lonely; and occasionally sleep or psychosexual disorders.

Nick Duffell has grouped responses to boarding school into three broad categories: the compliers, who are often in denial about their unhappy experiences; the rebels, whom he describes as "engaging but infuriating"; and the casualties, who were unable to cope satisfactorily and are left with low self-esteem and under-achievement.

The writer John Le Carré, who once worked for M.I.6 and presumably had a good knowledge of the British establishment, had this to say in a review of Nick Duffell’s book, The Making of Them: The British attitude to children and the boarding school system:

"If the Church of England is the Tory Party at Prayer, the Public School system may be called the Tory Party in the nursery. Here are set out the traumas, deformations and truncations of character that explain the British Establishment from the appalling Dr Arnold to the Thatcher Matronocracy. The British are known to be mad. But in the maiming of their privileged young they are criminally insane."

Even if this errs on the side of hyperbole, Le Carré is not alone. I was a great admirer of the British character actor, Robert Morley (1908-92)7, who had the misfortune to be sent to Wellington College, Berkshire, which he detested. In later years Robert Morley refused all requests to go back there because "the only reason for me visiting Wellington would be to burn it down". His sentiments echo mine only too well.

But I will conclude with a more measured remark from Robert Morley: "Show me a man who has enjoyed his school days and I’ll show you a bully and a bore."


1 "Muscular Christianity and the English Boarding School System". The personal aspects of both talks rely heavily on an account I wrote in 1995 (A Measure of Sliding Sand; typescript) about my life from 1944 to 1969. Dr Sabine Apel and Halina Strnad kindly read through and commented on early drafts of the first version of the talk.

2 Lewis, Jane, "(School Fees) The Price One Has to Pay"; The Week (London) Independent Schools Guide, [March?] 2014: 22 & [23]. My thanks for this to Dr Ivor Williams.

3 Tune by Clement Scholefield for words by John Ellerton.

4 Now the Rationalist Association. The older name is used just for its publishing company.



Nick Duffell is the author of The Making of Them: The British attitude to children and the boarding school system (ed. Rob Bland; London: Lone Arrow Press, 2000; available from

7 He was also Melbourne’s first (1967) King of Moomba (March community festival).


11 Smart Street, Sunshine West, Vic., Australia

Original text composed 25 May – 14 July 2013.

Enlarged and revised July 2013; April 2014.